Fall morning light shines upon Main Hall at UM. (Provided by the University of Montana)
Pressure is mounting on a University of Montana professor to resign his position in the College of Business after he made racist remarks and used the “n” word in private communications.
A protest calling on Poe Family Distinguished Faculty Fellow Clayton Looney to resign is planned for Thursday following a vote — twice this month — by the Associated Students of the University of Montana on a resolution that calls for his resignation. The resolution also reiterates UM’s commitment to “inclusive excellence” and calls on the Missoula flagship to examine the faculty union contract to ensure it aligns with “Montana’s constitutional guarantees to an equitable education.”
Looney did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment, but he and the College of Business dean have defended him in the past. Looney earlier told the Daily Montanan that text messages that showed him using the “n” word and joking about Muslims wearing “towel wraps,” among other racist comments, were taken out of context.
The resolution itself pushes back against his explanation: “Blatant displays of racism do not need context in order to reflect a propensity to espouse derogatory, hateful statements against protected groups.”
Sen. Lauren O’Neill, one of the authors of the resolution, said she hopes the issue doesn’t lose traction on campus. O’Neill spoke both publicly and with the Daily Montanan, and she said Looney showed he was comfortable using racial slurs and Islamophobic language and was unapologetic about it.
“It is truly a lifetime of unlearning internalized racism to somebody like Clayton Looney, who clearly has no regard for the safety or well-being of the students that he teaches,” O’Neill said at an ASUM meeting. “And I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask for consequences of his own volition.”
ASUM voted 19-1 on Sunday in favor of the resolution in a procedural redo of an emergency meeting the previous week with the same outcome. Sen. Joselyn Jolly, the only senator who opposed the resolution, described the “no” vote as one to protect free speech and not one in defense of the professor, a “flawed character,” she said.
“I’m voting to protect freedom of speech for the same students that came to public comment,” Jolly said.
Last week, the Montana Kaimin reported that roughly 30 students showed up to demonstrate against Looney prior to the meeting, and at least one sign said, “Fire Clayton Looney.” The Sunday meeting followed the Wednesday attempt to pass the measure.
However, following the Wednesday meeting, ASUM President Noah Durnell noted the body’s bylaws require public notice, and the Montana Constitution requires an opportunity for public participation, so the resolution taken up at the emergency meeting was revisited — this time with notice. Sunday, at least a couple of senators said they were happy to support it — once again and as needed.
“I’m happy to pass this resolution as many times as we have to,” said Sen. Tor Gudmundsson. “I think it’s important we stand up with our peers and our fellow students and say people like this have no place on our campus.”
Former UM student Ajaysia Hill has been persistent in bringing public attention to the matter to drive action by the campus. She earlier told the Daily Montanan she does not believe a person who makes the statements he made should be a faculty member on campus.
“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 earlier. “That’s what really bothered me the most.”
Last spring, Hill took copies of communications to UM President Seth Bodnar, who turned the matter over to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX. A UM investigation deemed the communication a “non-workplace issue.”
In the fall, Hill shared the communications by Looney for a story with the Daily Montana, and this year, she took the material to a TikTok influencer who posts about racism and picked up the story. Hill, who has objected to UM’s finding the racist comments are not a workplace issue, also approached ASUM.
In an interview with the Daily Montanan, O’Neill said Hill, who is Black, called on the white women who were elected to represent their peers to take action. O’Neill said she’d already started to see the issue discussed on social media, and Hill’s argument that female senators should wield their influence resonated.
“Ajaysia called on the white women in the room to look around and notice the fact that white women have a lot of power, and to use that power to impact our communities in an equitable way and really leverage our voices to move the needle towards equity,” O’Neill said.
The Kaimin, the campus newspaper, reported that Hill also said she believes President Bodnar’s public statements such as those in support of Martin Luther King are hypocritical without corresponding action: “You can’t uphold his legacy if you’re allowing this kind of behavior on campus.”
The president did not directly respond to a request for comment made to UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz. However, Kuntz denounced the comments made by the professor.
“The racist words used by a university employee are reprehensible,” Kuntz said in an email. “We support our students in using their voices to express their concerns. As a state agency, while we cannot take employment action based on these specific, private comments that were made to a family member, we can and will continue to collaborate with UM students and employees to address and work to eradicate racism in all its forms.”
The resolution lists its authors as Senators O’Neill, Jorgia Hawthorne, Margaret Bell, and Emma Kiefer, along with former student Hill. It notes ASUM has already condemned “blatantly racist and generally abhorrent faculty statements,” referring to sexist statements made by former computer science faculty member Rob Smith who resigned in the fall and whose comments earned a public rebuke from Bodnar.
In addition to calling for Looney’s “immediate resignation,” the resolution discourages students from enrolling in his elective courses, encourages students to consult with the Title IX office regarding their experiences with the professor, and calls for the examination of the faculty union contract to ensure it protects equal access to education and consider revising policies related to employment and discrimination.
Monday, ASUM delivered the resolution to the administration, Durnell said. The document called for distribution to others including Looney, the interim provost, Dean of the College of Business Suzanne Tilleman, Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian, and other higher education officials.
At the Sunday meeting, Durnell said he also was willing to help plan a protest and put ASUM resources toward it. He noted the resolution is a stepping stone to other action, such as encouraging students of color to run for ASUM, a largely white group; review of the University Faculty Association’s contract; and holding student listening sessions with groups such as the Faculty Senate.
“I want them to hear exactly what we’re hearing, which is a lot of pain and suffering from the student body,” Durnell said at the Sunday meeting.
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