Students, faculty say politics, money influence MSU’s response to anything controversial

By: - October 27, 2023 11:49 am

Chris Shaffer learned of the death threat to the Queer Straight Alliance while doing homework in a Montana State University dorm.

The club that supports LGTBQ+ students issued a warning on a social messaging platform. MSU did not issue a warning.

Shaffer was doing homework, but their friends were headed to the Feb. 16 party, and the threat said everyone who attended would be killed.

“I texted my mom and then got under my blankets and cried,” said Shaffer, who since transferred.

Shaffer filed one of 20 complaints against MSU that led to a federal probe into discrimination at Montana’s largest public university.

In an Oct. 5 letter, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights told MSU it is investigating discrimination allegations based on sex, race, color and national origin.

Montana State University is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights for discrimination. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

MSU Vice President for Communications Tracy Ellig said the university has provided significant support to students.

In an email, he said administrators had no idea until a Board of Regents meeting in March that some students considered the university’s response to the threats inadequate.

“No concerns had been conveyed to upper administration prior to this despite the many individual staff who had been working directly with students to provide support,” Ellig said in an email.

During the previous three months, the Daily Montanan talked with more than a dozen current and former students and faculty in the wake of the death threat the Queer Straight Alliance received last semester.

(Some faculty declined to comment on the record, citing fear of retaliation. Some redirected questions to Ellig. One faculty member said tenure doesn’t necessarily protect them; faculty still need approval for sabbaticals, emeritus status, and other professional advancements.)

In interviews, students and some faculty describe an administration that is reticent to directly address topics that might be construed as politically sensitive or controversial, including diversity and climate change, lest they upset the state’s conservative political establishment.

They also describe a campus awash in misinformation, in part due to actions, or inactions, of the university’s top leaders.

Robert Maher, faculty member in electrical and computer engineering, said university leaders are aware that legislators in other states have overstepped their authority in trying to direct universities on issues such as diversity. A bill to prohibit state staff from being required to take diversity, equity and inclusion training failed to pass in Montana during the last legislative session.

In Bozeman, Maher said some faculty feel the MSU administration does not want negative attention that could affect its funding or result in political fallout. Maher spoke with the Daily Montanan prior to news of the federal investigation.

“There’s a sense that the climate on campus is that we should probably not stick our necks out that way because of the potential for negative publicity, especially when the legislature is in session,” Maher said, and it was in session last semester.

MSU, campus of superlatives

By many measures, MSU is a powerhouse institution — enrollment at an all-time high despite slumps around the country, a record $230 million in research spending in the most recent fiscal year, and a healthy graduation rate.

The Bozeman flagship recently touted its status as the largest university in the four-state region of Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas.

Data from the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

MSU President Waded Cruzado also appears to be the highest paid public employee in Montana, taking home $503,304 a year in salary and retention, plus another $56,000 in deferred compensation. By comparison, Gov. Greg Gianforte earns $124,821 from the state.

Cruzado, who has served in the role for 13 years, more than twice the average tenure of a university president, is herself a minority president, a female and native Puerto Rican.

Montana is an overwhelmingly white state. Native Americans make up the largest minority in the state and on campus — 4.5% at MSU — but as evidence of MSU’s support for students, Ellig points to another high mark — record increases in minority enrollment this year.

One faculty member, however, said growth in enrollment, and ensuing increases in diversity in the student population, haven’t always been met with commensurate resources for supporting diversity, although she’s also seen improvements.

“The offices on campus who are charged with doing diversity programming, outreach and the hard work of culture change have struggled with the resources they have to do that work,” said Sara Rushing, a faculty member in political science, in an interview.

“I know some additional support has been added, and that’s excellent. Still, the students I’m talking to have said that what they need is a consistent person to guide them to the resources and support them through the navigation.”

MSU spokesperson Michael Becker forwarded questions and a request for an interview with Cruzado to Ellig.

Montana State University President Waded Cruzado. (Provided by MSU)

Ellig, the vice president, subsequently said he would be the Daily Montanan’s contact for questions about diversity and civil rights complaints. He provided answers to some questions, but he did not respond to multiple requests for an interview with the president.

In interviews, even some faculty who question the administration express regard for Cruzado.

“I admire President Cruzado a lot,” Maher said. “She has led this campus through lots of issues, both large and small. I believe in this particular instance (addressing the threats last semester), she received advice from others in the campus administration that I think was not good advice.”

