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From 'water buffalo’ to Joe Van Gogh: Larry Moneta discusses free speech controversies from his career in student affairs

The VP reflects on nearly 50 years of ‘comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable’

Nearly 50 years ago, Larry Moneta’s future in college was up to a number that would appear on television.

As an underclassman at University of Massachusetts Amherst, the future vice president for student affairs at Duke was facing the draft for the Vietnam War. When he began his college experience, America was in a moment of crisis in the wake of race riots, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and the controversial involvement in Vietnam. 

Moneta’s number was not called on a night that has since been etched permanently into his memory—but that political climate was the very reason he has found himself working in higher education for nearly 50 years. 

The day that sealed the deal for Moneta was May 4, 1970—the date of the Kent State shootings. The Ohio National Guard broke up unarmed college students protesting President Richard Nixon's Cambodian Campaign, leaving several students dead. Ensuing strikes shut down universities around the nation. 

Influenced by a family broken apart by the Holocaust, Moneta knew he wanted to be a “change agent”—and saw colleges and universities as the best place to do so. 

Both of Moneta’s parents were from Poland and were imprisoned in Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust. His father went to six different concentration camps and lost nearly every family member, except for one or two cousins, while more than half of his mother’s family was killed. His household and the little extended family he had were all survivors. 

“Politics were interpreted through the lenses of those who had to endure hatred, prejudice and murders,” Moneta said. “I can’t draw a straight line between that and why I decided to go into higher education, but I can draw an indirect line that I’ve always been sensitive to the consequences of hatred.”

Since he began at Duke in 2001, Moneta has seen the campus grow increasingly diverse and has been at the helm of major reforms including the master plan for the “West Campus downtown”—the Brodhead Center.  

Moneta leads offices that include the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, the Center for Multicultural Affairs, Community Services and the Women’s Center, according to his LinkedIn. In addition to serving in the administrative role for Duke’s identity and culture centers, Moneta has also convened the bias and hate steering committee for the past two years. 

Through his 49 years working on college campuses, Moneta has seen many changes and believes universities and colleges are fertile ground for social progress. 

"I’ve always believed that college and university is the place where some of our most important social initiatives have been birthed and nurtured," Moneta said. "Having spent 49 years on campus, I’ve seen the advance of the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, the expansion of support and services for students of color, programs that bring students of affluence and low socioeconomic status together. It’s a place I’ve seen most of our advancement in social issues and social justice."

After serving in housing and residential life roles at the University of Massachusetts system, Moneta began his student affairs work at the University of Pennsylvania in 1992 and was an associate vice president there from 1997 to 2001. 

At Penn, he oversaw a major residential overhaul and developed the "college house system," which aimed to build community. In his recent book chapter on intersectionality in student affairs, he wrote he wants to disrupt the "safe" selection of roommates. 

"There’s an old phrase in student affairs. Student affairs is about comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable," Moneta said. "That always had meaning to me."

'Nothing hurt me more': Moneta responds to JVG incident

Half a century after the formative Kent State shootings shaped his decision to enter the field of student affairs, Moneta has found himself facing national backlash.

After a recent incident at former on-campus coffee shop Joe Van Gogh that ended with the firing of two baristas, Moneta said that he is misunderstood. Some said Moneta "dictated" free speech after he went to Joe Van Gogh on May 5, heard the song “Get Paid” by Young Dolph being played, and asked that it be turned off. He said he objected because he heard the words “And then I f*cked her up real good”—the exact line is "I f*cked her so good, she got up and started cooking." 

Moneta said his objections had nothing to do with the racial slurs, including “n****,” which is used several times in the song, stating that he never heard it. The racial dynamics of the incident—Moneta is white and the barista he interacted with is black—drew attention.

“The whole racialization of this is quite distressing because I heard nothing but the one line,” Moneta said. “For me, as the co-chair of the Sexual Misconduct Task Force, all I heard were misogynistic words.”

Britni Brown, the barista at the register, said she immediately complied and turned off the song—it came on through a Spotify playlist and she could not hear the song from behind the counter, she said. Moneta said that his complaint was directed at the staff members on duty generally—but fellow barista Kevin Simmons alleges he was specifically “harassing” Brown. Brown and Moneta both agreed that he had a “cordial” relationship with staff—so Moneta said that he had “no reason to...nor did any particular expression to her.”

Moneta said that all he told them was that “this is really inappropriate.”

After the song was turned off, Brown offered Moneta his muffin for free. Moneta asked for her to ring it up, and insisted when she offered it for free again. Moneta said that he said it more tersely the second time, but not with “more anger nor more loudly.” 

