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Students showing the Durham Bull City sign
Students flash the Bull City symbol at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Photo by Jared Lazarus

Uniting Town + Gown

Duke and Durham's marriage is complex, growing and strong

A keen eye watching any student fan section at football or basketball games will spot students cheerfully pounding the pinky-finger side of their fists together while their thumbs point outward, representing two horns. It’s not a devil’s head they’re making – it’s a bull.

The “Bull City” hand sign, or “throwing horns,” has become a staple of Duke student culture, as well as the culture off campus, where the moniker “Bull City” represents a point of pride for Durham residents. Duke students have embraced more than just the rallying cry of a hand gesture. Online threads where prospective students ask about town-gown relations are filled with Duke students sharing their favorite places to live, opportunities to get involved in the local community and, of course, gushing about the famous local restaurant scene. For the years that they are here, Durham is home.

When thinking of the typical college town, it’s not often that a place like Durham comes to mind. While it’s hard to imagine an Ithaca, New York, without Cornell University, a Hanover, New Hampshire, without Dartmouth College, or a Chapel Hill without the University of North Carolina, Durham displayed a distinct identity as a formidable small city even before it became home to Duke.

Traditionally, quintessential college towns sprang to life around their universities, seeing growth and expansion develop hand-in-hand as their hometown academic institutions grew. Such a fate could have happened to the small town of Trinity in Randolph County, North Carolina, where a private subscription school called Brown’s Schoolhouse began to prosper. The school, which was renamed Trinity College in 1859, was the first heartbeat of today’s Duke. However, as Trinity College began to grow, it became evident that it might need to spread its roots outside of Randolph County. About 70 miles east of Trinity, a tobacco town was on the rise. After a gift of $100,000 from tobacco tycoon Washington Duke, Trinity College soon found itself in its new home – Durham, North Carolina.

As both Duke and Durham have grown, that town-gown relationship has not always been easy. Duke has, at times, appeared removed from the city, with incidents such as the 2006 Duke Lacrosse scandal putting strain and distance between Duke and Durham’s residents. However, as Durham began to emerge from the 2008 recession with strong growth and a new vision for its future, many leaders at Duke also began to seek innovative ways for the university and city to be better partners with one another, and an optimistic vision for Duke-Durham relations going into the next century is becoming a reality.

“Duke and Durham chose each other, and our destinies are still entwined,” wrote Duke President Richard Brodhead in a 2016 news article. “At Duke we are grateful for the benefits of living in Durham, and we are committed to doing our part to increase those benefits for all.”

Duke’s Office of Durham and Community Affairs has led the way, creating a robust strategy for its future that prioritizes partnerships with the Durham community in education, housing, health, employment, and in the important work being done by nonprofit organizations. Vice President for Durham and Community Affairs Stelfanie Williams sees Duke students at the forefront of this important work, noting they are “at the heart of Duke’s teaching, learning and research missions,” but she also notes the critical role faculty and staff play in Duke’s impact on the community. The new Durham Center for Community Engagement, which will open this year under the leadership of Duke public policy professor Abdullah Antepli, will be “an accessible front door for community organizations interested in partnering with Duke’s scholars,” shared Williams.

Perhaps most inspiring is the viewpoint of many in the Duke community that Durham is a home for them beyond the four or so years they spend on campus. Durham has emerged as a hub for Duke alumni, with more than 10,000 Blue Devils putting down roots in the Bull City.

Former Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek ’76, M.H.A.’78, LL.M.’93 notes she has called “both Duke and Durham home” for 51 years, but she is still finding new ways to explore what it means to be a part of the community. To that end, she is leading a relaunch of the university’s summer immersion program DukeEngage in Durham this year. “Finding Health in the City of Medicine” will explore an interesting question: Could Durham become a Blue Zone, a geographic area of the world where people live the longest? Wasiolek was optimistic about the reasons student applicants gave for choosing to spend a summer in Durham rather than in Brazil or South Korea: Many of them said they desired to be “connected to an organization with which they can continue to engage after DukeEngage.”

Programs like Wasiolek’s highlight the partnership-first focus that will ensure Duke’s relationship with Durham is enduring, expanding and always important. “Durham’s challenges aren’t for Duke to seek to own and control,” President Brodhead wrote in 2016, “but as facts of our community, they are our business, and here, too, Duke has a critical role to play.”

Wasiolek agrees: “It’s something that’s being articulated clearly to students – we are not going in anywhere to fix things. We’re not going in there to change the way people view the world. It’s about the individuals and how we view ourselves. By us becoming better citizens, we make the community better.”

Durham will never be a Chapel Hill, or an Ithaca, or a Hanover – and it doesn’t want to be. It exists and thrives in and of itself – not without challenges, of course, but still rife with opportunity. And rather than trying to lead Durham into the future, Duke is wisely stepping forward alongside the Durham community, forging partnerships that might not be perfect, but are always trying to get better.

And, along the way, encouraging all members of the Duke community to foster their own personal relationship with the city they can be proud to call home.