Case Shakes Duke's Place in City

A poster displayed on Duke University's East Union Building urges lacrosse team members with knowledge of what happened at a March 13 party to aid police investigating a black woman's allegation of sexual assault.
A poster displayed on Duke University's East Union Building urges lacrosse team members with knowledge of what happened at a March 13 party to aid police investigating a black woman's allegation of sexual assault. (By Karen Tam -- Associated Press)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 1, 2006

DURHAM, N.C., March 31 -- The small house with dingy white siding across the street from Duke University's bucolic East Campus isn't much to look at. But these days it's the focal point of a scandal swirling around Duke's nationally ranked lacrosse team.

Three team members who live in the house held a March 13 booze party for their teammates that morphed into charges by a young black woman that she was held down, beaten, strangled, raped and sodomized by three men attending the party. The woman, a student at nearby North Carolina Central University, said she had been hired as an exotic dancer for the party.

The incident has not only threatened to sully efforts by the university to improve relations with the surrounding city of Durham but also exposed simmering tensions of race, class and privilege that, in the words of North Carolina Central Chancellor James H. Ammons, "are deeply rooted in this community."

Duke has received low marks for its town-gown relations in Princeton Review's 2005 student survey. Such tensions are a familiar story, in Durham and elsewhere. The University of Southern California, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, Yale University, George Washington University and numerous other urban universities have bumped heads with their home communities, often as their expansion efforts disrupted surrounding neighborhoods or as crime and drug problems in the larger community impinged on campus security.

One of the nation's most prestigious universities with an expanding campus, Duke, and Durham, a traditionally blue-collar city struggling with crime and unemployment, have had their clashes. Still, for the past decade, the university has made a concerted effort to be a better neighbor, with some success.

The house near East Campus was part of that effort. Since late February, Duke has been the owner. It was one of more than a dozen properties the university purchased with the intention of making minimal repairs and then selling to buyers who would agree to invest in renovations and live in the houses to help stabilize the neighborhood. The school was waiting for the students' lease to end before making the repairs and putting the house on the market.

Spending $3.7 million to buy the houses was part of the university's Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, a 10-year-old effort to break down barriers between the university and the surrounding community. Durham, with a population of 210,000, has the lowest ratio of home ownership of any major North Carolina city.

It also was an effort to change the university's reputation as an insular, arrogant and often clumsy giant that, with the demise of tobacco and textile manufacturing in Durham, has become the city's largest employer.

These days Duke students are required to tutor in nearby public schools and work at community recreation centers. The Neighborhood Partnership has raised more than $10 million to help build health clinics and affordable housing, and Duke's hospital provides nearly $30 million annually in unreimbursed care to area residents. The university also is working with the city to build a downtown performing arts facility.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell, who was elected in 2000, insisted that relations between the city and Duke are good. He characterized the party incident as "an aberration."

"I don't think it will have any impact on town-gown relations with this community," he said.

Still, the university could do more to address what Bell, a Howard University graduate who grew up in the District, called "moral and ethical issues below the surface that have now risen to the surface." Those issues center around race and class, he said, alluding to reports of racial slurs at the party and recent stories about black female students at Duke feeling threatened.

"The perception is, you have rich kids, predominately white, from very privileged backgrounds, paying $45,000-plus a year for their education, and they've always lived in a cocoon," he said. "And when they get to Duke, they stay in that cocoon."

Duke students behaving badly has been a problem, said neighborhood activist John Schelp, but his own battles with Duke have been over development disputes. He has fought university efforts to bring extensive retail services onto Duke's Central Campus, including a Barnes and Noble and clothing chains.

Schelp, a 44-year-old Washington native who grew up in Georgetown, accuses the university of trying to keep students out of Durham and their money on campus. "Since the retail outlets would be tax-exempt, they have an unfair advantage over locally owned businesses nearby," he said.

Those are the type of problems Duke President Richard Brodhead and other college presidents are accustomed to dealing with. More insidious and much more difficult are problems of violence against women and racism, problems highlighted by the lacrosse-team incident.

"I would gladly have spared your sons and daughters this experience," Brodhead wrote in a letter to parents on Thursday. "But painful as these days are, times of strain can also be times of education."

Meanwhile, Durham police continue their investigation, while Duke's 46 lacrosse players, their season suspended by the university, await the results of DNA tests. The results are expected early next week. At the house, a hand-lettered poster stretches across the front porch: "Innocent Until Proven Guilty."

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