On Monday, two employees of Duke University’s Joe Van Gogh location had their contracts terminated after vice president for student affairs Larry Moneta and executive director of dining services Robert Coffey demanded that the local coffee chain fire them.
Their offense? While he was in the store Friday, Moneta heard a rap song that he found offensive.
The incident highlights the precarious relationship between the university and its contracted employees, who are not afforded the same benefits and protections as Duke’s full-time employees, but whose employers are not in a position to defend them out of fear of losing business with the university.
Moneta was a regular at the campus Joe Van Gogh. The baristas often prepared his usual order—a hot tea and a vegan muffin—while he was still in line. He was cordial with the staff.
On Friday, Moneta came in during an afternoon rush. The baristas had a habit of playing music from Spotify over the speakers, usually on playlists curated by the service. When Moneta walked in, “Get Paid” by Young Dolph was playing. The song’s titular refrain included the n-word, as Young Dolph raps, “Get paid, young nigga.”
Britni Brown, who was manning the register, was in charge of the playlist that day.
When he approached the counter, Moneta, a white man, told Brown, an African-American woman, that the song was inappropriate.
“The words, ‘I’ll eff you upside down,’ are inappropriate,” Moneta said, according to Brown. (Those exact lyrics are not in the song, though it has plenty of f-bombs.)
“Yes, of course,” Brown said. She says she shut the song off immediately. She grabbed him a vegan muffin and offered it free of charge.
“No,” Brown recalls Moneta saying. “Ring me up for it.”
Brown says she offered again, apologizing for the offense the song had caused.
“You need me to ring me up for it right now,” Moneta insisted.
While Brown was working the register, Kevin Simmons, the other barista on duty, was busy making drinks. Simmons had worked there for three months and was up for his ninety-day review the next week. While pulling shots of espresso, he noticed a man who was upset with Brown.
“Harassing is definitely the word I would use,” Simmons says. “He was verbally harassing her.”
Simmons did not hear what Moneta or Brown said specifically, but he noticed Brown hastily turning off the music and apologizing profusely. Shortly afterward, Moneta left the shop.
Less than ten minutes later, Brown says she received a call from Robbie Roberts, the owner of Joe Van Gogh. He said that Coffey, the director of dining services, which oversees this Joe Van Gogh location, had just called him. Roberts asked her about the incident. According to Brown, she explained what happened, took full responsibility, and apologized again. (Coffey did not immediately respond to a phone call seeking comment.)
On Monday morning, Brown and Simmons were called into Joe Van Gogh’s Hillsborough office and asked to resign. The INDY obtained an audio recording of that meeting.
At that meeting, Amanda Wiley from Joe Van Gogh’s human resources department told them that they could no longer work at Joe Van Gogh.
“We had gotten a call from Robert Coffey of Duke saying that the VP of the university had come into the shop and that there was vulgar music playing,” Wiley said, according to the recording. “Joe Van Gogh is contracted by Duke University, so we essentially work for them. And they can shut us down at any point.”
Wiley cleared her throat. “Duke University has instructed us to terminate the employees that were working that day,” she said.
After a long pause, she offered Brown and Simons severance if they resigned. She said she had the paperwork for termination and resignation with her, so they could choose either option. Then she reassured them that she and other managers would be a positive reference for them for future jobs.
Throughout the meeting, Wiley expressed how good employees both Brown and Simmons had been.
Current managers and coworkers say that neither Brown nor Simmons had any record of workplace misconduct.
“I’m just kind of shocked,” Simmons told Wiley. “I didn’t have any control over the music. I’m having trouble understanding how I’m responsible for this.”
“For [Simmons, a white man] to be fired because of this, it is not fair,” Brown, who had worked at Joe Van Gogh for nearly a year and a half, told Wiley. “I feel like you guys were trying to cover it up as to make it not look discriminatory for firing a person of color.”
“This is coming from the university,” Wiley responded.