Upon paying and leaving the coffee shop, Moneta said he texted Robert Coffey, director of dining services—who reports to Moneta—about the “misogynistic” language he heard in the song. 

“What I just heard at JVG: 'And then I f*cked her up real good....,'" the text to Coffey read, Moneta wrote in an email. That was the extent of his contributions to the situation, he insists—and that he never asked for Brown and Simmons to be fired. 

“If one were to just spend some time understanding what my role is and the work I’ve done, I’ve been a very loud and vocal advocate for our underrepresented and marginalized communities,” Moneta said. “Nothing hurt me more than being portrayed as racist.”

A few minutes after Moneta left, Simmons said that they got a call from owner Robbie Roberts, who said Coffey had called about the music. By the beginning of the next week, the baristas were out of their jobs. Before Joe Van Gogh left its campus location, its employees were contracted workers.

Joe Van Gogh human resources employee Amanda Wiley reportedly told the baristas that they had to resign or be fired under Duke's instruction. She has also declined many requests for comment regarding the chain of command—whether it was her decision to terminate the employees. 

Three weeks after the incident, The Chronicle has not been able to confirm if anyone at Duke directed Joe Van Gogh to fire the baristas. 

Coffey did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story and declined to comment for previous reporting on the incident.

At the time, Moneta apologized even though he said he didn’t ask for their firing. 

"I felt and still feel that the choice of music for the venue was inappropriate, but if my actions in any way lead to their dismissal, I apologize and hope that the JVG management consider ways to reinstate their employment with the company," Moneta wrote in a Facebook post shortly after news of the firings broke. 

On May 11, Roberts announced that Joe Van Gogh would be leaving its on-campus location. He said he offered jobs to all employees from the Duke shop at other locations—including Brown and Simmons. 

Brown’s attorney declined to say whether or not Brown would be interested in returning to work at the shop. Simmons could not be reached for comment. 

“I believe it’s the right thing to do to preserve Joe Van Gogh’s brand independence without conditions," Roberts wrote.

However, the music wasn’t the only problem at the coffee shop, Moneta said this week. 

Although Moneta declined to go into specifics of all the issues because he didn’t want to “embarrass” Joe Van Gogh, he said that cleanliness and orderliness had been an issue at the location. He said that management had known that he was unhappy about the conditions there. 

“If you’ve ever been in there, you may have your own opinion on how clean it was,” Moneta said. “It was absolutely appropriate and essential for a person who oversees dining to let the director of dining know that here’s another factoid that you should be aware of as you work with the owner on how to upgrade the quality of the experience there.”

Roberts didn’t think anything was out of the ordinary. 

“Cleanliness and orderliness are something we work on all the time at all our stores,” Roberts wrote in an email. “Coffee beans, milk, hot water, bakery crumbs, paper cups, etc., need constant attention.”

Roberts did not respond when asked if Duke’s administration had made any specific requests about cleanliness. Moneta said that the administration was providing $300,000 in renovations that would be completed over the summer to help the shop become more “amenable to better care.”

“This was a partnership we had with the owner where our expectations were that he trained or upgraded the expectations so that the team there was better able to manage,” Moneta said. “Our agreement was to upgrade the facility to support that.”

Moneta said that in light of Joe Van Gogh’s issues and the non-racial nature of his complaints, that he has been misunderstood.

“What’s sad to me is there’s a quick judgement based on misinformation, and then there’s no way I can avoid the viral spread of that, when the narrative is completely counter to what I’ve committed my career to,” Moneta said. “There is the challenge of short term memory and misunderstanding of what the role of student affairs is.”

Moneta scrutinized for statements on freedom of speech 

Just weeks prior, Moneta had taken some heat for his statements on freedom of expression after a series of racially-charged incidents

This wasn’t the first time Moneta has made headlines in this domain. Rewind to 1993, and Moneta was associate vice provost for university life at the University of Pennsylvania.

Eden Jacobowitz, a first-year, was working on a paper in his dorm room when a sorority was chanting and singing loudly below his window in honor of its Founders' Day. It distracted him from his work, so he asked the women outside—who were black—to be quiet. Roughly 20 minutes later, he shouted at them, “Shut up, you water buffalo!....If you want to have a party there is a zoo nearby."

A few weeks later, Jacobowitz found himself in a hearing, charged with violating Penn's speech code. He could potentially face expulsion. Dictionaries and encyclopedias showed that the term “water buffalo” was not a racial slur, not did it carry any sort of racial connotation. 

Moneta was “instrumental in pressing charges” against Jacobowitz—which were eventually dropped by the sorority sisters. Moneta told history professor Alan Kors—Jacobowitz’s advisor—that one dictionary showed that water buffalo live in Africa. 

