The members of the Community Editorial Board are independent from the editorial staff of the Chronicle.
Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III’s reclusive presence on campus is a reflection of his tenure at Duke. Despite the colorful suit jackets and prominent placement of his Porsche, Trask is seldom seen. He is more content to work away from the limelight that other administrators enjoy. Last week, in announcing Trask’s retirement, Duke celebrated the EVP and Treasurer, while others remembered his lack of action in reining in the Duke Lacrosse program, his assault on and alleged verbal abuse of Shelvia Underwood—specifically the racial slur he allegedly used against her—and his direct role in the collapse of the Durham-Orange Light Rail project. While these incidents will rightly underpin Trask’s legacy, his less public actions speak the loudest.
As EVP and Treasurer, Trask’s serves as Duke’s primary financial advisor, managing the University’s budget, real estate holdings, campus construction, etc. In addition, he serves as a board member of the Health System and the Duke University Management Company (DUMAC), which is responsible for the University’s endowment. More broadly then, Trask’s job is to both maximize Duke’s return on investments as well as to ensure that the University is only funding profitable ventures. In this role, Trask has been lauded for the renovation of West Union and the initiation of Durham’s gentrification.
We often treat gentrification as a naturally occurring phenomenon, simply the consequence of demand for refurbished tobacco warehouses and high costs of living elsewhere in the country. The reality, though, is that the investments Duke has made in Durham, championed by Trask, made the city desirable.
The University helped fund the construction of the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) and the development of American Tobacco Campus, paving the way for luxury apartment complexes and tech start-ups at the expense of working families and long-time residents. Today, over 3,000 Duke employees work in over two million square feet of land owned or leased by the University. In a 2006 summary of Duke’s real estate investments, Trask wrote, “our role in the city’s residential and commercial renaissance fuels the tax base, attracts businesses and jobs and contributes to a safer Durham.” In cities across the country, appeals to increase tax bases and the use of dog whistles, such as a desire to make an area safer, seem innocuous and colorblind, but are active, violent choices to remove and exclude poor people, especially those of color, while drawing in a wealthier, whiter and younger population to replace them.
The effects of Trask’s work are clear: Durham residents have been priced out of the city. Median rents rose from $798 in 2010 to $925 in 2016. Every hour in Durham, at least one renter is threatened with losing their home. About 1,000 eviction cases were filed a month against tenants between 2010 and 2017 and it is no coincidence that the greatest concentration of eviction filings in Durham occur in predominantly non-white neighborhoods.
A massive number of those workers are Duke employees, as Duke is the largest employer in Durham, and while Trask and those working under him reluctantly accepted campaigns to increase worker wages to $15 an hour, they have been intentionally deceptive in the provision of a livable wage specifically to non-union labor. A Duke helmed by Trask has not only made living in Durham unaffordable for its residents, but more specifically has made it unaffordable for its own workers.
While Trask is fully accountable for these actions, it is also true that any person responsible for generating profit and prestige for the University could be expected to take part in the same exploitation. In the eyes of Duke, Tallman Trask III served as an outstanding steward of the University's finances. While Trask himself may be leaving, his legacy and the institutions that protected him remain.
So, what does this legacy teach us? The primary concern of the University’s administration is the generation of revenue, largely derived from investments in real assets, namely real estate, making it far too easy to profit from the exploitation of communities. Duke administrators use the image of students doing service work in Durham to show how the University is engaged in community which, while valuable, treats symptoms rather than structures and serves to obscure the influence that Duke has on Durham’s change. Certainly, the Office of Durham Affairs and others have invested reciprocally in the city, but doing so does not erase the oft unacknowledged damage done.
As we consider a future Duke without Trask, let’s also consider whether we might also imagine a new understanding of what it means to be successful, to be profitable as a University. Trask’s retirement is an opportunity to reflect on the hidden legacies that drive this University, not the least of which include power and the pursuit of profit at the expense of people. Let us not waste it.
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