Professor Greg Gilpin said he doesn’t buy the idea Cruzado tiptoes around political sensitivities. Gilpin said that narrative doesn’t reflect her “tenacious” personality, and she doesn’t need to kowtow, given her record of turning around MSU.

“What she has achieved is so great,” said Gilpin, in economics and agricultural economics. “I know there are a tremendous number of colleges that would take her.”

Gilpin also said Cruzado isn’t afraid to stand up for MSU and advocate for the university to the Board of Regents, which governs the Montana University System. Plus, he said administrators are cut from the same cloth as faculty, professionals who want to make society a better place.

“It’s not like they were plucked from the ether,” Gilpin said. “These are individuals who have the same ideals.”

At the same time, he said they want to keep their jobs. Another factor in the events last semester, he said, is college students in general are ready for action.

“Campuses are always, in some ways, a tinderbox,” Gilpin said.

‘Soft authoritarianism’

But faculty and students who talked to the Daily Montanan offered examples of times they believe politics interfered with their work on campus.

Paul Lachapelle worked for MSU Extension for 13 years, lecturing to citizens across the state, he said. In October 2019, he spoke to Yellowstone Public Radio about the office’s climate work and said he still encountered resistance to it from some colleagues.

The story ran Oct. 14. The following day, Oct. 15, Lachapelle received a letter from the Extension director saying Lachapelle would no longer serve in a leadership position, effective the same day, although his salary and contract would be unaffected.

The letter said a Board of Regents policy governed the action: “Administrative positions serve at the discretion of the President of the University and can be removed at any time.”

MSU faculty member Paul Lachapelle said the university administration bows to political pressure. (Provided by MSU)

The following March, he said, he was fired from Extension for no cause, to be dismissed that August.

Lachapelle said he asked why and was told, “quote unquote, ‘a decision had been made.’” Lachapelle said he believes senior administrators at MSU had to approve the change because funding for his salary shifted from Extension to the college.

He said he considered legal action, but administrators were smart enough to not directly tie the dismissal to his work on climate or his work to organize an event supporting LGBTQ+ students through Extension.

Lachapelle likes working with students, he said, but the change means he’s talking to one classroom versus the entire state of Montana.

“It’s these little things that happen, and it sends the message that you’re not to mess with the administration,” Lachapelle said. “The overwhelming sentiment from my perception on campus is that faculty don’t go crosswise with the administration.

“And I saw that with the climate action work that I had been involved in.”

Ellig said the law prevents MSU from commenting on personnel matters.

Lachapelle, an outspoken critic of the administration, said leadership’s interest is in optics and securing donor funds.

He described the leadership style at MSU as “soft authoritarianism.”

Jackson Sledge reported for The Exponent, the campus newspaper, but he lost his job after he wrote a story about the death threat against the Queer Straight Alliance and students’ frustration with the administration’s lackluster response.

Sledge, who graduated in May, provided email records that show Ellig alleged the story took his quotes out of context. Sledge said the editor subsequently informed him — for the first time — that his work had never given the administration a fair shake.

The Exponent editor, a student, later presented Sledge with a contract that said his journalism was not up to standards of the campus newspaper, and he could no longer report “on sensitive stories,” Sledge said in an interview with the Daily Montanan.

“I thought it was very disagreeable and did not sign it,” said Sledge, who shared a copy of the contract. “So that was my last professional interaction with the Exponent.”

The former editor did not respond to a voicemail and email requesting comment.

Sledge said campus police answer to Cruzado and act like “an intelligence service” for her — an allegation a conservative student with criticisms of the administration previously made to the Daily Montanan. And Sledge said campus communication professionals function like “a propaganda arm.”

“The word that comes to mind is ‘authoritarian,’” Sledge said.

No warning to students

Many of the complaints to the Office for Civil Rights refer to MSU’s long silence in addressing the horrific threats against the Queer Straight Alliance, a message “groomers and f—ts” would be sent “to an early death” or a subsequent message Montanans would “expel” them and “colored people.”

In an email, MSU said law enforcement deemed the threat of violence Feb. 16 to be not credible, and the off-campus event took place “without incident.” But MSU students didn’t receive a formal message from the administration until late March.

The Clery Act requires universities that receive federal funding to issue timely warnings to students if they find the threat of a serious or ongoing crime, and MSU did not issue any warnings to students related to the Feb. 16 or Feb. 23 emails.