The incident made national headlines. When asked if the term was a slur on NBC News after the incident, Moneta attributed it to the context. 

"Language in my mind is neutral,” he said. “It's a question of the context in which language was used." 

Twenty-five years later, Moneta said that although Penn’s policy restricting free speech was against his principles, he had to enforce it because it was his job to follow policy. 

“The conduct office reported to me so the obligation to deal with the incident was based on the fact that that policy was in place,” Moneta said. “It was not one that I endorsed or supported, but it was in place. I actually have never veered in my own principles around freedom of expression.”

A few months later, Penn scrapped its policy—which called for discipline to be taken on those who "used racial slurs to 'inflict direct injury.'"

Now, some Duke students are demanding a similar policy. 

The People’s State of the University has collected more than 600 signatures on a petition that demands a standardized hate and bias policy. In the wake of a racial slur written on a student's door and Snapchats containing the same word going viral on campus, Henry Washington, Trinity '17 and a former president of the Black Student Alliance, has been in favor of such a policy.

“Students are going to continue to be targeted by hate speech until there is a policy that is implemented to stop them,” Washington said. “These incidents are related to a systemic problem of race and racism that has existed for as long as black students have been on Duke’s campus.”

Moneta has long been vocal in opposing such a policy, which he believes hurts the oppressed—citing the National Football League’s ban on kneeling in protest during the national anthem as an example. 

“I don’t believe it’s the right thing because my own experience is that speech codes backfire against those who are seeking to be free from oppression,” Moneta said. 

After a 2015 incident in which a noose was discovered hanging on the Bryan Center Plaza and similar concerns about speech policy were raised, Moneta was on the bias and hate task force tasked with establishing policy. After a semester of work on the issue, Moneta and the task force, spearheaded by then-president Richard Brodhead, recommended an “accelerator clause” be added to the current policy—which was enacted.

Moneta said that students may have forgotten the task force’s recommendations. The clause increases sanctions for those found responsible for hate and bias incidents—but does not explicitly ban hate speech alone.

“But that doesn’t mean I don’t think we should call out hateful language,” Moneta added. “If you were to look over all my statements in 17 years at Duke, whenever there is a hateful incident, I am not shy about condemning it and expressing outrage.”

After the noose incident, Moneta said he couldn’t “begin to describe the disgust and anger" he felt in a statement to the Duke community. 

"To whomever committed this hateful and stupid act, I just want to say that if your intent was to create fear, it will have the opposite effect," Moneta said. "Today, fear will be among the reactions students, and especially, students of color, will have. Be assured that the Duke community will provide all the support necessary to help us all get through this. In time, each of these cowardly acts of bias and hatred will strengthen our resolve to love and support each other."

After a racial epithet was drawn on a 300 Swift resident’s door, Moneta condemned the language. 

“Wherever derogatory language appears is just distasteful," he said. "I mean, I would repeat some of that, that I find it terribly distasteful and inappropriate."

He posted a similar statement on his Twitter @Dukestuaff, which has since been deleted, after the Snapchat incident. 

“We are aware of a posting that appeared on a Duke student’s Facebook site that used deeply offensive and racist terminology,” he wrote. “Though the language itself may not be in violation of any Duke policies on speech and expression, we nonetheless find its use to be deplorable.”

Proud of progress, but says Duke still needs to improve

When Moneta arrived on campus in 2001, Duke was much less diverse. There was no DukeEngage or Bass Connections. There was less of an art scene before the Arts Annex. And Greek life was more dominant than it is today, Moneta added. 

"Alcohol flowed even more than it does today. It was a pretty monolithic scene," Moneta said. "If you weren’t part of that scene, you were on the outside. It’s a far more pluralistic environment."

Moneta said Greek life still "has its role" on campus going forward, but that he is still "seeking to find an appropriate balance." Along with Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education, Moneta said they have done well at elevating the prominence of independent houses. 

"We’re moving in the right direction in terms of balance between the prominence and privilege of Greeks and other selectives versus those who don’t choose to do that," he said.

Although Moneta is quick to say that he didn't bring on all of these changes alone and there are areas for improvement—notably sexual assault and misconduct and heavy drinking—he still feels Duke has grown tremendously in his time on campus. 

"I look at my time here at Duke and for whatever contributions I’ve made, Duke is a far better institution and the undergraduate and graduate experiences are far better today than when I arrived here," Moneta said. "I don’t mean to claim even a large chunk of the credit. Lots and lots of people to thank, but I feel like I’ve been a part of that."

Ben Leonard

Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor 

A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks. 


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