Seeking town-gown détente

Aug. 24, 2014 @ 05:52 PM

As thousands of students swarmed back to our university campuses these past few days, this description might have resonated with many year-round residents, especially those living near the schools or concentrations of off-campus housing.

“For many, the new-found independence from the prior constraints of childhood was license enough for carousing, brawling and drunkenness. The attitude among students was that as future scholars they were a privileged class for whom the normal social strictures had very few holds.

“Students at universities in various towns for instance held themselves above the local folk and the town people in turn had similar feelings of aversion for the rowdy students. Fights, riots and brawls were common place not only among the students themselves, but with landlords, tavern keepers and merchants.”

Perhaps the reference to riots and brawls gave this away, but the town-gown tensions outlined in this passage were not contemporary – or even recent.  The passage, from an essay on student life on the website of the University of California at Pomona, describes life at medieval universities in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Suffice to say, adult umbrage over student behavior is not new. Nor is students’ sometimes contentious, sometimes genuinely surprised response to their neighbors’ reaction.

So it had a familiar feel when neighborhoods around Duke University’s East Campus raised alarms last week as students returned to campus – and to off-campus partying.

The tensions around Duke’s campus are amplified by a belief among some in those neighborhoods that Duke is too passive in controlling and disciplining its students.  And it is exacerbated by a perception that at least some Duke students and perhaps their parents exemplify the medieval lament that they are a “privileged class for whom the normal social strictures” don’t apply.

To be sure, most students will be good neighbors if sometimes a bit boisterous and on a different clock cycle than many adults around them. And most residents in near-campus neighborhoods will welcome students with their youthful enthusiasm and energy. Most students will be respectful most of the time. And most year-round residents understand that the advantages of living in historic neighborhoods blocks from a major university campus with all its amenities outweigh the occasional irritation of being awakened by alcohol-infused revelers at 3 a.m.

As always, we hope that the more moderate and cooperative spirit ultimately prevails. Writing, as one resident near Duke did, that you “expect the students to act like knuckleheads” is no more productive than a student profanely objecting to being asked to quiet down post-midnight.

We’ve made it through these tensions for 800 or 900 years. We can probably make it through a few more.