Prominent lawyer, former faculty, had raised leadership questions at law school

Maylinn Smith: ‘I am increasingly troubled by the current direction the law school is headed’

By: - October 4, 2021 8:47 pm

UM provost announces interim leadership at the Alexander Blewett III School of Law. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

A prominent Montana lawyer and former longtime faculty member at the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana had raised concerns about its leadership in 2019 in a pointed six-page letter declining an offer to stay on board.

Maylinn Smith, then co-director of the Margery Hunter Brown Indian Law Clinic, told Dean Paul Kirgis in the Feb. 2019 letter she planned to depart given his administration’s lack of support for Indian law and clinical programs, inability to harness the strengths of the school, and lack of vision for progressive programs.

“I am … troubled by the current direction the law school is headed,” Smith wrote. “Supporting an administration that vigorously advocates and promotes diversity and excellence in connection with the law school’s mission statement and strategic plan, thereby strengthening the unique educational experiences in this law school, would be an endeavor for which I might stay.”

In the letter, Smith noted she left a tenure track position at the law school six years earlier after working there since 1994, but she had agreed to stay to teach in the Indian law program. Failed searches meant she was again asked to stay “to maintain the quality of the Indian law program.”

“I have always loved working with the students, found working with the tribes rewarding, and enjoyed working with my very talented, amazingly smart and dedicated colleagues,” Smith wrote. “With the right leadership, this law school could be a progressive and innovative institution.”

Smith, currently chair of the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission, declined to comment for this story. The Daily Montanan obtained Smith’s letter following news that students planned a walkout Tuesday after hearing, among other problems, that Kirgis and associate dean of students Sally Weaver ignored reports of a sexual predator and mishandled sexual assault allegations.

One week ago, the Daily Montanan published a story that said Kirgis and Weaver both discouraged students from taking sexual assault and harassment allegations to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX, which handles such complaints on campus. Kirgis and Weaver have both denied interfering with students’ reports.

In advance of the walkout, “concerned students” sent a letter Thursday to administrators asking them to take seriously their complaints, including sexual violence. Kirgis responded in an email Friday to the Blewett School of Law community where he said media reports made him realize shortcomings, and he apologized that especially female students did not feel they could safely raise issues at the law school.

The response from the dean prompted sharp reactions from current and former students. Jennifer Robichaud, a third-year student who has appealed a retaliation complaint against both Kirgis and Weaver, said in a Facebook post that she was calling “bulls—” on the dean’s response. Kirgis started working at UM in 2015.

“Oh, the *media reports* made him realize!” Robichaud wrote. “The multiple women reporting this to him again and again over the last year and a half didn’t quite do it for him.

“He was still unclear after an 11-month Title IX investigation. The dean wants to pretend he didn’t elevate the student at the center of the allegations to the detriment of the survivors. He wants to pretend he didn’t know. I call bulls—. He’s caught and this is damage control.”

In spring 2020, Robichaud told Kirgis a friend had been sexually assaulted by a fellow law school student; the dean told her he would take the matter to Title IX, but the Title IX director later informed Robichaud that Kirgis never stated “sexual assault” when talking about the incident, Robichaud earlier told the Daily Montanan. Kirgis said he passed on the incident to the best of his “understanding and recollection.” The Title IX director earlier declined to comment through a university spokesperson, citing the complaint is part of an open investigation.

The complaint Robichaud filed is part of a series of complaints UM hired a private firm to investigate in July 2020. Roughly one month ago, students started planning a walkout in part to show support to students, staff and faculty who are survivors of sexual assault.

Last week, the Daily Montanan published a series of stories about the allegations and ensuing investigation that took roughly 11 months, and since then, at least a couple of national law publications also have posted stories, including Above the Law last week and Monday, the ABA Journal of the American Bar Association.

“He could have acted many, many times over the last year and a half,” Robichaud said of Kirgis in her post. “He did not. Instead, he denied the culture of silencing and retaliation. Now that these issues have gained national attention, he wants to paint himself as a champion of women and survivors? I am disgusted.

“The thing is, I’ve heard these pretty words before. And yet, here we are.”

Another woman who had taken a sexual assault allegation to Weaver said she became “furious” at reading Kirgis’ response to the letter of concern. She earlier told the Daily Montanan the associate dean informed her a report to the Title IX office would not be necessary. Weaver denied she ever deterred a student from going to Title IX.

“I personally paid close to $100,000 to go to a school where I was sexually assaulted and then bullied and threatened when I attempted to report what I saw as a violent threat to myself and all of my female classmates,” said the woman; the Daily Montanan does not identify survivors of sexual assault without their consent and has not identified women who came forward with allegations for these stories. “As I read the email, I became furious. I will end up paying over $100,000 including interest for a sub-par education and a lifetime of trauma. Yet the school is willing to pay ANOTHER independent organization to help them clean up their ways. In reality, us survivors can tell them how to improve for free.

“All the law school needs is a few leaders with an average moral compass and the willingness to use some degree of common sense. Simply put, a moral compass and common sense would have led them to realize 1) it is statistically nearly impossible so many women accused the same man out of pure spite when false sexual assault allegations are rare, and 2) it is more important to follow protocol than blame victims.

“I personally feel money would be better spent paying for victims like me to not have the financial burden of paying for my ride through hell. Yet the law school is going to pay for another biased opinion to tell them they were morally bankrupt and lacked common sense.”

The issues Smith brought forward in her 2019 letter declining the offer from Kirgis are separate from the ones students are bringing to light. However, Smith, students and recent alumna all raised serious leadership questions of the law school, and students in particular have said administrators are ruining the reputation of students and faculty of the law school.

In her letter, Smith noted insufficient funding for Indian law and clinical programs, ignoring of the law school’s strategic plan, bypassing opportunities to contribute to social justice reform “on a broad scale,” and a lack of willingness to meaningfully collaborate with Salish Kootenai College in creating law school classes.

“An administration capable of demonstrating support for faculty, students and educational programs through innovation, transparency, robust fundraising, and a meaningful collaborative decision-making process, which appreciates the faculty-governance structure, benefits the law school and the university,” Smith wrote. “This in turn creates a supportive work environment. Unfortunately, I have not experienced this type of leadership for several years now.”

Kirgis PDF

In an email, Kirgis said he had discussed continued employment with Smith. He said he increased the offer Smith had declined from $70,000 to $90,000, but he did not receive a response. He provided a PDF document with a series of emails between him and Smith, with the final email formatted differently. In response to a question about the PDF, Kirgis sent what he described as the “native email chain.”

Smith declined an interview with the Daily Montanan. Her letter said Kirgis had described his offer of $70,000 as “generous,” and she said in the letter she asserted no confidentiality over its contents.

In the letter, Smith said she was passionate about work that benefits Indian people and Indian Country, and she wanted to address diversity, bias and social justice and be of service to tribes and Indian people. She said she had wanted to do that work at UM.

“Unfortunately, my hopes of using this passion for developing innovative clinical and Indian law programs at the law school for the benefit of students, Tribes and the community as a whole have been met with a general lack of support or even interest by the administration,” Smith wrote.

In addition to her work with the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission, Smith is a civil prosecutor for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, vice chair of the board of the Montana Innocence Project, and has served as a tribal appellate court justice and lower court judge.

Dean Kirgis letter from Smith

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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.