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Can Mary Pat McMahon unite a campus divided on gender violence prevention?

I haven’t had a single conversation with an acquaintance of Mary Pat’s who wasn’t thoroughly impressed by her. And trust me, I’ve had many such conversations. It has become nearly impossible to talk about gender violence prevention on campus without hearing her name.

For those who don’t know her, Mary Pat McMahon is Duke’s new Vice Provost/Vice President for Campus Life, as well as Larry Moneta’s successor. She previously served for five years as Vice President of Student Affairs at Tufts University, during which she contributed to a presidential effort to eradicate campus sexual assault. Despite arriving in July, she’s already won the trust and admiration of many student leaders who are excited about the new direction she plans to take in addressing gender violence on campus.

The students that have worked with Mary Pat seem convinced that her arrival is the beginning of a new wave in Duke’s approach to campus sexual assault, where concrete change is finally possible. But what makes Mary Pat sufficiently different from any past administrator to have so quickly gained those students’ confidence—and does she deserve yours?

At first, I was skeptical of the hype. After all, Duke students are accustomed to feeling unheard in the fight for improved gender violence policies. Before Mary Pat, Larry Moneta was in charge of the Sexual Misconduct Task Force, during which time the majority of the task force’s energy was directed towards information gathering. DSG Senator Jake Jeffries recalled the complaints of the group—“My understanding is that the task force used to be people sitting in a room, being used as a soundboard, not actually doing anything.

“But that’s not the approach Mary Pat has been taking.”

When I met Mary Pat, I understood why so many students had been eager to discuss their experiences working with her. Mary Pat herself exudes that same enthusiasm for improving our campus culture—and for making tangible progress towards that goal. Above all else, she emphasized her commitment to “see a palpable change on our campus,” which she assured me was not only possible, but essential.

Mary Pat describes her work at Tufts as analogous to what she plans to institute at Duke: “a multi-pronged, ecosystem approach that brings many more people into an awareness level about the continuum of sexual violence and the responsibilities we share to prevent and respond to it.” Bonus: she wants students to be at the forefront of these initiatives. One of her key objectives is to push projects that are “student-led, administrative-supported—and well administrative-supported.”

For once, these aren’t empty promises. The Sexual Misconduct Task Force has already taken on an entirely new structure. Mary Pat has organized the group into three subcommittees, aimed at tackling prevention, response, and policy. Bass Connections team member Sonali Mehta says that right away she noticed a shift in the task force’s priorities. “The tone of the first meeting was so different than in the past. Mary Pat has placed a much larger emphasis on student contributions, which has made it easier to speak out.”

Several big ideas have already been tossed around since Mary Pat’s arrival, including the creation of a specialized center on campus dedicated solely to addressing and preventing gender violence. Mary Pat oversaw the foundation of something similar at Tufts, the Center for Awareness, Response, and Education, or CARE, a “one-stop shop” for resources related to student sexual assault. While such an innovation isn’t in Duke’s immediate future—the proposed center would require a considerable amount of institutional support, as well as the reorganization of many of Duke’s current advocacy structures—the idea has been positively received by the task force. She also mentioned desires to restructure first-year trainings, devise a clear and accessible marketing campaign, and embed student leaders from all across campus in these efforts. 

But Mary Pat is hardly working with a clean slate. While there are many different programs that support sexual assault prevention and awareness at Duke, these programs aren’t centralized. The Women’s Center oversees the bulk of this programming, but DuWell, the CSGD, and other identity spaces on campus are also involved, some of which have developed their own gender violence prevention initiatives as independent projects. These politics make it difficult to approach redistributing that content, much less radically reorganizing the centers.

DSG President Liv McKinney noted that the intended role of the Women’s Center has gotten somewhat lost along the way. “Obviously the Women’s Center has a stake in gender violence education, prevention and counseling. But it’s not their sole responsibility, and I also know that they don’t want it to be. I know that the Women’s Center wants to be a space to empower female-identifying students, a center where anyone can walk in and feel at home, as well as a programming body.” The Women’s Center noted that “true prevention is a collaborative effort” and while “it is a good thing” that other departments are engaging in gender violence prevention within their communities, the Women’s Center’s goal is to “bring the entire community together.”

As complicated as these politics can be, Mary Pat sees such preexisting structures as assets. She emphasized her desire to take a “‘yes, and’ approach” to consolidating and building upon these resources. “The Women’s Center employees are world-class. They care profoundly, and they go above and beyond in this work. It’s important to me that we integrate the incredible work they’re already doing into this partnership.” It’s this collaborative approach that has drawn so many students and administrators to Mary Pat—and the trust she has established has reinvigorated the campus movement to end gender violence, prompting “a new wave of effort” that McKinney notes is encouraging to student leaders. 

As Jake Jeffries laments, “bureaucracy is slow.” It remains uncertain when or how we’ll first start seeing real change in the campus culture surrounding sexual assault as a result of Mary Pat’s efforts. But as Mary Pat continues to champion student voices and innovative perspectives, against all odds, students like Mehta have renewed hope—“in all the time I’ve been doing this work, change feels more on the horizon than ever.”

Rebecca Torrence is a Trinity  junior. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.

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