UM: Computer Science faculty member put on leave

By: - October 12, 2021 10:30 am

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A University of Montana Computer Science faculty member who had posted disparaging remarks about women, LGBTQ+ people and Muslims on his blog is on leave pending an investigation, UM said Tuesday.

“That action was made last night,” said UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz in an email. “Mr. (Rob) Smith will no longer be teaching and he will not be physically on campus during his leave.”

Kuntz said Smith’s classes would continue as scheduled with another instructor, and he said the university’s goal would be to make the transition with as little disruption as possible for students in Computer Science.

In a statement released Monday, Smith said he looked forward to a fast resolution of the investigation. Smith had worked at UM since 2014, according to his LinkedIn page.

Rob Smith, University of Montana Computer Science faculty member. (Provided by UM.)

I am disheartened by some of the conclusions that have been expressed about my role at the University of Montana,” Smith wrote. “Any thoughts expressed on my personal blog do not, and have not, been made in my capacity as a faculty member, but have been made as a private citizen, and any such thoughts do not represent the University of Montana.

“I regret any offense caused by my expression of views as a private citizen outside of the workplace. I do not and have never treated students or colleagues differently. I look forward to the expeditious resolution of this situation in a manner consistent with university policies, as well as principles of freedom of expression that I support for all individuals.

Monday, the Montana Kaimin reported that Smith had posted derogatory comments on his blog, “Upward Thought,” and also that the tenured faculty member had started deleting posts after the newspaper began asking questions.

“Your physical attractiveness is your most valuable asset in finding a husband,” the Kaimin quoted Smith as writing to women. “This value peaks from 16-18, fades slowly until 25, then starts fading quickly. Your pool of potential husbands shrinks significantly with every year past 18.”

In a statement the same day, UM President Seth Bodnar said he was disgusted by Smith’s homophobic and misogynistic comments and had directed university officials to take immediate action and investigate.

Tuesday, Betta Lyon Delsordo, a student in Computer Science and Spanish, said she appreciated the swift action from the administration. She said many students were uncomfortable to have to take classes from Smith and also worried they would face retaliation if they boycotted classes.

“I think it’s just a good decision for everyone,” Lyon Delsordo said.

She said she was pleased to know that UM administrators consider the activity unacceptable, and she said faculty in Computer Science have been supportive across the board as well. Lyon Delsordo was part of a group of students who launched a website calling for Smith to be fired and discussing his posts.

The website quoted Smith as saying the following: “The fact is that one cannot both be a peaceful Muslim and a faithful Muslim. In other words, Muslims are only peaceful to the degree that they are not Muslims.”

The site also said Smith’s posts were concerning because he worked with female students: “Most worryingly, he claims multiple times that girls are most sexually attractive at age 16 and that it is a shame that society doesn’t allow older men to marry 16-year-old girls … His comments and behavior make it unacceptable for him to remain a university professor, where he requires young women to visit him alone during his office hours, and so clearly states that he is attracted to teenagers.”

Lyon Delsordo said people should still file complaints if they have had a negative experience with Smith, and she said students will be tracking progress.

“We’ll just be watching the situation and keep the momentum going to spread awareness,” Delsordo said.

If action stalls, and the university isn’t able to make progress, she said students may organize a protest or a walkout, but at this point, she said students are satisfied.

“We’ve just been really impressed with their reaction so far,” Lyon Delsordo said.

As a computer scientist, Lyon Delsordo said she believes technology has the power to change the world, but everyone has to be part of it, and diversity in the field is important. She said sexism exists everywhere, not just in higher education or STEM fields.

“It’s something that women know about, and it’s something we talk about, but we’re not always taken seriously,” she said. “It’s really important to remember that when people bring up issues and warning signs, it’s important to listen to them because you don’t know what’s going on. We really have to make a difference and help make these places where women, and where everyone, feels comfortable.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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