Ellig provided a timeline with some of MSU’s responses to the events of last semester, but it wasn’t clear when or how law enforcement made their determinations the messages wouldn’t lead to violence.

As for the reason MSU did not issue a warning to students, Ellig said the threat did not meet the criteria. He pointed to a 265-page handbook from 2016 for reporting and a 2020 appendix, but did not point to specific passages that helped MSU make a decision.

At least one semester earlier, MSU issued an alert for a more nebulous threat.

Montana State University plays Drake. (Provided by MSU for the Daily Montanan.)

A list of crime alerts, which were unavailable on MSU’s website earlier this year, include a “public safety advisory” for the Brawl of the Wild football game in fall 2022, where the MSU Bobcats host rival Grizzlies from the University of Montana.

“This brings with it parties, drinking and other situations that could pose a risk to members of the MSU campus community,” the alert said, noting students should “stay aware and stay safe.”

A director at Stop AAPI Hate (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders), which is familiar with the situation at MSU, said criminal law enforcement generally needs a better, systemic understanding of race. Stop AAPI Hate’s Aisa Villarosa said research shows young people have lost trust in many government reporting systems.

“It is largely because these systems are not equipped culturally, or not equipped with the racial equity lens needed to understand what a racialized threat is,” said Villarosa, director of youth organizing and programs.

Questions, confusions

Last semester, some faculty and students said the campus swirled with misinformation.

On April 21, Cruzado and her top administrators took questions from department heads about threats and other incidents on campus, according to an email provided to the Daily Montanan.

A department head who took notes at the meeting to fill in colleagues asked the administration about an anecdote that a noose was placed in a Chinese student’s dorm, according to the email: “I was told that this is false.”

In an email to the Daily Montanan, Ellig said MSU investigated the report of a noose and concluded “there was no noose.”

In fall 2021, however, student Alexandra Lin reported the noose and a Post-it at her sorority that said, “Kill Yourself,” according to a discrimination complaint and other records. Other students also reported ongoing harassment against Lin at the sorority.

But the sorority stymied the investigation, according to court records. It said sorority students pledged confidentiality, which prevented the university from gathering sufficient evidence.

More than one year later in the wake of the threats against the Queer Straight Alliance, however, Lin talked with campus administrators about all the harassment she received, including the noose.

Lin, who is part Taiwanese, not Chinese, also testified about it to the Board of Regents in March, the meeting Ellig said was eye-opening for MSU.

Lin’s mom, Elizabeth Lin, doesn’t mince words when it comes to MSU administrators.

Her daughter’s phone call about the noose the previous school year prompted her own call to a family friend who is a lawyer. That same attorney confirmed Lin’s version of events to the Daily Montanan.

“These people lie,” Elizabeth Lin said.

Elizabeth Lin said her daughter did not experience discrimination in Montana until she went to MSU. She told Alexandra she could come home to Missoula or transfer out of state, but, administrators aside, she said her daughter loves MSU.

Alexandra Lin filed one of the discrimination complaints to the Office for Civil Rights and encouraged other students to do so.

Last semester, when she received screenshots of the email summarizing the meeting — and the administration presenting her report and another harassment against her as false — she fired off a message to Stop AAPI Hate, which was advising her and other students.

“(I)n my meeting with President Cruzado, she personally saw the threats and the Notice of Rights for Victims of Violent Crimes,” Lin wrote. “The Dean of Students was also involved and aware of the situation that happened two years ago.

“I don’t understand why they would knowingly spread false information to all the department heads??”

Truth, lies at MSU

But at times, MSU administrators broker in selective truths.

Last semester, a student who had a dispute with MSU unrelated to the Queer Straight Alliance shared some results of a records request he made to MSU.

Montana State University welcomes students back to campus for the first day of the Fall 2023 semester. (Provided by Montana State University)

In September 2021, a reporter from Yellowstone Public Radio asked Becker, in communications, for fall enrollment and whether MSU tracked reasons for unenrolling. The public radio reporter said she recalled the university had extended the deadline to unenroll in case students disagreed with the mask policy for the Covid-19 pandemic — MSU noted it required masks in “indoor instructional spaces.”

Becker forwarded the question to a couple of other administrators and copied Ellig.

