Town-gown ties frayed

Many poll respondents think lacrosse scandal has hurt

Staff WriterOctober 25, 2006 

— Nearly half of residents polled recently feel worse about the relationship between Duke University and Durham in the aftermath of the lacrosse scandal.

More blacks cited a poorer town-gown relationship -- two-thirds of the respondents.

When asked about the town-gown bond, 47 percent said they felt less positive about it, and 31 percent felt the same -- while 14 percent felt more positive. Eight percent weren't sure.

There was a stark difference of opinion along racial lines. Among black voters, 67 percent felt worse about Duke-Durham ties, while about one-third of white voters expressed a more negative view. Twenty-one percent of white voters felt the relationship was better, compared with only 5 percent of blacks. Latino residents' views were similar to those of African-Americans.

"It's disappointing to see these numbers, but it's not surprising, given the racial aspect of the situation," said John Burness, Duke's senior vice president for public affairs and government relations.

"When you get an incident that is as highly visible as this, it has many unintended consequences," Burness added. "We have to be mindful of that."

The Duke-Durham relationship has been under a microscope since March, when an escort service dancer reported that she was raped by lacrosse players at a team party. The accuser is black; the three indicted players are white. The case became a national news story and highlighted town-gown tension here.

The poll was conducted for The News & Observer and WRAL-TV by Research 2000, a Rockville, Md., firm that interviewed 600 likely voters Oct. 16-19. The margin for error is plus or minus four percentage points.

Johnny Bush, 65, took part in the poll. He thinks the relationship between Duke and Durham is about the same. The systems analyst said he has family in Texas and in Florida, who, when the lacrosse story broke, asked why he wanted to live in Durham.

Bush, who is white, counters: "It's not that bad in Durham. The news is coming out that it's bad. It's like any other city. You're going to have good, and you're going to have bad. I think the media blew this thing out of proportion."

Charlette Jenkins, 54, isn't surprised at the poll results. She thinks the lacrosse situation tapped into some people's long-held resentments toward Duke. "Rich kids are always buying their way out," said Jenkins, who is black. "Residents are saying, 'You're not going to buy yourself out of it this time.' "

But Frederick Crowell, 60, sees no damage to the Duke-Durham bond. "I don't think it's hurt," said Crowell, who is black. "In the first place, I don't think [the lacrosse players] did it."

Burness said some people aren't aware of the many partnerships between Duke and Durham, and some will always expect Duke to do more.

"Over time, we'll get past this," he said, "but it's going to take awhile."

(Staff writer Benjamin Niolet contributed to this report.)

Staff writer Jane Stancill can be reached at 956-2464 or janes@newsobserver.com.

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