''The universities are the soul of Research Triangle Park. Take them away and the park wouldn't be here, not in any form or fashion.''
So says Ned Huffman, who ought to know. He's executive vice-president of the Research Triangle Foundation, which runs the park for the universities.
The institutions he refers to are the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University in Durham, and North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
These provide the brain power state leaders expected Research Triangle Park to draw upon. Their idea was to build a center -- in a wooded setting on some 5, 500 acres in the middle of the three cities -- for the research arms of national corporations. The universities would provide the labor pool in the form of graduates in engineering and other fields, plus faculty people who would be available for consulting.
The research work, it was hoped, would lead to a broadening of the state's industrial base, which during the 1950s consisted almost exclusively of textile, tobacco, and furniture manufacturing.
The park's founders feel they have succeeded, at least in their primary goal of attracting research firms. A steady stream of visitors from around the world, trying to learn how they, too, can have a Research Triangle Park, underscores the apparent success of the park. It has also played a part in boosting manufacturing employment in the area, particularly in the high-technology sector.
The three colleges, to be sure, don't account for all the higher educating that goes on here. If fact, there are nine colleges and universities in the area , plus two community colleges (Durham Technical Institute and Wake Technical College). But the trio represent the fulcrum of the research-park concept.
The ''triangle universities'' certainly never intended to be the Bobbsey triplets of American higher education. Indeed, to say the schools have been rivals over the years is an understatement. Competition between Duke and Chapel Hill has been particularly keen. Each institution is the product of a different century and a different tradition.
The University of North Carolina was provided for in the state constitution of 1776; the founding fathers felt that to participate fully in a democracy, people had to be educated.
Visitors to the campus are shown the ''Davie poplar'' and told the legend of the siting of the university. Founder William Richardson Davie and some companions set out to scout a site for the new university -- some place in the central part of the state, and away from the capital, Raleigh (politics was felt to be a bad influence). The group decided to break for lunch under a spreading poplar, and during the course of the picnic, decided they were sitting on as good a site as any -- and today the Davie poplar is in the middle of the Chapel Hill campus.
UNC proudly claims to be the oldest state university in the country -- on grounds of having its charter first, although there is a running debate with the University of Georgia, which claims it actually had students before Carolina.
Yet some outsiders apparently don't think deep educational roots necessarily make for a tree of knowledge. Dr. Kent Mullikin, assistant director of the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, tells the story of a Chapel Hill alumnus who was teaching the classics at Indiana University when he received an offer to return to his alma mater to teach. His Hoosier students, obviously regarding North Carolina as the most backward of backwoods, were incredulous when he accepted.
''You obviously have no idea,'' the learned man sniffed, ''that my ancestors were reading Aristotle while yours were fighting Indians.''
Today UNC-Chapel Hill, with some 20,000 students, is noted for its strong departments of classics and history. Thomas Wolfe studied there, and a long literary tradition remains. ''There's a saying here that if you throw a rock up in the air in Chapel Hill, it's likely to come down on an author,'' observes Chancellor Christopher C. Fordham III.
Journalism is considered another long suit; Roger Mudd and native son Charles Kuralt scrawled some of their first ''leads'' there. Chapel Hill is also recognized for its studies in medicine and law.
North Carolina State University was founded in 1887 as a land-grant college to educate the children of ''farmers and mechanics.'' One aim of the school was to spread the fruits of its research, especially in agriculture, across the state.
This has resulted in college researchers helping farmers with such things as the use of computers in herbicide spraying and in fighting pickle bloat. But NC State also has done pineapple research for Hawaii and has received recognition for its worldwide efforts in battling nematodes, pesky plant parasites.
In addition, the college has worked with the International Potato Center in Peru, original home of the vegetable, to develop potato varieties to help meet protein needs in areas of the third world.
The North Carolina Japan Center, intended to draw Japanese investment into North Carolina, is also based at NC State. Its activities include sending university faculty members to Japan, after giving them a six-month language program, to study developments in various fields and size up the competition.
Particular strengths of NC State, which has some 20,000 students on its campus inside Raleigh's Beltline, are its schools of engineering, design, forest resources, and textiles.
Duke University, for all its impressive neo-Gothic architecture, is a 20 th-century institution. It is the result of the transformation wrought on Trinity College, a Methodist school with roots going back to the 1830s, by the Duke Endowment, launched in 1924 by the Duke family of American Tobacco Company fame.
Duke has recently been in the public spotlight because of the flap over whether to build a presidential library for law school alumnus Richard Nixon. College trustees decided earlier this year to put the controversial library proposal on hold, and Nixon aides have been looking for a nonacademic setting for the archives.
Duke is noted for its schools of medicine, theology, and engineering, as well as law. Such heavy emphasis has been put on preparing students for professions in recent years that the administration has become concerned about students' ''values framework'' and plans to place new emphasis on undergraduate liberal arts, according to Chancellor A. Kenneth Pye.
Duke people seem to regard their school as a sort of Southern branch of the Ivy League. Only some 15 percent of Duke students come from North Carolina. (School officials would like more native sons and daughters, but not enough have Scholastic Aptitude Test scores in the needed 1,250-1,300 range.)
Another 15 percent of the student body comes from other Southeastern states. Northeastern states contribute some 30 percent. Duke has drawn 10,500 applications for 1,300 places in this fall's freshman class.
With about 5,700 undergraduates and 3,500 graduate students, Duke is only about half the size of the other Triangle institutions. It is the only private school of the three and thus has to contend with higher tuition tabs and less public aid. But Duke officials are quick to point out that their costs are much less than most other major private schools.
Still, if there's rivalry among the three brethren, they also complement each other, points out Dr. William F. Little, chemistry professor at Chapel Hill and vice-president of the Triangle Universities Center for Advanced Studies Inc.
Chapel Hill produces more bachelors of science in chemistry each year than any other institution in the country. ''And yet it's healthy for us that Duke is strong in chemistry, too,'' he says.
Duke's engineering school has an enrollment of 800, with eight applicants competing for each slot in the freshman class. NC State's engineering school is 5,000 strong. Neither school wishes to mimic the other.