UM professor: Discrimination allegation deemed ‘non-workplace issue’
Complainant: ‘He is unfit to be a leader’
The grizzly bear statue in front of Main Hall on the University of Montana campus. (Provided by the University of Montana.)
A University of Montana professor said this week he completed a sensitivity training course to learn how to combat discrimination in response to questions about communication in which he used the “n” word — in messages intended to be private.
“I learned a lot,” said Clayton Looney, the Poe Family Distinguished Faculty Fellow in the UM College of Business. “It helped me move closer to my full potential as a human being and has put an end to the subject.”
This week, Looney said he was cleared after a review last semester by the UM Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX, which handles discrimination complaints on campus. He also said the only two people who ever complained had never met him.
“In 15 years of service, no other student complaints have been filed against me,” Looney, who is white, said in an email. “I am a distinguished faculty fellow with an impeccable track record. Following the Title IX process, it was determined to be a non-workplace issue and the matter dismissed.”
Former UM student Ajaysia Hill said she sent screenshots of the messages she saw on Facebook last semester to UM President Seth Bodnar, who turned them over to the Title IX Office. In the screenshots, Looney uses the “n” word, jokes about Muslims wearing “towel wraps,” and writes that he hopes a child grows up to be Black but not “too Black … like those Ethiopians.”
Hill provided the messages to the Daily Montanan on the heels of a separate unrelated discrimination dispute this semester with former UM associate professor Rob Smith. Smith resigned last week after the Montana Kaimin reported he ran a blog where he posted derogatory content about women, Muslims and LGBTQ+ people. UM launched an investigation, which Smith described as biased upon his resignation.
Hill, who has not taken classes with Looney, said she was not informed of the outcome of any investigation. However, she said she was concerned that Looney remained on faculty given UM’s stated support for inclusion, and she said she does not believe diversity training can scrub the racism in the messages.
“The messages that he sent talking about East Africans and Muslims is more than enough proof that he is unfit to be a leader of any sort, especially a leader of education,” Hill said. “That’s what really bothered me the most.”
Hill, who is Black, said she hopes to return to UM in the future, but she is not comfortable with the way the campus has handled recent allegations of racism and sexual assault. She said her departure from UM was not related to her complaint against Looney.
Although the public posts from Smith and private messages from Looney have come to light in quick succession this semester, Wilena Old Person, staff co-chair of the Diversity Advisory Council at UM, said she believes they are not representative of the campus as a whole. Rather, she said the flagship is actually making strides in its support of diversity.
“I do think these are isolated events, and I do know that UM can always do better,” said Old Person, who is Yakama/Blackfeet and on the council since 2013. “I’ve felt like we have made leaps and bounds within the last two years on moving the needle forward when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion.”
In an email, Looney said the text messages in question were between him and his ex-wife, who is an African-American woman, and she posted them on Facebook when she was upset during a child custody dispute. He said the texts were not intended to be public and have been taken out of context.
“I suspect it is blatantly obvious to my children, my students, my colleagues, and anyone who has bothered to invest more than 50 milliseconds to get to know me, how absurd and utterly preposterous these allegations are about me,” Looney wrote. “They are not representative of who I am and are diametrically opposed to what I profess. People close to the situation see it for what it truly is — a leak that occurred as the result of an emotionally-charged moment that didn’t go my ex-wife’s way.”
Looney’s ex-wife declined to comment for this story.
Looney did not directly explain the reason he was using the “n” word or share the context he said was missing from the screenshots, and he did not discuss details of the training he took. A court filing with a certificate issued in April 2021 notes he completed a “sensitivity training in the workplace” course.
One month earlier, after the texts became public, Hill and at least one other student took them to UM. In a video clip that was also made available to UM and obtained by the Daily Montanan, Looney calls his toddler “goofball,” and then “n-, n-”. According to the screenshot of an email provided to the Daily Montanan by Hill, Bodnar said he confirmed the Title IX office was aware of the situation, and he planned to follow up with the College of Business dean.
“Thank you for bringing this concerning content to my attention,” Bodnar wrote to Hill. “As you note, UM is committed to building an inclusive, welcoming environment for all, and the content that you forwarded in your email is clearly in conflict with our values.”
Hill said she believes Looney should be fired, and she said unlike the professor, the other person in the text message thread is Black and not in authority at a public institution. Hill made the complaint to UM after she saw the messages on Facebook.
“This is a white man who is teaching at a university,” Hill said. “The other person in that message does not have a leadership position at the University of Montana.”
She said UM preaches diversity and inclusion, but now, she wonders if the professor has been biased in his grading or in the way he has treated students of color: “That kind of racism does not just go away with diversity training. He is old enough to know right from wrong, and that kind of behavior directly goes against the school’s mission statement. For them to keep him as a professor goes to show they’re OK accepting this kind of behavior.”
In an email, Dean Suzanne Tilleman said Looney had performed his duties at UM, and she vouched for the values at the College of Business and the campus. She said Looney had been on the faculty since 2006.
“In those 15 years, Professor Looney has successfully fulfilled his teaching, research, and service duties,” Tilleman wrote in an email. “Although I am limited on revealing details about student concern processes, I assure you, we take concerns very seriously and advocate for students and their success. Creating a culture of inclusion and respect is fundamental to the mission of the College of Business and University of Montana.”
In his email, Looney praised the Title IX Office and encouraged people to continue to report allegations of discrimination.
“Our ability to root out discrimination and to reach a shared understanding of the truth depends on our commitment to report incidents through the proper channels, to initiate, follow, and trust proven processes, to hold our public officials accountable, and to play our roles as part of a collaborative team that’s laser-focused on discovering the truth. That is precisely what happened here,” he wrote.
He also said the record should be clear about his love for his daughters and appreciation for the role his ex-wife plays in their lives: “I love my daughters with every fiber of my being. They fill my heart with so much joy. I have, and will not hesitate to, put my own life at risk in order to preserve theirs. They are the most precious things in the world to me.”
Old Person, with the Diversity Advisory Council, said she believes the recent incidents are part of the mix on campus and just coming to light, and there will always be, for instance, those on campus who won’t use a student’s chosen pronoun.
But she said she has seen much progress in the areas of diversity, equality and inclusion at UM, and she praised Bodnar and his staff in particular. For example, she said UM had a diversity plan in the past, but no one followed it; after the recent unveiling of a new plan, she said Bodnar made it clear he would be holding people accountable.
Old Person, who is also active in leadership roles in the wider Missoula community, said she has noticed that people in the community like to think they’re liberal and open, and they sometimes get defensive to hear they might have blindspots. She said the same is true on campus.
“I think because I’m a staff of color, I’m able to point out that there is racism, there is systemic racism, in this institution, and not everybody likes to hear that,” Old Person said.
She said she believes most of the racism on campus manifests in the lack of equal access to opportunities, and the DEI plan aims to address those shortcomings.
“I think we are moving forward. It is taking time,’’ Old Person said. “But we’re a lot further than a lot of other institutions in our state.”
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