Montana Board of Regents chairwoman: ‘I take these concerns incredibly seriously’
The Montana state Capitol in Helena on Jan. 2, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)
The chairperson of the Montana Board of Regents said Wednesday the board is taking seriously the concerns of students who allege universities are trampling on their constitutional rights.
This week, legislators heard testimony on a bill to amend the constitution to give some power over the public university system to the Montana Legislature.
Students, many from Montana State University, said they wanted more oversight by lawmakers because the “apathetic” Board of Regents wasn’t looking out for their rights, such as their freedom to express conservative views.
The Montana Constitution places full authority to supervise the Montana University System in the hands of the Board of Regents, whose members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
Wednesday at a meeting of the Board of Regents, Chairperson Brianne Rogers said board members have heard the concerns of students about their rights and their fears of repercussions in speaking their minds.
“As chair of this body and as a member of the board that is responsible for the management of the university system, I take these concerns incredibly seriously, as do all of my fellow regents,” Rogers said.
In remarks following a legislative policy update to the board, Rogers encouraged students who have concerns to directly contact their university administrators or the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.
The topic of free speech and diversity of opinion has garnered significant attention nationally, and Rogers said the Montana University System unequivocally values the liberties of students.
“I can confidently and without hesitation say that our Montana University System campuses respect the rights of all individuals to express themselves freely,” Rogers said.
Rogers said public campuses are not only obligated to uphold the First Amendment under the law, they value freedom of speech and expression on campus because it fosters a critical learning environment. She said protecting students’ rights will be a continued priority.
“That doesn’t mean there won’t be friction sometimes,” Rogers said.
If passed by two thirds of the legislature, House Bill 517 would ask voters to amend the constitution to give the legislature authority over campuses. At the bill hearing, Rep. Greg Kmetz, R-Miles City, talked about a letter from a student who was displeased about campus oversight.
Kmetz said the student reported getting straight A’s until she wrote a paper that explained the reason President Donald Trump was elected in rural America. Then, she flunked, Kmetz said.
“Is the Board of Regents providing adequate supervision for you as a student?” Kmetz asked; the author of the letter did not appear to be in attendance, and he posed the question to another student who had raised concerns about MSU.
The student, who alleged MSU has a rape problem, in particular around Halloween last year, said it was difficult to know where to report issues on campus.
In an email, MSU said it investigates all reports of sexual misconduct, and when appropriate, issues timely warnings to students. An MSU police log showed officers investigated two rape reports that weekend; it closed both cases and referred one externally.
MSU issued a warning to students after Halloween noting the reports of sexual violence and misconduct at fraternity parties. The email also asked for additional information about the incidents.
At the hearing on the bill, Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner of higher education, said he found student testimony concerning. However, he said he had not read the letter from the student who said she’d been punished for writing the paper about Trump.
Generally, McRae said all campuses have a grade appeal process, and they also have processes by which students may report allegations of violations of other rights: “There are processes in place that allow students to challenge those situations.”
At the meeting, at least one student from MSU said people on campus have no way to protect themselves with firearms. He pointed to the Board of Regents as being to blame.
The regents successfully challenged a bill from the 2021 session that expanded places people can carry concealed firearms without a permit. The Montana Supreme Court found the regents have authority to make decisions about firearms on campuses, contrary to House Bill 102.
FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, spoke in favor of the bill to amend the constitution. FIRE has a mission to defend students’ rights to free speech and expression on campuses, and it rates both MSU and the University of Montana as having at least one policy FIRE considers overly restrictive.
During the legislative update at the regents meeting, Helen Thigpen, deputy commissioner for government relations and public affairs, said free speech is a topic that has come up repeatedly this session.
Thigpen said the Commissioner’s Office is talking about ways it might provide resources on topics related to free speech and become a “library hub” for campuses.
The Commissioner’s Office also is discussing a systemwide, high-level review of all campus free-speech policies and ways it can provide more consistent training to its colleges and universities, Thigpen said.
“Certainly, I think there’s some refinement that will need to be made to the goals,” Thigpen said.
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