To first years still learning the layout of campus and using official Blue Devil lanyards for their dorm keys, Larry Moneta is likely just another administrator. Perhaps he’s stood out to some of them because of the signature gold chain hanging around his neck or his frequent visits to Sprout for the vegan fare, but more likely than not, he’s just another face in the crowd. However, to the students who have spent their last two to three years on campus and witnessed the highs and lows of the once venerated “LMo,” Larry Moneta is a far more complex figure. Following a semester marred with public, national criticism, calls for his termination and lambastings on the university meme page, his departure at the end of this year was announced early this month. This conclusion to Moneta’s seventeen years at Duke and nearly half century working on college campuses certainly warrants a reflection on just who he is, what went wrong and what there is to learn from his fall from grace.
A first-generation American and son of two Holocaust survivors, Moneta worked at four other universities in administrative positions before joining Duke as vice president for student affairs in 2001. Having attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst during the height of the anti-war movement, Moneta attributed his desire to be involved as a “change agent” in university affairs to having lived through the heightened political tensions of the Vietnam War era and the deadly Kent State shooting. At Duke, his duties have included leadership in Housing, Dining and Residence Life, Career Services and Student Health, among other areas. Moneta also serves as an adjunct associate professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy and teaches in the executive doctorate program in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania.
However, despite his lengthy résumé and numerous roles at Duke, it is the numerous mishandlings of campus incidents that serve as his primary legacy on campus. The most recent scandal involving the vice president for student affairs started after failing to take meaningful action in responding to on-campus incidences of racist hate speech and vandalism. He instead paternalistically suggested to the student body via Twitter that they read an abstract academic text on free speech. Then, soon after, Moneta jettisoned into the national media spotlight after he played an instrumental role in the firing of two employees of the former campus mainstay coffee shop, Joe Van Gogh. In a twist of free-speech irony, Moneta took personal offense to hearing the F-word in a song playing on the store’s audio system. Instead of using his administrative fiat power to create meaningful hate speech policy and expel the perpetrators behind racist assaults, Moneta—leveraging his position’s power—complained to dining service administrators about the incident. Ultimately, two employees were terminated over the Spotify algorithm.
Even before the so-called Young Dolph-gate, Moneta has been criticized intermittently over the the past 15 years for contradictions relating to stances on housing policies and lackluster statements about racial controversies stemming from Greek life. Even more, despite forming and leading a highly visible and committed sexual assault task force, Moneta's ability to make coherent public statements was further called into question after he sent a head-scratching email to the Duke community about completing a sexual assault survey. The email, opening with subject line “Good Sex,” frustrated some members of the community who said it seemed tasteless to make light of such a serious subject. Other controversies during his tenure include the handling of the infamous Duke lacrosse case, criticism over selectivity when offering condolences after international tragedies or natural disasters and insufficient responses to a noose being found on campus.
While Larry Moneta’s time at Duke has not been without controversy, he’s also had his share of victories. Accomplishments include helping establish a physical space for the Muslim Students Association, overseeing a vast expansion of the Duke dining services into the nationally acclaimed status it holds today and creating a university sexual assault task force.
However, it would be a disservice to the multifaceted nature of Larry Moneta’s story to cast him solely as a collection of mistakes and triumphs. He remains a complicated and enigmatic figure, in part because his position at Duke doomed him to that role. In a 2014 Duke Today article, he described himself as “chief cheerleader and motivator” in addition to his official administrative duties. And, perhaps, therein lies the problem. Being a liaison and “cheerleader” for the undergraduate body made him a more human element of Duke administration than other, more reclusive upper level employees.
Ultimately, there was a cost to the closeness he shared with students. The bonds that humanized him and the job that made him a frequent public face also opened him up to unique attacks when he made mistakes: missteps and failures weren’t just work-related stumblings, they often were read as a personal betrayal of the student body he so frequently interacted with. Administrators aren’t hired to radically overhaul their universities or criticize the institution from the inside. They’re hired to work within it and sustain it at all costs. Even if Moneta desired to be a man of the students, his first and foremost obligation was always going to be to the university.
Perhaps Moneta could have fully understood that all the responses he has released about racism on campus or other threats to student safety were simply not adequate, falling short of what undergraduates needed from their institution in times of crises. However, regardless of his awareness, it wouldn’t matter: those emails and public statements were tediously crafted and revised in order to protect Duke’s public image before all else. Moneta made multiple irredeemable mistakes: his inability to sufficiently internalize criticism from students, reliance on reactive rather than proactive responses to issues on campus and his role in the firing of the Joe Van Gogh baristas.
Yet the tragedy of Larry Moneta is that he could never have embodied the advocate for students he may have aspired to. The job he took wasn’t built to hold any dreams he may have had, nor was it meant to tackle root causes of issues on campus (namely because it would require calling into question basic, foundational elements of the university's daily functioning). His role at the university immediately and permanently confined him in a purgatory between the elevated bureaucrats hidden in the Allen Building and the students gathering outside of it, demanding justice. And, in the end, he was undone by that inescapable condition.
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