Easing town-gown strains

Apr. 20, 2014 @ 05:23 PM

An article in a British Heritage guide to Oxford, England, recalls a nasty example of town-gown relations on St. Scholastrica's Day (February 10) in 1354.

“It started innocently enough,” wrote editor David Ross, “when some students drinking at the Swyndlestock Tavern, close to the Carfax Tower, accused the landlord of serving them ‘indifferent wine.’ The argument escalated until townsfolk came to the defence of the innkeeper.

“The bells of St Mary's church called townsfolk to arms, and for three days they beat and killed students and ransacked the colleges.”

Duke students and administrators – not to mention residents involved – no doubt are glad that the recurring debate over student behavior in neighborhoods near the university has not taken anything like that turn.

The account, though, is a reminder that friction between university students and the communities they inhabit is hardly new. Durhamites hardly need to have the 14th century evoked to have a feeling of Deja-vu when the discussion of student misbehavior comes up.

Trinity Park activist Philip Azar referred to it last week as “sort of the ‘Groundhog Day’ frustration every time a [student-rented] house turns over of training people to be good neighbors.”

The irony, of course, is that the university and its students are part of what makes this such an attractive town in which to live. Proximity to the university brings ready access to cultural, entertainment and athletic events at the university.

Most of the time, the energy and vitality of the students energizes the neighborhoods in which the live. A resident who was bemoaning similar conflicts between Amherst and University of Massachusetts students put it succinctly when she said they were great kids at 3 p.m. but something else again at 3 a.m. It should be noted many students are, indeed, still great kids at 3 a.m. – but those who aren’t flummox residents and administrators alike.

Just as the problem of student misbehavior stretches through the centuries, it stretches from coast to coast, as even a cursory Internet search will confirm.  One is tempted to conclude that like death and taxes, such rowdiness is inevitable.

Still, just because a problem may seem intractable is no reason not to seek to ameliorate if not eliminate it.  Hence we were encouraged by a meeting Thursday among city officials, Duke administrators and leaders of neighborhoods where frustration with student behavior is rising. Some are relatively new to the conflict as student housing spreads further from campus.

Police Department District 3 Captain David Addison at the meeting pledged to do a better job of relaying reports of off-campus incidents to Duke’s student affairs office. But he noted prevention is far better than police getting involved.

He urged Duke and residents to make clear to students “this is what we’re willing to take and, if you exceed this threshold, there will be consequences.”

That is a sound idea, far better, needless to say, than Oxford’s 14th-century remedies.