The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights this month launched an investigation into allegations that Montana State University failed to respond appropriately to reports of sex- and race-based discrimination during the 2022-23 school year.
The investigation, first reported on Tuesday by the Daily Montanan, was announced in a letter dated Oct. 5 to MSU President Waded Cruzado from OCR investigator Steven Riley. In the letter, Riley stated that the federal office had received more than 20 complaints against the university related to reports of discrimination made by members of the campus’ Queer Straight Alliance, a student-led organization that supports MSU’s LGBTQ community. Riley wrote that his office will investigate whether MSU itself discriminated against the students or faculty members on the basis of sex or of race, color or national origin in its handling of those cases.
“During the OCR investigation, the allegations may be resolved in a variety of ways, including a voluntary written agreement in which the university agrees to take remedial actions that OCR determines fully resolve the allegation consistent with applicable legal standards,” Riley wrote. “Where appropriate, the allegation may also be resolved through mediation facilitated by OCR.”
Riley added that since MSU receives federal funds from the Department of Education, it is required to comply with federal civil rights laws prohibiting sex- and race-based discrimination. When contacted, Riley referred Montana Free Press to the department’s press office in Washington, D.C. That office did not immediately respond to an email requesting additional information.
In an email response to questions Wednesday, MSU Vice President of Communications Tracy Ellig said the university will “cooperate with the OCR and will continue to build on its work to provide a positive and safe learning environment.” He added that MSU would submit an official response to investigators by the end of the day Wednesday.
In an interview with MTFP this week, MSU student Alexandra Lin — who described herself as the original complainant in the OCR investigation — said she turned to federal investigators after campus officials failed to act on her reports that she’d received racist and sexually violent messages and death threats. Lin added that she was not the only recipient of such harassment last spring and that she printed “about 5,000” flyers that she distributed on campus informing other students and faculty how to contact OCR. She and others organized a series of on-campus events, as well, to raise awareness of what fellow students were experiencing. Lin, who is part Taiwanese, said she also worked to get the national advocacy group Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate to support the push for a federal investigation.
“We were told that it probably wouldn’t happen, that the investigation would never start, that it would take so long,” Lin said. “But it has started, and it’s pretty aggressive in terms of what it’s asking from the university.”
A spokesperson for Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate did not immediately respond to a voicemail inquiring about the organization’s involvement.
According to the Daily Montanan, the complaints fueling the investigation were in part tied to anonymous harassing emails sent to the Queer Straight Alliance last February. The following month, a pair of students from the alliance brought their concerns to the attention of the Montana Board of Regents during a public meeting, explaining that they had contacted numerous campus leaders and were disappointed by the university’s response. In commenting to the regents, MSU student Tierney Hula read one of the threatening messages sent to a fellow QSA member. Hula added, “I will admit that my pride is shaking. I am starting to become ashamed of calling myself a Bobcat.”
Ellig directly addressed the anonymous threats in his response to MTFP and included a written timeline of events indicating the testimony given to the regents in March was “the first time” administrators heard concerns that their response had been “inadequate.” Ellig wrote that the emails received by QSA “understandably impacted students.”
“MSU took that threat seriously and worked with law enforcement,” Ellig continued. “The university also held numerous events on campus to support the student community and educate them about available support and resources.”
MTFP reached out to university system officials about the new investigation. Joyce Dombrouski, chair of the Board of Regents, replied that the regents take student safety “very seriously” and have enacted statewide policies to protect them from discrimination and harassment.
“We have faith in our campus leader to implement those policies and provide a positive learning experience for students,” Dombrouski wrote.
Deputy Commissioner of Higher Education Tyler Trevor sent the following statement on behalf of the commissioner’s office:
“The Montana University System is committed to providing a safe learning environment for all students. The anonymous threats made last semester were disturbing and understandably impacted students. MSU took those threats seriously and worked with law enforcement and held numerous events on campus to support the student community and educate them about available support and resources. MSU will work with the OCR as the allegations about the campus’s response are investigated and will continue to build on its work from last spring to provide a positive and safe learning environment.”
Responding on behalf of Gov. Greg Gianforte via email, spokesperson Kaitlin Price noted that in the wake of this month’s attacks on Israelis by Hamas, “Jewish students are facing demonstrable anti-Semitic hostility on college campuses across the country, and they, or any student, shouldn’t fear for their safety and wellbeing.”
The events at MSU last spring also caught the attention of the Montana Human Rights Network, which issued a statement on March 23, maintaining that the campus administration had been “exceptionally quiet” about the issue and urging officials to “proactively and aggressively denounce the threats against LGBTQ+ and BIPOC students.”
Speaking with MTFP Wednesday, Montana Human Rights Network spokesperson Cherilyn Devries tied the MSU situation to the “vitriol” in the Montana Legislature targeting transgender individuals. Devries argued that “hostile rhetoric” during the session was “emboldening people to make threats against people in the LGBTQ community.”
“The threats are real, and the hostility has really gotten a bullhorn,” Devries said. “Students deserve to feel supported at their schools in the midst of this really difficult situation.”
At MSU, political science professor Paul Lachapelle has glimpsed the challenges up close. In an interview with MTFP Wednesday, he said he attended several student-led events on campus last spring, including one of Lin’s teach-ins and a protest outside Cruzado’s office. Lachapelle added that he’s “sympathetic to the situation” given his own experiences as a faculty member advocating for more open dialogue about climate change, and understands that Lin and others were “desperate to have this conversation.”
“This is the whole purpose of a university, of institutions of higher education, higher learning,” Lachapelle said. “We should not be shying away from conversations about these issues, whether it’s about climate change or gender identity or death threats.”
This story was updated Oct. 26, 2023, with comment from Board of Regents Chair Joyce Dombrouski and from the office of Gov. Greg Gianforte.
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