Law students feel relief at resignations, sadness at experiences of women

‘There’s healing to be done’

By: - October 7, 2021 8:03 pm

Demonstrators protest as they walk toward Main Hall during a walkout at the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

News of resignations by the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana dean and associate dean of students elicited “widespread relief” from many students Thursday, some sadness the situation had to reach a boiling point, but also hope for a fresh start.

“There’s healing to be done,” said Kirsten Gerbatsch, a third-year student. “And there’s also a lot of room for vision and growth, and that’s what I’m looking for in a new dean of the law school.”

Cynthia Ford, a recently retired law school professor, said the change means students can get back to learning and faculty can get back to doing their incredible work. Ford  attended a demonstration Tuesday organized by students to call on the resignations of Dean Paul Kirgis and Associate Dean of Students Sally Weaver.

“Students come to our law school to be part of the justice system, to obtain justice, and they were in a really hard spot,” Ford said. “And they made justice happen. So I wanted to support them as well as all my great former colleagues who are still there. It’s a great law school. And the last few years have been very difficult, but I am confident that we will return better than ever.”

In a letter sent late Wednesday afternoon to UM President Seth Bodnar and Provost Reed Humphrey, Kirgis announced he was stepping down as dean. The resignation was effective immediately; Kirgis remains a tenured faculty member. Thursday morning in an email to the Blewett School of Law community, he said Weaver also would step aside from her position.

The resignations followed reports from students that Kirgis and Weaver deterred them from taking sexual assault allegations including rape to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX, as first reported last week by the Daily Montanan. The administrators denied the allegations, but students also said the leaders had created a toxic culture at the law school and were marring its reputation.

“Today is not a happy day,” said Jennifer Robichaud, a third-year student who filed a complaint against the administrators. “The news that Dean Kirgis and Associate Dean Weaver will step down from their positions brings some sense of accountability and relief, but complex emotions surround this situation. Mostly, I feel sad — sad for all the people, women in particular — who have been harmed as a result of the dean’s and associate dean’s conduct.”

Full remarks from Jennifer Robichaud

Today is not a happy day. The news that Dean Kirgis and Associate Dean Weaver will step down from their positions brings some sense of accountability and relief but complex emotions surround this situation. Mostly, I feel sad – sad for all the people-women in particular-who have been harmed as a result of the Dean’s and Associate Dean’s misconduct. Even if they genuinely believe they did not discourage us from reporting to Title IX, even if they genuinely believe they did not engage in a cover-up, Dean Kirgis and Associate Dean Weaver chose to protect and elevate a particular student in the face of multiple reports of sexual misconduct. I do not pretend to know their individual or collective motivation for doing so. All I know is more women were harmed because they did not believe us; they did not act when they had a duty to act. Champions of women do not shame and blame survivors; they do not threaten them; they do not make them feel like lesser humans who are incapable of remembering the details of their assaults. The condescending language advanced by Associate Dean Weaver in her public statements speaks for itself. There’s a difference between defending yourself and defending yourself at the expense of vulnerable women over whom you have held enormous power. The resignations of the Dean and Associate Dean are a start to healing our school, but the issues go beyond these two leaders. This is systemic-both at the University of Montana and within the legal profession. I represent many people-named and unnamed, known and unknown-who have endured sexual assault, sexual harassment, retaliation, and hostility, people who have been destroyed publicly and privately by coming forward and people who suffer silently by keeping the secret. This is not over. This is not the end. It is the beginning.

Lauren Moose, a third-year student, academic success program student director and teaching assistant said she hopes the law school can take the leadership transition as an opportunity to create an inclusive environment for all students. She said the change could have taken place more quickly given the first story about the problems came out more than one week ago.

“I’m a little amazed that we went a week and a half with — I don’t know — radio silence. But I do look forward to positive change,” Moose said.

She praised the survivors who came forward and described them as courageous, and she said it is “abhorrent” to question the validity of a survivor’s experience. She said she’s looking forward to leadership that will bring meaningful change to the culture the previous administrators brought to the law school.

Sarah Pepe, who left as director of admissions of the law school in December 2019 and saw other female colleagues depart as well, said she never felt more validated than she did in hearing about the dean’s resignation, even though she said it took too long for Kirgis to step down. In an interview prior to the step-down, Pepe said the dean played favorites, and she never received a promised bonus for her work, money she had needed at the time for her son’s ear surgery.

“I would have stayed there forever,” Pepe said through tears. “I loved my job. I loved what I did. I left because of Paul. I left because of Paul. All of us did. … You ran all of us out of there, and now you can sleep in the bed you made.”

