UM law school students demand change, plan walk-out

Law school dean apologizes, announces independent review of law school

By: - October 1, 2021 12:13 pm

A classroom in the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan.)

Describing administrators as having failed students and faculty, a letter from concerned students of the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana is asking the law school leadership to stop threatening them and start providing support, such as accurate information about reporting sexual misconduct.

“I’m not afraid to say that I really just think the law school would be better without Weaver and Kirgis,” said Everett Johns, a law student and one of the drafters of the letter to law school dean Paul Kirgis and associate dean of students Sally Weaver.

Annie Holland, another law student who drafted the letter, agreed. In a phone call Friday, she said administrators are ruining the reputation of law students and faculty.

“There needs to be a change in the administration,” Holland said.

Weaver declined to comment on the letter sent Thursday or the request for leadership change. Kirgis provided the response he emailed Friday to the Blewett School of Law community.

Paul Kirgis is dean of the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law. (Provided by the University of Montana.)

“I write to acknowledge the concerns that students have raised about feeling unsupported by me and others in leadership,” Kirgis said in the letter. “That falls on me, and I’m sorry that I and the law school administration have not done a better job of ensuring students, and in particular women students, feel they can safely raise issues of concern.”

The students sent their letter to law school administrators Thursday evening in advance of a walkout planned at 11:45 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 5. Holland and Johns said plans for the walkout had been in the works for roughly one month as a way for students to express support for peers, staff and faculty who had faced sexual misconduct on campus and retaliation by administrators.

“The administration’s response to allegations of sexual violence burdens survivors and hinders investigative proceedings,” the letter said. “By gaslighting survivors and choosing to remain silent, the administration continues to create fear and confusion for students and faculty.”

This week, the Daily Montanan reported that three students said Kirgis and Weaver discouraged them from taking allegations of sexual assault, including rape, to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX on campus. Kirgis and Weaver both denied they interfered.

In his email to the law community, Kirgis said the administration took steps in spring and summer 2020 after learning of concerns about Title IX reporting. He said those steps included training, an information session to dispel worries that reporting to Title IX would impact bar admission, and creating a resource guide.

Despite these steps, the media reports this week have made me realize we need to do more to address the institutional wellbeing of this law school,” Kirgis wrote. “To make sure students have accurate information on Title IX processes, I have asked the EO/Title IX Office to hold information sessions for each of the 1L, 2L, and 3L classes in the coming month. Watch your email for dates and times. We are also reorganizing reporting structures within the law school to ensure that students know they can safely raise issues.

“Most importantly, the law school will engage an independent outside reviewer to assess the law school climate and make recommendations for change. Faculty will be heavily involved in determining the scope of the review, reviewing the recommendations, and implementing changes.”

Holland said students began planning the walkout after they heard the administration ignored reports of a predator, mishandled sexual assault allegations and leveled threats against students’ admission to the bar. She said trying to get a professional degree at a school that “consistently has ignored or even retaliated against survivors” makes it difficult for students.

“They think that they’re saving face by burying these allegations, when really, this stuff always comes out, and it ruins our reputation, and it hinders our job opportunities as students, and new faculty isn’t going to want to come here,” said Holland, a second year law student.

A Sept. 2020 memo from Kirgis and Weaver to two law school students acknowledged that students feared their character and fitness applications to the bar would be affected if they took complaints, including sexual assault, to the Title IX office. In a statement Friday to the Daily Montanan, the National Conference of Bar Examiners said students should know that harassment and discrimination reports do not affect their bar admission.

“While NCBE does not make character and fitness determinations on behalf of the jurisdictions’ courts or boards of bar examiners, we can state unequivocally that making a Title IX complaint is not an impediment to admission in any U.S. jurisdiction,” said NCBE President and CEO Judith Gundersen in a statement provided by the organization’s communications office.

Johns, also in his second year, said at least 10 people worked closely on the letter, which is signed by “concerned students.” In a phone call Friday, he said students generally wanted to put the administration on notice of the walkout, and he said he and others have reached out to not only faculty about attending the demonstration but also attorneys in the community.

He said the students discussed a demand letter, but he also said it was difficult to identify demands because of the lack of transparency from the administration: “One big problem is we have no idea what they’re doing so it’s really hard for us to tell them what to do.”

However, the letter requests the leadership take action to address problems, and it notes the School of Law “holds a monopoly on the legal education and profession in Montana.” Kirgis’ base salary is $201,630, and Weaver is paid $72,828, according to their contracts from UM.

“It is time for the administration to substantively address students’ concerns,” the letter said. “You have swept this under the rug with threats and retaliation for too long. Once again, you have failed us.”

In a statement, UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz said the university responded to concerns about the School of Law over the past year, and ongoing efforts include mediation, investigations and new training tailored for law students.

UM on independent review of Alexander Blewett III School of Law:

This independent review will result in recommendations for taking concrete actions to a) improve the learning and working environment in the School of Law and b) ensure School of Law students, faculty, and staff have clear and unfettered access to the University’s centralized support, resources, and reporting processes.

“Despite these efforts, concerns and unresolved issues remain and warrant immediate attention,” Kuntz said. “Therefore, the School of Law administration will engage the School of Law faculty in identifying an independent outside reviewer to extensively assess the School of Law’s learning and working environment, including the way the school supports students and enables their access to University resources.”

Holland said an apology from the administration to students would be just the start. She also said the law school needs leaders who understand the gravity of sexual and domestic violence on people and the way it affects their lives. She said she fears students will be affected academically and even drop out, as some first year students have said they are considering.

Additionally, Holland said the school needs administrators who will properly report incidents to Title IX and refer students to the office: “Alicia and Hilly are amazing. They’re good people. They’re there to help,” she said of Title IX director Alicia Arant and investigator Hilly McGahan.

In his letter, Kirgis said he is “committed to making positive change to ensure a safe learning environment for all students.” He also directed students who need resources to the resource guide, the Title IX office, or the Student Advocacy Resource Center.

“Please know I am taking this opportunity to devise ways to better promote a healthy and inclusive learning and working environment for all; I am also working with campus partners to learn how I can better serve you all as future lawyers and legal educators,” Kirgis said in the letter.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.