The Affairs of Student Affairs

April 1, 2011
 
David Schanzer

Larry Moneta
Vice President for Student Affairs
Les Todd


Jared Lee Loughner, the alleged would-be assassin of Arizona representative Gabrielle Giffords, has a now well-publicized history of run-ins with students, professors, and administrators at Pima Community College, where he was a student. Critics charge that the institution should have done more to alert authorities to Loughner’s ever more troubled behavior. Duke Magazine sat down with Larry Moneta, Duke’s vice president for student affairs, to find out how the university attempts to identify students in crisis before it’s too late and how hearing bad news from around the nation affects the way administrators do their jobs.

Beyond the weekly meetings you and your staff members devote to discussing students in crisis, what are some other ways you identify and track them?
From the time students are admitted, we try to identify revealing family or personal circumstances. When students come to campus, resident advisers or academic advisers try to pick up on signs right away in personal conversations. We really tap everyone who has a personal relationship with students, try to enlist them to be eyes and ears, and help them identify cues.

So if you hear things like, “I don’t know if I can survive here,” that’s a message.

Every day, I feel like that pressure grows, because every day, there seems to be an incident somewhere in America that suggests that every campus is supposed to now have an early-warning apparatus that will allow us to uncover such a threat before it happens.

Have there been any programmatic ways that you’ve tried to do this?

DukeReach is the formal program that we’ve created. We basically felt that a brand name for the sum total of these efforts would help us convey the message best to the public. It has a very simple message: If you’re concerned about someone, let us know. And we’ve been pretty aggressive about trying to push this out.

Was there a particular moment or incident where you said to yourself and to your staff, “Wow, we really need to change what we’re doing”?

One of the last suicides on this campus was of a graduate student who was an Iraq War veteran. His death hit me really hard. And that was around the time a couple of other incidents occurred, including Virginia Tech. So I think a handful of very visible circumstances and a couple of local incidents suggested to me that we needed to move from a familiarity with troubled students simply within our staff to broadening that familiarity to the university as a whole.

But this has been going on for several years. It’s not just this year or this past year. We launched DukeReach in a modest way four years ago, and we really have been scaling it up in the last year or two.

We have to make sure our response systems scale up at the pace at which we actually invite the community to tell us. The worst thing we can do is say, “We’re ready. We’ve now ignited all 7,000 faculty members, staff, students, the community and have no capacity to handle the bandwidth.” So the last two years have really been both about adjusting the timing of the expansion of the message and the bandwidth for our capacity to handle the response—because the community has responded.

Preparing for the worst: A University of Dayton student takes part in a vigil for those killed and injured during the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007.

Preparing for the worst: A University of Dayton student takes part in a vigil for those killed and injured during the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007.
Associated Press

What else is Duke doing differently, or what are our particular strengths in this area?

I think one of our strengths is that we have more players playing well together on this behalf than any place I’ve seen or any place I’ve ever worked. From Duke Police, as they identify students from conduct situations, to the academic advising staff, to all the residents, resident advisers, all staff, all of the academic deans, many faculty members individually. What we’ve achieved that I think is distinctive is how many parts of the system we’ve gotten to actually collaborate and work very closely together.

How has your job changed since you started working in the student-affairs field?

Well, there are a number of issues. The regulatory obligations have changed dramatically. I started before FERPA [the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act]. FERPA is thirty-five years old, and I got my first job in student services three-and-a-half years before that. So FERPA became the sort of first dramatic change in accountability.

But add to it the Clery Act, HIPAA regulations—just this most recent higher ed reauthorization act had, I think, 140 new mandates in it. I have a slide in a class I teach on student services that just shows the number of regulatory obligations that now affect student affairs. And when I project it on a screen, it looks like microfiche.

Also, I think the scope of what is “student affairs” has changed dramatically. Half of what I do is really an auxiliary portfolio of facilities management and dining services and retail operations. The training for the traditional student-affairs vice president thirty years ago was counseling.

Today, I have 500 employees and a $100 million budget, so there’s a business aspect to student affairs that was not anywhere near as advanced then as it is today.

Risk management has become a far more formal part of our daily efforts. And DukeReach is an effort in risk management, but risk management even in terms of thinking about, what risks do we have? What risks do we have to protect students from, obviously, but also what risks do we have to protect staff from?

The cost of not doing it, and the cost of a single lawsuit for a failure to have met a compliance requirement should someone be injured or, worse, killed, far outweigh what the mitigation costs are. But it’s hard to see that at the same time you’re looking at your economic challenges.

Beyond the monetary costs of an incident, you’re the person ultimately responsible for student safety.

Right. I feel a responsibility—I stay awake, I’m worried about what we missed. And when there’s an incident, I gut check everything and feel like it’s my responsibility to gut check. Did we have every safeguard in place?

It’s the nature of the climate, and it’s the nature of the responsibility. I could go sell shoes. I love the fact that my morning meeting might be running over to the career fair, and my second meeting will be on race relations, and my third meeting will be on constructing a residence hall. It’s one of those truly rare roles in which I can touch students’ lives in lots of different ways. But there is a heavy side to it.

Do you ever get tired of that “heavy side” being what most people know you for?

I don’t get tired of it. I enjoy talking about the majority of what we do: advising students, clubs, and organizations—all 500—and supporting the Greek system and staffing the residence halls, and cleaning, and serving food in the dining hall, and making sure the theaters are in operation, and providing and staffing all of our cultural and identity centers.

But I also am very happy if there’s a life saved, even though I may never know it. I feel in my heart and in my head that we’ve actually saved many lives. I know enough horror stories that ended up with the safety net catching them, and I take great comfort from that.

This interview was conducted, condensed, and edited by Aaron Kirschenfeld.