Commentary

The elephants that remain in Missoula

The changes at Montana’s only law school may raise more questions than they answer

October 11, 2021 4:48 am

A piece of art titled “Survivor” by Stephanie Frostad inside the law school building. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

It sounds like some kind of zoo convention – or maybe the beginning of a joke: Three elephants and a grizzly bear … .

But that’s what we have after Daily Montanan Deputy Editor Keila Szpaller first reported concerns about the administration at the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana, whose top two administrators had reportedly discouraged students from filing claims of sexual assault and harassment with the Title IX Office.

The aftermath of the situation will involve the University of Montana grizzly faithful and huge, hard-to-ignore questions about the path forward.

Szpaller’s reporting helped spur a walk-out, letters of support for the victims, a call for replacing administrators, and ultimately the soon-to-be departures of Dean Paul Kirgis and Associate Dean Sally Weaver from leadership.

In their wake, new leaders will eventually be found, and, if Kirgis was correct, an independent evaluation of the culture of the law school will be conducted. In many important ways, the students were vindicated, and the law school and the university are much better for it.

And, that’s all folks, right?

Not so quickly, though. About those three elephants, the ones still remaining in the room even after our story broke.

It would be nice to think that these events, culminating with the change in law school administration, wrapped up a couple of weeks worth of university news for the grizzly community. But by my count, there’s still some unfinished business.

Though University of Montana President Seth Bodnar issued a perfunctory statement of thanks about Kirgis’ leadership in Missoula, what the leader of the university has thought about this or how he’s responding to students still remains a mystery. For a man who pledged to be an open communicator, Bodnar has been remarkably silent about this issue and several other higher profile cases, including the class-action type that recently alleged a toxic culture of harassment and intimidation at the university.

There must be a temptation to assume that since the concerns have been brought out into the open at the law school, and a leadership change has taken place there, that the entire situation will poof – disappear. But ultimately the leadership and culture of the entire campus are something that the administration must own, and without hearing from the leadership, I question what meaningful change will take place beyond Kirgis and Weaver exiting.

Meanwhile, two higher education authorities have said virtually nothing about the concerns at the University of Montana. Montana University System Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian has also been conspicuously absent, as have his bosses, the Board of Regents. A lawsuit alleging a toxic culture for employees plus administrators who may have been steering sexual misconduct cases away from reporting would seem cause enough to pledge some kind of action at the highest levels to reassure Montana taxpayers that Missoula hasn’t become some type of cesspool of bad behavior.

Silence will have to do for now, although they risk a sort of tacit endorsement of the status quo by it.

This series of reports also concerns a mayoral candidate who has not only denied the allegations of sexual assault but claims an outside investigation “exonerated” him. Jacob Elder remains a student at the law school and a candidate for election. And, the issues that have presented themselves aren’t necessarily put to rest by those same issues becoming public. In other words, publicity has happened, but the hard work of putting the pieces back together is still ongoing.

Finally, as much as the university would like to see a quick resolution and an even faster disappearance of this situation from the public eye, Montanans are unlikely to dismiss it so quickly. Less than a decade ago, the University of Montana was pushed into a bright and uncomfortable spotlight for its lax culture of protecting women, and how the university was operating.

The cases and the incidents became so notorious that best-selling author Jon Krakauer made “Missoula” a poster child for universities that cover up sexual assault and trauma to protect their reputation. The university also had to broker a deal with the federal government, pledging reform and change to its system in order to keep federal dollars flowing to it.

It’s impossible to see what has happened at the law school as either isolated or only in context of the most recent lawsuit. Instead it raises the questions: Did Missoula really change? Has it lived up to its obligations put on it through a consent decree with the federal government? And, how would the public know, especially in light of such resounding silence from the leaders who would be in the best position to speak?

That they’ve remained silent throughout probably says more than any words they could put out through a spokesperson.

If we’re not seeing history repeat itself, would someone kindly speak up and tell me why?

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.

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