A manager of the campus Joe Van Gogh who asked not to be named told the INDY that she was initially instructed to terminate just Brown’s contract, but she later received a phone call telling her to terminate Simmons’s contract as well.
Brown says she was not aware of any policies regarding the playing of music in the shop. Other employees of Joe Van Gogh say they are not aware of a music policy either.
“When I got hired, the only thing that was expected for the music was for it to be cool music,” Brown says. “There was no training to make sure that your music was appropriate.”
Joe Van Gogh, which has been a vendor on Duke’s West Campus since 2008, was on probation with the university, Wiley told Brown and Simmons in the meeting. Current employees, including managers, did not know why.
In a phone call Tuesday afternoon, Roberts, the Joe Van Gogh owner, says the word “probation” is inaccurate, though “we did have to fix a few things.” He told the INDY that all personnel matters are private but says he accepts full responsibility for his company’s decisions.
Moneta declined to comment for this story. However, he did email a statement to the Duke Chronicle Tuesday that he “was shocked to hear lyrics that he ‘found quite inappropriate for a working environment that serves children among others.’ … ‘I expressed my objections to the staff with whom I’ve always had a cordial relationship. I insisted on paying for my purchase and left the store. I then contacted the director of Duke Dining to express my concerns and that was the end of my involvement.’”
Moneta told the Chronicle that the decision to fire Brown and Simmons was entirely on Joe Van Gogh: “The employees who chose to play the song in a business establishment on the Duke campus made a poor decision which was conveyed to the JVG management. How they responded to the employees’ behavior was solely at their discretion.”
To be clear, that is the opposite of what Joe Van Gogh’s human relations official told Brown and Simmons as they were being terminated.
Moneta, who has previously opposed efforts to restrict hate speech on college campuses, told the Chronicle that he was not being hypocritical: “To those who feel that I’ve flipped on my positions on free expression, I say this. The artist who wrote, recorded and performed the music is absolutely entitled to do so, however offensive I might find the lyrics.” (In an op-ed for The News & Observer, Moneta has also argued against the vandalism of Confederate monuments.)
The on-campus location saw a high volume of customers, about 650–800 on a good day, according to a current manager. Many students and professors were regulars. Duke Dining did not allow the baristas to receive tips through debit cards or food-points cards, so Joe Van Gogh increased their wages to compensate.
Outside vendors are a hallmark of the university’s well-regarded dining program. The school began working with outside vendors about twenty years ago, according to a student newspaper report. Today, Duke contracts with fifty-five vendors for on-campus dining, food truck, and delivery services.
It’s not uncommon for music to be played at on-campus venues whether they’re run by Duke food-service employees or by outside vendors. West Union, The Marketplace, Saladelia at Von der Heyden, and The Loop Pizza Grill frequently play popular music across a range of genres.
Charles Gooch, president of AFSCME Local 77, the union for Duke food-service workers employed directly by the university, says employees at The Marketplace, a Duke-run eatery on the East Campus, used to have control of the music selection. They often would play songs from their favorite satellite station.
“It helped the mood of the work environment,” Gooch says.
That privilege was taken away a few years ago. “Now, it’s no longer under the control of the employees,” Gooch says. “Instead, it’s at the discretion of the dining services management.”
As far as Gooch knows, there were no incidents at The Marketplace that prompted this change in policy.
Both Brown and Simmons accepted the severance package and are now looking for new employment.
“Even if this situation got resolved, I don’t know if I would want to work with Duke Dining if they make calls on people’s employment in this way,” Simmons says. “It feels very crude and not at all professional.”
Brown offered similar thoughts in her meeting with Joe Van Gogh’s human resources department.
“There are other options besides being terminated,” Brown said. “We could have just been moved to another shop. But Duke came in and took our livelihood.” Brown told Wiley she was disappointed by how Joe Van Gogh handled the situation. “Duke Dining is clearly going above and beyond, but y’all are sitting here and allowing it.”
This story has been updated to include comments from Robbie Roberts and Larry Moneta.