At its March meeting, the Academic Council discussed Duke’s relationship with Durham following the University's decision not to sign a cooperative agreement for the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project.

President Vincent Price initiated the meeting by giving his “state of the university” address. He reviewed the year's faculty, student and institutional achievements, discussed recent and upcoming administrative changes and described Duke’s goals for the future. 

Afterward, the president fielded questions from faculty on the council. Questions moved the discussion towards the future of Duke’s relationship with Durham in consideration of Duke's decision on the light rail. 

“The controversy over [the] light rail, in my view, is unfortunate for all kinds of reasons, principally because it’s being represented somehow as a withdrawal of Duke’s support for Durham, which I believe is a mischaracterization of what is happening,” Price said. “It certainly does not reflect any diminution of my view that we need to double down and strengthen our partnerships over time.”

Price repeatedly stated Duke has an unwavering commitment to developing a strong partnership with the Durham community. He said that the University is working on how to use its resources to best serve the needs of Durham.

Price also said that the light rail issue has a 20-year history and that Duke has raised concerns about the route throughout that history. He said the project has, and continues to have, issues, including funding challenges. 

He said that statements of Duke “killing” the project and of the decision being abruptly unforeseen and “last-minute” is not an accurate representation of the history. Price pointed out that Duke was not the only stakeholder that did not sign a cooperative agreement by the Feb. 28 deadline, citing the North Carolina Railroad for also not signing it. 

The president asserted that Duke has and will continue to engage with community partners, such as GoTriangle and the Durham County Board of Commissioners, to build and maintain a strong relationship with Durham. 

Price said that he aims to keep reaching out to partners, to continue previous conversations about Durham affordable housing and to get into the community himself and spend time with residents so they can learn to trust Duke as an institution.

“I don’t think it is to anyone’s advantage to turn this controversy into a Duke versus Durham issue," Price said.

The president said that the situation's portrayal has left Duke with the challenge of convincing the community that it is sincere.

“I am going to walk around for years in sort of a leg cast, until people become convinced that I am sincere and that Duke is sincere. That is unfortunate," Price said. "I don’t believe I created that, and honestly I don’t believe Duke necessarily created that. But it’s a reality, and now we have to deal with that reality while we move forward."

That will mean "more resolve, harder work" ahead, and being very clear about Duke's commitment to the region, Price said. 

“My responsibility is to make decisions for Duke University and Duke Health, and to do them in a way that was grounded in appropriate consideration of the facts as I understand them, and not to respond to pressure—this is not the way any organization makes good decisions,” Price said. “And as the pressure mounted, I will be honest, it only steeled my resolve that we are on the right trajectory and not the wrong trajectory.”

Bre Bradham contributed reporting.