In July 2020, UM hired a private firm to investigate multiple complaints out of the law school. At least several allegations stemmed from sexual assault accusations against law student and Missoula mayoral candidate Jacob Elder along with the response from administrators to students who brought them forward.

Elder has repeatedly denied the allegations and said the private investigation “exonerated” him. In a statement to the Missoulian shared Thursday on social media, Elder said he strongly supports Kirgis and the law school. Kirgis and Weaver both have said they never threatened students or warned them against filing formal complaints with the Title IX office.

One student, who told the Daily Montanan she did not report a sexual assault by Elder because she feared retaliation given the experience of her fellow law students, said Thursday she was almost in disbelief that the administrators had resigned. She said she had not dared to hope for such an outcome.

“But with how much coverage and support we’ve gotten, I’m ecstatic, and I feel like the law school will finally feel like a comfortable place for every student to be able to receive their education and do so in a supportive environment without all of the negativity and pressure that Deans Kirgis and Weaver put on students. And I’m really excited and hopeful for the future. This is just the beginning.”

She said faculty had stepped up during the turmoil to lend a shoulder and listen, both on the clock and after hours: “They consistently stepped up where the administration hadn’t. And it’s been really a big relief that there were these people within the law school community willing to help and ready to fight for us.”

She also said she was proud of the third-year law school class and thankful to be part of it. She said the students had not backed down and were not scared to advocate for people who needed it.

“That is just a little insight into what I think our future in our legal careers will be,” the woman said.

She also called for an apology from Weaver: “Regardless of whether she accepts responsibility or even a lick of accountability, I’d really like to see her apologize for her actions having such a severe impact on so many students’ legal education.”

Another woman who had taken a sexual assault complaint to Weaver on behalf of her friend also said Thursday in a text that all she ever wanted was an apology from the associate dean of students for putting her in “an extremely inappropriate situation.”

She filed one of the retaliation complaints the private firm investigated. UM earlier said investigations cleared both Kirgis and Weaver. Students have said the private firm botched the investigation. One retaliation complaint remains under appeal at UM.

“Sally’s threats made me feel like I would be personally responsible for ruining my best friend’s dreams of being a lawyer,” the woman wrote in a text. “If I didn’t convince her to drop the sexual assault allegation, Sally informed me she would report us to the character and fitness committee. I felt like I had no other choice than to convince my friend to let this go. So I did. My friend had trusted me and when I convinced her to drop this, I made her feel like I didn’t support and believe her. My friend felt alone because of me. To this day, I felt deep guilt and shame for my actions. I wanted Sally to acknowledge her role in that and to apologize. Before this happened, Sally was my role model and I trusted her. Sally completely betrayed me and shattered my sense of justice.”

The woman said she had wanted an assurance that no student would be threatened again: “All I asked for was an apology and a promise from them that they would never threaten another student again. They refused to do that, and now it’s cost them their jobs.”

Annie Holland, a second-year law student who was one of the organizers of the demonstration held in part to show support for survivors of sexual violence, said early Thursday she was still processing the resignations. She said the right thing had happened for the law school, but she wasn’t in a celebratory mood.

“I’m happy, but it’s also just sad,” Holland said. “It’s a somber moment too. For me personally, the work that we’ve put in has achieved a right step in change. But it also is sad that it’s taken up to this point to get here and that people have had to put their names on the line and go out on a limb to get positive change.”

She said it was time to turn the page: “We’re tired. People aren’t getting their school work done. People are exhausted. People are confused. It’s just time to get back on track and get people back on track and have people be able to flourish in this environment.”

Going forward, she said she would like to see a dean who is trauma informed, who has an understanding of how harassment, sexual assault and discrimination affect a person’s entire life and their approach to law school and how they learn. She’d like someone who can “create a new environment where people are able to thrive.”

Gerbatsch, the student who said healing still needs to take place, said the faculty and staff at the law school are “exceptional,” and she said they too deserve the best leadership from a dean. Students already are talking about what they would like to see in a new dean as well as the hiring process. She said some students are concerned about culpability and lack of accountability by administrators a levels higher than the law school and want to be sure a new dean will be accountable to students.

“I’m looking for someone who is a leader in the community, who is bold, who is interested in pursuing the law with progressive values, and who knows the worth of Montana students, truly,” Gerbatsch said. “I don’t think Dean Kirgis valued the students who came to the University of Montana law school who had a bigger vision for their careers because those of us who stood up to him fall in that category. I know I’m not alone in saying that. Faculty have also have been severely disappointed that the dean does not encourage bigger aspirations, encourage challenging the status quo. And I don’t just mean knocking on the doors of the establishment and the dean’s suite. I think this institution, the only law school in Montana, has so much to offer.”

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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.