The Duke dividend

If you listen to some Duke students, you would think the relationship between Duke and Durham is fraught at best, outright exploitative at worst. In the pages of the Chronicle one columnist blasts Duke for cancelling its funding of the underutilized Bull City Connector bus line, an act which the columnist claimed “inherently said something about [the bus’] passengers and their worth.” Presumably, Duke thinks Durham residents are worth very little. In a column lambasting President Price and Duke’s decision to change the work shift system for its Durhamite workers, another columnist teeters toward accusing Duke of perpetuating slavery. Somehow, an administrator justifying said decision by saying it was made considering the best use of “staffing and housekeeping resources” prompted the columnist to ask “When else in the history of America have people of color been called “resources?” If the columnist is right that referring to workers as resources necessarily implies slavery, then every Human Resources department of every business in the country is now an official remnant of American slavery. The columnist is probably not right. 

Despite its apparent absurdity, the idea that Duke is some malicious overseer of Durham has plenty of appeal. When they take a break from alienating alumni, Duke’s resident radicals, the “People’s State of the University”, also enjoy pushing the narrative of Duke as “The Plantation.” I asked once and I’m forced to ask again, does Duke really deserve the comparison to a plantation? Is Duke exploiting Durham and its residents? 

As I see it, there are two sides in this debate. The first consists of those who believe in, what I will call, “The Durham Deficit.” In short, they believe that Durham suffers as a result of its relationship with Duke. They are convinced that Duke is not a lynchpin of the Durham community, but a leech that derives power and wealth by exploiting Durham and its residents. I don’t buy that. I support a different side, a counter argument I’ll dub “The Duke Dividend.” To understand why the wellbeing of both Duke and Durham are inextricably linked, one has to understand the vision that created what is known today as Research Triangle Park. 

Entering the 1950s, Durham’s chief export remained what it had always been: death. Tobacco had played a large role in the city’s economy since the end of the Civil War, but in the mid-20th century, as Durham’s manufacturing base and textile mills entered a state of permanent decline, the cash crop took on a new centrality. Despite tobacco’s economic significance, local leaders knew that Durham could not afford to depend on the industry for city’s long term growth. Fortunately for Durham and the entire Triangle region, the key to economic progress lay right under their noses—three premier research universities in the form of NC State, UNC, and Duke. In a region with “one of the lowest wage structures and poorest education systems in the nation,” these leaders wanted a brighter future based on integrated economic progress between regional cities and their respective universities. To do that, they envisioned the largest, non-profit research park in the United States with the research universities as a selling point to attract talent, new business, and outside investment and with the local cities as the primary economic beneficiaries. With that vision, Research Triangle Park (RTP) was established in 1951. 

In the years since, Durham and Duke have made incredible strides together, to the benefit of both school and city. Today, according to an economic profile compiled by the Durham Chamber of Commerce, Duke is the largest employer in Durham by a wide margin. Duke University and the Duke Health System employ over 34,000 people, with the runner-up, IBM, employing a relatively minor 10,000 people. After IBM, no other organization in Durham employs more than 5,000 workers. This might lead some people to question the quality of the massive number of jobs Duke has created in Durham: is Duke really providing “good” jobs to Durhamites or is it just exploiting their cheap labor? Not only is Duke providing a lot of jobs, but it is also providing a lot of jobs that pay well. In fact, Duke announced that by 2019 it would guarantee a minimum wage of 15 dollars for all of its workers, nearly double the state minimum wage

Not only does Duke provide thousands of good jobs, but the University also accounts for a massive share of of financial investment in Durham. In their 2016 economic development report, the Durham Chamber of Commerce estimated that Duke contributed nearly $279 million dollars of investment, 32 percent of all economic investment in Durham. Even still, that number likely understates Duke’s economic contribution to Durham. In addition to the investment they are directly accountable for, Duke also indirectly encourages some of the remaining 68 percent of investment in Durham. As the designers of RTP intended, the fact that Durham sports an elite, research university represents an enticing factor for anyone considering living, working or investing in Durham.

Duke’s positive involvement with Durham goes beyond economic growth. Each year Duke sponsors countless philanthropic and charitable endeavors for Durham’s betterment including numerous educational initiatives, food drives, health clinics and even an entire university department devoted solely to “Durham and Regional Affairs.” The most impressive thing about Duke’s charitable contributions to Durham is that Duke voluntarily pays $7-8 million dollars in property taxes every year. If you are still not convinced that Duke has a vested interest in making Durham a better place then ask yourself this-- have you ever heard of anyone paying taxes voluntarily? 

In the last 70 years, Durham has undergone a remarkable transformation. The city evolved from a sleepy tobacco town to being known today as the “City of Medicine.” A place that once produced deadly cigarettes proactively reinvented itself as a city focused on saving lives instead. A region previously known for poverty and economic stagnation has managed to generate sustainable economic growth in a relatively short span of time. Durham’s story is not a perfect one and the city continues to have significant issues with poverty and affordability for residents. But the fact that Durham continues to have problems does not mean that Duke is the source. Because Duke has made and continues to make positive contributions to Durham’s betterment, blaming Duke for Durham’s problems is both wrong and unproductive. I look at the contributions of my alma mater to the community surrounding it with tremendous pride. But I also see the situation as a work in progress. Let us continue to work. 

Reiss Becker is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.  


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