Becker said the answer to “when” was easy, but he didn’t know whether MSU tracked students’ reasons for leaving, according to the email exchange.

Ellig directed Becker to withhold information from the reporter.

“The reporter really wants to know if our mask mandate caused students to withdraw,” Ellig said. “ … While I know we may have some data, I doubt any of it is conclusive. The minute we identify real specific reasons, then the reporter will start to drill down on those reasons and create a story that says ‘students drop out because xzy,’ which will mislead the public.”

But MSU did have a bump in withdrawals one day earlier and a sliver of data, and the university did not provide information about either, according to the emails. Ellig said in an email Wednesday the four students identified were “not part of any formal information collecting process” and were “not statistically representative.” Ellig did not say why he didn’t provide all the information to the reporter.

Maher, the professor who spoke about political sensitivities on campus, discusses concerns about MSU decisions that bypass faculty in a link on his faculty page. On that site, he characterized the administration as “dishonest” in connection with a missed goal for a sustainability plan.

He said MSU had committed to having a comprehensive sustainability plan by 2020: “However, in the fall of 2020 the administration told the sustainability advisory council to stop work on the sustainability plan because of concerns that it would raise the ire of certain partisan factions during the biennial session of the Montana Legislature.

“Now in 2021, we find that university staff have been told to lie and say that the delay was ‘due to Covid,’ not due to an administrative directive to cease work. If the administration wants to be taken seriously, the administration should not be compelling staff to blame something on Covid that was actually a deliberate delay out of concern over political appearances.”

In an email Wednesday, Maher confirmed his understanding of the history of the plan. He also explained the reason he shared information.

“It is important to me that my comments and observations be presented from the standpoint of a senior faculty member who loves MSU and feels loyalty to our faculty and our mission,” Maher said in an email. “My remarks are not to bring harm or embarrassment to MSU, but in the hope that the institution can be better at ‘saying what we do, and doing what we say,’ when it comes to official activity.”

Higher education in a ‘red’ state

MSU has earned criticism from students on the right, such as those who fought its masking policy, but Republicans hold the pursestrings and political power in the state.

A rendering of Gianforte Hall. (Provided by the Commissioner’s Office)

The Bozeman flagship has a direct and lucrative relationship with Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, who has donated millions of dollars to education through his Gianforte Family Foundation. The Gianforte foundation’s recent $50 million donation to MSU is billed as one of the largest philanthropic gifts in the history of Montana.

Usually, the Board of Regents can’t accept naming gifts from state employees until after a person has left or announced a leave of public office. However, policy allows exceptions, and Regents found in May 2022 the “transformative” amount fit the bill; Gianforte Hall will be the name of a new computing building at MSU.

At the time, many students and some alumni had begged MSU to not to put the Gianforte name on the building, citing the governor’s signing bills that harm transgender people and his family foundations’ donations to groups that oppose gay rights.

Madelyn Mettler, a doctoral student then, said having the School of Computing named after Gianforte — tied to an $8 million donation from the Gianforte family — was already “a slap in the face” to many students, specifically female minority and LGBTQ+ students.

“Naming a building after Gianforte, to me and many other students, shows that the university cares more about money than its students and more than normal human decency,” Mettler said then.

But some alumni said it only made sense to recognize such generosity, and in a statement at the time, Cruzado offered deep thanks to the Gianfortes.

“The Gianforte Family Foundation has demonstrated tangible commitment to furthering the interests of students and education at Montana State University in a consistent manner,” said Cruzado. “This gift will continue that commitment in an unprecedented way.”

Gianforte School of Computing at MSU, named after Gov. Greg Gianforte and his family foundation. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

John Paxton, director of the Gianforte School of Computing, also praised the gift in a news release from MSU at the time. Paxton declined to answer questions about how the controversial gift had affected students in the school. (A student recommended naming the hall after Paxton instead given his dedication to increase diversity in a field that lacks racial, gender and queer diversity, according to Board of Regents minutes.)

In interviews with the Daily Montanan, students allege the administration is bowing to moneyed and political interests, but a delicate political climate for higher education isn’t unique to Montana.

Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, said attacks on higher education are coming from right-wing politicians in other states, and the stakes are high. In Florida, for example, New College saw a 27% dropout after changes led by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Mulvey said it’s the job of leadership to create an atmosphere of inclusion and safety to protect students and their education and to be a firewall between partisan interference and robust academic freedom.

