Dealing with 'Town vs. Gown' Clashes

Many prestigious universities like Duke have a history of clashes with the communities that host them. Ed Gordon talks about these so-called "town versus gown" issues with Houston Baker, an English professor at Duke University, and Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a Duke alumna who now teaches political science at the University of Chicago.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

DNA results are expected soon in the case of white lacrosse players at Duke University accused of raping an African-American stripper in mid-March at an off-campus party. The fallout from the incident has continued this week with the resignation of the men's Lacrosse coach, and the suspension of a player for reportedly distributing an e-mail detailing how he would kill and exotic dancer at the next Lacrosse party.

The ordeal fuels what many say has been a long-standing problem in Durham; friction between the elite private school and the racially divided town. North Carolina Public Radio's Leoneda Inge reports.

Ms. LEONEDA INGE reporting:

College students in Durham, North Carolina, haven't kept quiet since word got out about a young black woman allegedly being sexually assaulted by members of the Duke lacrosse team.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This ceremony today is to let everyone know that we are standing in an effort against sexual assault.

INGE: This week at North Carolina Central University, students held a rally and candlelight vigil for the alleged victim, a student at the historically black university.

Renee Clark is the student body president at NCCU.

Ms. RENEE CLARK (Student Body President, North Carolina Central University): The issues that we face are so minute right now compared to what she must be dealing with, and so, if she's here, if she's not here, she needs to know that we love her and all we're going to do--we're going to make sure that justice is served.

INGE: A call for justice in this case continues to ring out. The reverend William Barber is president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP. He's also a graduate of NCCU, and attended the rally.

Barber says this sexual assault case reveals underlying concerns about race and class. He says his organization, and other community groups, are closely following the incident.

Reverend WILLIAM BARBER (President, North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP): Right now, our focus is on monitoring and ensuring that there's a fair, open, meticulous investigation of these facts. That's what has to happen. Without any prejudice, without any special treatment, without any privileged treatment, breaking the codes of silence and getting down to the truth, that's what we need.

INGE: Barber says it's been comforting to see black and white college students come together to speak out. Barber also has a degree from Duke University, which is only a few miles away from NCCU. He's addressed this sexual assault case on both campuses.

For some students, the assault allegations and media attention have tarnished the University's reputation. Duke senior Iman Hodgevonovich(ph) says only those outside of their campus are really surprised about all the recent allegations, including the racial aspect.

Mr. IMAN HODGEVONOVICH (Student, Duke University): I mean, I've been wondering, for a while now, how would it have been different if the attack had happened on campus, and if it was still a black woman from Durham, but on campus. Would it have strained it as much? Or, if it had happened off-campus but it was a white woman?

INGE: Hodgevonovich says he's also concerned that many of Duke's lacrosse players are getting a bad rap. He says he doesn't suspect all were involved. DNA samples have been taken from more than 40 lacrosse players. The Durham District Attorney's Office says the results of those tests should be released next week.

In the meantime, the Mayor of Durham, Bill Bell, wants peace in a city that boasts an equal population of blacks and whites. The mayor says it's important there be transparency in the handling of the incident, a plea Duke President, Richard Brodhead, has taken to heart.

Mr. RICHARD BRODHEAD (President, Duke University): This episode, whether charges are ever filed or not, whether the students are found guilty or innocent, it teaches us that there are thing--that there are parts of the education we offer here we've got to do better on; education in taking responsibility, education in respect for others.

INGE: Thus far, President Brodhead has taken steps to calm the community. The rest of the lacrosse season has been cancelled, and late Wednesday, Brodhead accepted the resignation of Duke lacrosse coach, Mike Pressler. The University also suspected a Duke sophomore who sent an e-mail message referring to hiring strippers and killing them.

For NPR News, I'm Leoneda Inge, in Durham, North Carolina.

ED GORDON, host:

Some say the scandal is forcing colleges and universities across the country to take a closer look at so-called town-versus-gown relationships. In many places, prestigious universities like Duke have had a history of clashes with surrounding areas; particularly blue collar communities that struggle with crime and unemployment.

Joining us now is Houston Baker. He's an English Professor at Duke University who also teaches African-American Studies. And with us is Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. She's a Duke University alum, who says similar school and community conflicts occur all over this nation.

It's good to have you both with us. Appreciate it. Before we get started I should note that we invited school President Richard Brodhead on the program. He declined, and the school would not offer another representative.

Let me start with you, Professor Baker, and we should note that you wrote a letter to the school suggesting that this lacrosse team was a rowdy group and that the school had repeatedly turned a blind eye; not only with the Lacrosse group, but a lot of people have suggested that there is a so-called white privilege on many of these universities. Do you buy that that's the case?

