Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian directed all campuses in the Montana University System last week to block access to the social media app TikTok on university-run networks and to suspend all university-run TikTok accounts.

The announcement brings the university system into compliance with a directive issued by Gov. Greg Gianforte in December banning TikTok on all state-owned devices and state-run networks and for state employees conducting official business. Gianforte cited “grave security concerns” stemming from the harvesting of user data by ByteDance Ltd., the Chinese company that owns TikTok. Christian’s directive — effective Jan. 20 — adds fresh clarity to the December prohibition’s impact on Montana campuses, several of which used TikTok for student outreach, recruitment and retention activities prior to the ban.

“TikTok may not be installed or used on any MUS or university-owned devices, including but not limited to desktop computers, laptops, iPads or cellular telephones,” Christian wrote. “If TikTok is currently installed on any MUS or university-owned device, the application must be immediately removed from the device.”

State and federal governments have increasingly moved to prohibit the app’s use in recent months, most notably in December when Congress inserted a TikTok ban on all devices used by federal employees into a massive end-of-year funding bill.

Christian did carve out an exception for “necessary education or research-related purposes” subject to approval by an individual campus’ chief information officer. In an email to Montana Free Press, Deputy Commissioner for Government Relations and Public Affairs Helen Thigpen explained that the exceptions are “intended to provide some flexibility for academic purposes or for university-conducted research that may involve social media platforms such as TikTok.”

“We don’t foresee the exceptions being used broadly,” Thigpen added.

According to Montana State University Vice President of Communications Tracy Ellig, MSU forwarded Christian’s directive to students, faculty and staff last week, and also set up a web page with additional information, including directions for individuals requesting an exception. The page noted that access to TikTok on all campus wired and wireless networks has already been blocked.

“We either have or are in the process of discontinuing any MSU TikTok accounts,” Ellig added. “We are hanging on to their registrations, however, to prevent a third party from scooping them up and effectively fooling users into believing they are official accounts.”

“We either have or are in the process of discontinuing any MSU TikTok accounts. We are hanging on to their registrations, however, to prevent a third party from scooping them up and effectively fooling users into believing they are official accounts.”

Montana State University Vice President of Communications Tracy Ellig

University of Montana Director of Strategic Communications Dave Kuntz told MTFP via email that UM will notify students and employees of the ban this week, “once students return from winter break.” Kuntz added that, as of Monday, the campus’ IT department had already taken steps to ensure TikTok is blocked on all UM networks. He also wrote that UM plans to work with faculty to identify when the use of TikTok may qualify for an exception per Christian’s directive. The same goes for student-operated TikTok accounts associated with on-campus student groups.

“We acknowledge that there are still grey areas that need to be defined,” Kuntz said, “and UM will work through these instances with student leaders to find a path forward where we are in compliance with the directive.”

At Montana State University-Billings, which until now had a robust presence on TikTok with dozens of promotional posts, Director of Communications and Marketing Maureen Brakke confirmed Tuesday that the campus has suspended its only account on the app and is working to permanently delete it.

“MSUB started using TikTok in 2022, so there is not much impact on recruitment or retention efforts, as it was still in the early stages of use and therefore, not much data,” Brakke wrote.

Brakke added that students will still be able to access their personal TikTok accounts on personal devices while they’re on campus, as long as they do so using their own cellular data and are “not connected to MSUB’s Wi-Fi or network.”

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...