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'Not really, no': Larry Moneta doesn’t have any regrets as VP for student affairs

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After 18 years as vice president for student affairs at Duke, Larry Moneta is set to retire June 30, when Mary Pat McMahon will succeed him as vice provost/vice president for campus life. The Chronicle’s Ben Leonard talked to Moneta about his time at Duke, from his best decisions to his regrets. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Chronicle: What are you doing with the time that is still left?

Larry Moneta: A whole bunch of different things. We’re getting all of our summer construction projects that we need to have in order. We’ve got the transition to the summer conferences and sports camps.

[There are] a good number of very formal transition duties, and I’ve just been engaging with those on my team who have those responsibilities to make sure we have everything in order. We have annual reports that come in from every department, and we’re still reviewing them just partially out of habit, partially out of interest. I asked them all to write their reports more in a way that my successor can learn from what they’ve been doing. I’m meeting with and spending time with my successor, getting her up to date on a number of things.

TC: How much have you worked with your successor, Mary Pat McMahon? What are your impressions of her, and how do you think she’ll do?

LM: I‘ve had a two-hour meeting with her and a couple emails. We have another session coming up in a couple weeks. We’ve been talking regularly on the phone. She seems terrific. She’s really personable and smart. She grasps everything we talk about very quickly. I’m very excited for her.

TC: What do you think is the most important thing she needs to know about this job?

LM: There’s a pretty significant complexity to what we do, because the division includes a lot of very different functions–a larger array of functions than are currently in her portfolio. She needs to spend time in those areas that she hasn’t previously been working in. She needs to understand how the financial structure of this division’s budget works. It’s substantially different from how she was funded [as dean of student affairs] at Tufts [University’s School of Arts and Sciences and Engineering].

But mostly, she really needs to focus on people. The priority in a role like this is always to get to know her team, the folks she’ll work with on a daily basis. She’ll need to know who they are and what their responsibilities are, what their talents and skills are as well as learning the broader Duke community. We’re a big and complex place, with a lot of people to get to know and develop relationships. I bet much of her time in the Fall will just be getting to know people.

TC: Looking back at your time at Duke, what have been some of the best things you’ve done or the best decisions you’ve made?

LM: A couple things stand out. I feel like I’ve had a pretty significant hand in the physical environment and trying to help develop a place at Duke that really serves students effectively. Everything we’ve done from the Brodhead Center renovation to the Bryan Center to the Wellness building certainly is a highlight for me. I can reflect to when I arrived and there really was no environment like that. That coupled with the fact that virtually every residence hall at Duke has been either renovated or newly constructed since I’ve been here–all sorts of major environmental contributions.

But also the fact that we not only had a role in the spaces, but... I’m particularly proud of the staff we’ve been able to recruit, the leadership that is here, the way we serve students with clubs and organizations and work with UCAE, working [with] some of the most talented people I know. You’re working with everyone from RAs to the associate deans. You’ve got a really talented array of people who really care about students and support residential communities. You’re engaged with all of our cultural and identity centers, all of which I’ve had the opportunity to expand both the physical spaces and staff over the years—incredible staff at the Mary Lou Williams Center, or Jewish Life or the Women’s Center.

There’s not a service or function that I had a role in helping improve that is not tremendously better than it was at serving students extraordinarily well.

TC: How has Duke changed during your time here?

LM: Demographically, Duke is a very different place. The undergraduate population has become far more diverse. At the undergraduate level, the experience is better and substantially different. We didn’t have an arts scene. We’ve had a few that have always done the arts. We’ve always had a niche, but now the arts at Duke [is] a signature. That [has] been something I’ve watched with great gratification because I’m a tremendous proponent of student arts—watching our dance groups and a capella groups grow in great numbers, and DuArts emerging as a powerful umbrella organization for the arts. 

You could say the same about the political engagement of the students. So much more student activism across the board, representing students of colors’ needs, DACA students, smoking cessation. It [has] been tremendously enjoyable and satisfying to watch students get more and more engaged in so many important issues and take the lead in advocating for reform. It makes me very proud of our students.

TC: Is there anything major that you would have done differently? Any regrets?

LM: Not really, no. An hour here or there I might have done something different, but in terms of the overall 18-year time, I’m very proud of what I was able to contribute to improving the Duke experience. I want to make sure I acknowledge graduate and professional students as well—there are more of them than undergraduates.

TC: Going forward, you have said before that you might teach at Duke. What’s your role going forward?

LM: I’m not teaching at Duke. My primary faculty role has been at the University of Pennsylvania for the last 25 years where I’m on faculty in their executive doctorate program in higher education management. I’m going to continue to teach there as I’ve got three new doctorate students assigned to me. I’m already deeply engaged in working with three more doctorate students on their dissertation topics. I may be teaching at other places nearby. I’ll do a little consulting. I’m not looking to work full-time, but I may do some consulting here and there.

TC: What will you miss most about your job at Duke?

LM: I’ll miss the people. It’s a cliche, but there really has not been a day where I wake up in the morning and say, ‘Oh crap, I have to go to work.’ I love coming in every day. I love the intellectual stimulation of the people I get to hang with both in student affairs and across campus. Some of the faculty—I’ve come to know probably 75 to 100 faculty well who I love connecting with. That’s probably the thing I worry the most about filling in: ‘How do I find that intellectual stimulation while I’m retired?’ 

I hope through my teaching and consulting and some volunteerism I’ll replace some of that. But the people here are just awesome. To learn from some of the people, that’s what I’ll miss the most.

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