The carefully curated cult of Waded Cruzado

November 2, 2023 4:15 am

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

As one source told the Daily Montana when referring to Montana State University President Waded Cruzado, “when she walks into the room, you can hear checkbooks open.”

Some universities have been entangled in public relations nightmares stemming from sports teams acting on booze and testosterone. Others have fought politicians who seek to root out any hints of “woke,” whatever the hell that means.

As MSU’s counterpart, the University of Montana has made at least a decade-long descent, stemming from the scandal of sports, sexual assault and becoming the poster child for the national movement focusing on the toxic atmosphere of collegiate sports, the Bozeman campus has transformed itself into the largest university in a four-state region, impressive because that doesn’t include either a medical school or a law school.

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

Instead, Montana State has capitalized on the STEM craze, positioning itself and its academic programs perfectly to align with science, technology, engineering in math, while Missoula’s liberal arts focus has experienced what it’s like to offer English and theater degrees when everybody is sweet on accountants and architects.

It’s one thing to be well positioned as the fickle whims of education consumers change, but I have to give Cruzado and the leadership of Montana State University plenty of credit for capitalizing on it. They saw the trend coming, and used it as a launchpad to achieve historic and unprecedented growth.

But in careful, long-term reporting by the Daily Montanan’s Keila Szpaller, who is no stranger to covering collegiate controversy from her more than a decade-long reporting of the University of Montana, she demonstrated the cost of that success: Montana State University is literally succeeding in spite of itself.

While the university has been growing thanks to strong academics, there’s been a social cost to that growth. Anything controversial, from climate change to LGBTQ+ issues appear to have been suppressed for fears that it might upset well-heeled donors and alumni. The institution appears to have mortgaged its success on the backs of those who are marginalized.

The Daily Montana’s reporting of nearly two dozen complaints sent to the Office of Civil Rights, a federal division of the U.S. Department of Education, isn’t a coincidence. It’s a demonstration that students have no confidence that the matters they face can be dealt with at the campus level. Students, fearing in some cases for their own lives, left. Many didn’t file a complaint at the campus level because they were certain the administrative machine in Bozeman would bury them.

For its part, the Board of Regents, the body charged with governing the university system, including MSU, doesn’t appear interested in dealing with the controversy, likely fearing that making a public inquiry would somehow stop the money train of MSU, which has brought in more than $200 million in grants. And while other campuses have been embroiled in controversy or churn through a never-ending cycle of leaders, Cruzado remains the star, and a dynamic one at that.

Right now, it doesn’t look good for the regents: If they have been ignoring these problems, then they are complicit. If they haven’t looked more deeply, then the regents are out of touch, bolstering my longtime theory that the majority of regents are all too often a bunch of glorified boosters.

Cruzado, a university president that has been in power for twice the average length as the typical university president, has managed to skirt much controversy, save for the time she tried to bring a questionable, private medical school to Bozeman’s campus, using the MSU Foundation resources, even though MSU is the home to the public medical school consortium, WWAMI (Washington-Wyoming-Alaska-Montana-Idaho).

The Daily Montanan asked several times to talk to Cruzado about these serious, troubling allegations of discrimination, which have forced minority students out of Bozeman.

Those were ignored, even as the chairwoman of the Board of Regents agreed to speak.

That, more than anything, demonstrates what others on campus call “soft authoritarianism.”

Except for being the president of the university, little of the scandal’s stink can be directly pinned on her. The vice president? Possibly. The university’s communication staff? That’s always an easy scapegoat. But Cruzado?

Well, those checkbooks won’t open for a leader embroiled in trouble.

Yet, Bozeman remains a campus where students are rightfully leery of coming to a place where they can’t even hang a Pride flag.

Montana State appears to be a university that cracks down at the slightest hint of controversy, not wanting to offend politicians, and more importantly, donors. Cruzado is always there to receive the checks, but never around to receive the questions or controversies.

As the leader of the largest university and also the state’s highest paid employee, it raises questions: Is she an administrator chiefly or a fundraiser? And have the regents become complicit in turning a blind eye toward what is happening on the campus in a devil’s bargain?

Certainly, Cruzado has raised money. She raised attendance. She’s raised the profile. And universities would love to have a president do all those things.

But, I would argue there’s been a cost to all of those things, and it’s been borne by students and faculty who were marginalized. The message, whether implicit or explicit, is that you’re welcome to be here, but controversy is fatal.

That’s sad because the one thing that colleges and universities excel at are being laboratories for controversial or cutting-edge ideas.

Montana State has become a university that can issue an alert about the dangers of the “Brawl of the Wild” – the annual football rivalry between the University of Montana and Montana State — but won’t say a peep about death threats against its gay students.

It’s a university in which its leader can’t be troubled to answer tough questions.

It’s a university which flies the blue and gold colors.

With heavy emphasis on the gold.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.