Professor HOUSTON BAKER (Professor, English and African-American Studies, Duke University): I began my academic career at Yale University in 1968, when it was an all-male school and its slogan was one thousand male leaders. I want to point out that that's the institution that has secret societies and that produced our current U.S. President.

There were events called Masters Beer Parties at that time. Buses rolled in with women from Sarah Lawrence and from Wellesley and so forth, and these women were treated in horrible fashion; doused with beer, dragged drunken off the floor, and I guess showered up on Sunday and sent back to their girl's schools.

We've seen the young elite in operation, my wife and I, in American academe. In traditionally all-white tier one universities for almost 40 years now, and I have not been on a campus where there has not been a culture of elite privileged white male violence against women, against neighborhoods, and you've put it quite aptly, Mr. Gordon, when you talk about blue collar neighborhoods. The notion that Durham has a 44 percent black population and a 45 percent white population has to be, as you well know, because you're one of the smartest men out there, qualified by issues of class. That 44 percent black population does include professionals, doctors, lawyers, professors like myself, but the majority of that population is working class.

GORDON: Let me, let me ask you this. Are you satisfied with President Brodhead's movement now? He is suggesting also, along with the season being cancelled, he accepted the resignation of the coach, and the internal investigation that's going on, he's also suggesting that he is, and this is a quote, “going to take a very, very serious self-study of the University.”

Professor BAKER: I would say that my response would not be that I'm satisfied. I would say that I'm encouraged. I think that the past courses that he's set up may well produce the kind of self-scrutiny at Duke University, and Duke stands on a position to become a national model of such self-scrutiny now. So I'm encouraged.

GORDON: Yeah. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, we should note that this is not, obviously the rape situation is, but we should note that this kind of town versus university, privileged versus non, goes on quite often. More than we'd like to admit.

Professor MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL (Assistant Professor, Political Science, University of Chicago): Absolutely. I mean, in certain ways this touches very close to home for me. I was a graduate student at Duke, and there were years when I was finishing my Ph.D. when I was both teaching at Duke and teaching at North Carolina Central, and I'd go back and forth between the campuses; Monday at Duke, Tuesday at Central.

And I was always seeing the vast differences in the kinds of availability of goods and services on a campus like Duke's versus a campus like Central's. And living in the black community in Durham during that time.

Now, while I was in graduate school at Duke, actually, we were hit by the kind of tail end of Hurricane Fran one summer, and I will remember always that this put, Hurricane Fran, put the relationship of Duke to Durham in stark relief because Duke actually sits on its own power grid and never lost power whereas the rest of Durham, and particularly black and working-class communities lost power for more than a week and we know that, you know, in the aftermath of losing power, you lose the ability to keep food fresh, you have trouble with, you know, baby formula, there was trouble at the pumps trying to get gas for cars and meanwhile Duke students were having ice cream socials at the beginning of their academic year.

GORDON: Isn't perhaps the biggest problem, forgive me for interrupting the story, but isn't perhaps a part of the biggest problem here is that this kind of thought process carries on after graduation into the real world for these people?

Professor HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, yeah, and I, and again, it's not, I want to be careful that I'm not just beating up on Duke. I'm also now at the University of Chicago; I've had experiences at Columbia University, Yale certainly. What's fascinating to me about this particular event, and this is what continues to move on, from the perspective of the University, the notion of violence, particularly for universities that are in urban communities, is the assumption that it is the community, the urban environment which poses a threat to the students on campus, and in this case we saw very clearly that it might be quite the other way; that students are as much a threat to the community, not only through violence, but the university through the appropriation of land in black communities; through policies of community policing which tend to keep people in working class communities away from the resources of campus; so-called redevelopment efforts in urban areas by urban universities. All of which basically produce a form of violence in black and working-class communities and which when these young, white leaders go off and become the heads of corporations and the heads of government, they continue to perpetuate exactly that sort of violence against black, brown, and urban communities.

Prof. BAKER: Ed, can I-

GORDON: Very quickly, for me, professor.

Professor BAKER: I would say that one thing that I would not like to lose now and that is the focus on precisely the woman who was involved in this, the alleged victim, who is now being scrutinized, previous records and other things that may have occurred in her life, and that has absolutely nothing to do with this case. It's the defense lawyer's strategy.

GORDON: Right.

Professor BAKER: One hopes the university will keep its eye on the prize with a fair investigation.

GORDON: All right. Well, hopefully, it will take off from here and we'll find the truth. Houston Baker, professor at Duke University and Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago; I thank you both for joining us.

Professor BAKER: Thank you very much, Ed. I really appreciate it.

GORDON: Coming up next, the Senate reaches compromise on immigration; we'll discuss that and more on our Roundtable.

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