“That’s their job as administrators. And oftentimes, they do not uphold that,” Mulvey said.

‘Strange bedfellows’

Montana has grown more conservative in recent years, even as the views of young people skew more socially liberal, and Republican legislators have tried to exert more control over the Montana University System.

In the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill that tried to take control away from the Board of Regents in order to allow guns on campus. The regents took the state to court, and the Montana Supreme Court said allowing lawmakers to make the decision on guns would run contrary to the Montana Constitution.

This year, Republicans in the Montana Legislature had a supermajority, and they considered a proposal to put a measure on the ballot to take away that authority of the Board of Regents and give it to lawmakers themselves.

The bill didn’t pass in the end, but Sledge, who was forced out of his job at the campus newspaper, said he believes MSU still wants to let legislators know the status quo is OK: “You don’t need to dissolve the Board of Regents. We’ll be right-wing on our own.”

The legislature did give MSU a green light to build Gianforte Hall, which will house the Gianforte School of Computing. The State of Montana has historically supported public higher education, and this year was not an exception.

In a Board of Regents meeting in May, Commissioner Clayton Christian said the Montana University System started the session in a good place, and thanks to the governor’s budget and work of the legislature, it would be able to provide services “at least at the same level and, in some instances, at an enhanced level.”

In an interview about the challenges at MSU, Regents Chairperson Joyce Dombrouski said the regents took and are taking the complaints from students seriously. Dombrouski spoke with the Daily Montanan prior to public news of the federal probe.

In an interview, Dombrouski specifically said MSU is working on communication to ensure students know the resources available to them.

However, in response to a question about how the public can understand the work the Board of Regents was doing to address the troubling situation at MSU, Dombrouski pointed to the board agendas. A spokesperson for the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education also earlier pointed to agendas and minutes as examples of action the board took.

None of the board’s action items this year related to the problems at MSU, although minutes show the public raising concerns. Legal counsel in the Commissioner’s Office subsequently acknowledged “there wasn’t a specific agenda item” to which they referred.

Dombrouski said the board operates at a high level, ensuring MSU and other public universities have the right policies in place, and leaves running the campuses to administrators and Commissioner Christian.

Apology not forthcoming

One faculty member who wanted to remain anonymous said what the students really wanted last semester was an apology from the president for the administration’s poor handling of the death threat — and they will never get it.

It’s possible the threats last semester poured gasoline on a fire that was started by disputes between students at a campus already struggling with racism and other discrimination. Regardless, a chasm exists between the administrators and students, and the federal investigation into discrimination may reveal how wide and deep it is.

Quentin Lucas, a graduate student, said MSU’s responses repeatedly fell short.

To Lucas, the administration’s decision to host a “week of belonging” after the threats were leveled felt like a token offering “to celebrate queer people,” one that didn’t match the gravity of the situation on campus.

“There’s kids worried for their lives,” Lucas said.

A story in the Exponent last spring said university officials denied a request to hang Pride flags in campus buildings in a decision backed by Cruzado. MSU said the decision was consistent with its Freedom of Expression Policy, according to the story.

University of Montana’s Main Hall lit up in a rainbow. (Provided by UM.)

By comparison, at the University of Montana, Main Hall, which houses the president’s office, periodically is lit in rainbow colors with permission by the administration.

Lucas said he’s half Arabic but “white-passing,” and he’s not visibly queer. But he said almost all of his friends are queer, many are people of color, and he’s borne witness to their abuse at MSU.

“It’s been a strange experience and a distressing one. This is what my friends have to deal with on a daily basis,” Lucas said.

Marquayvion Hughes, who is Black and queer, said students shared their experiences at a Faculty Senate meeting last semester.

“The meeting was one of the most emotional experiences for people’s lives, suicidal testimonials, students baring their souls to the faculty,” said Hughes, who has transferred to Iowa State University. “It was very apparent that our administration was not going to protect us.”

Maher, a faculty member, described the meeting as “wrenching.”

He said students were clearly upset about the threats, but even worse, he believes students felt the administration had dismissed them. Some were scared. Maher said he does not believe the administration ignored the threats, but he also said students deserve better.

“I think we owe them more care and concern than being dismissive about those feelings,” Maher said.

Even later in the semester, Shaffer, who went under the covers and cried, still wanted the administration to address the threats: “But they never did. The entire time I was there.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.