NewsMontana News


Montana State University under investigation by federal Office for Civil Rights

U.S. Department of Education received 20 reports of discrimination
Posted at 10:49 AM, Oct 25, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-25 15:08:45-04

BOZEMAN - Montana State University is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for discrimination for “failing to respond appropriately” after the Queer Straight Alliance received threats, including a death threat, last semester.

An Oct. 5 letter from the Office for Civil Rights said the federal agency received more than 20 complaints alleging the Bozeman flagship failed in its response to reports of harassment based on sex, race, color and national origin, reports the Daily Montanan.

The Queer Straight Alliance provides support to LGBTQ+ students at MSU, the state’s largest public university. The organization received a death threat in February for a queer-friendly dance party it promoted in town and later a harassing message.

In an email to the Daily Montanan, MSU said law enforcement found the threats were “not credible threats of violence,” and the off-campus event took place “without incident.”

However, the Office for Civil Rights’ letter to MSU President Waded Cruzado said it will investigate allegations the university discriminated against students and faculty by failing to respond appropriately to reports of harassment.

The federal Office for Civil Rights is charged with ensuring equal access to education through the “vigorous enforcement of civil rights.” Title IX of the 1972 federal Education Amendments and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibit discrimination at universities receiving federal money.

MSU provided the letter to the Daily Montanan last week in response to questions the newspaper asked following interviews with more than a dozen current and former students and faculty; they include six students who filed seven of the complaints and confirmed four additional complaints to the Office for Civil Rights.

Current and former students said MSU is failing to provide a safe environment for LGBTQ+ students and other minority students and has compromised their education as a result.

Some students and faculty who spoke to the Daily Montanan said the “conservative fervor” in Montana and the MSU administration’s quiet deference to it supports a political climate on campus that led to the complaints.

The Office for Civil Rights may open additional related investigations; at least one MSU complainant received a request last week for more information in order to process other discrimination allegations, according to a copy of an email from the federal investigator.

‘I didn’t want to be hurt or die’

The discrimination complaints include the following incidents and allegations, both related and unrelated to the threats against the Queer Straight Alliance, according to interviews with students and copies of reports to the Office for Civil Rights:

  • Chris Shaffer, who is LGBTQ+, said MSU “completely failed” to address threats against the Queer Straight Alliance. Shaffer feared their friends who planned to attend the targeted event were in danger. They expected the administration to condemn the threats, but leadership stayed quiet for weeks. Shaffer said the message the president finally sent fell far short of an unequivocal defense of students. Shaffer transferred to Boise: “I didn’t want to be hurt or die.”
  • One student said they know MSU administrators acted in the immediate aftermath of the threat, but then left students in the dark. They feared more for their friends than themselves because they are straight-presenting. But the student said this about being on campus: “I’m scared on the inside.” The Daily Montanan is protecting the student’s identity and gender because the student is on an MSU scholarship and fears retaliation.
  • Threats disrupted Quentin Lucas’ education when he spent time helping friends report incidents to law enforcement and drive one to the police station, he told the Daily Montanan: “Even though I didn’t directly receive any threats, I felt its impact on my ability to be a student at MSU.” In his complaint, he described the university administration as “indifferent … at best” to the stress and terror students felt on campus. “One of my friends refuses to go out without wearing a belt and laced shoes, so that they can improvise a tourniquet if necessary.”

Some discrimination complaints included allegations unrelated to the Queer Straight Alliance:

  • MSU removed a mutual no-contact order it had put in place to protect two students, including an Asian student who received death threats. MSU had argued in a court filing the order was necessary for safety, and it protected both students: “Federal law requires MSU to offer supportive measures where harassment is alleged. Failure to do so may constitute deliberate indifference for which the University may be held liable in damages.”
  • Last August, one student who was coming out as queer had their head slammed into a mattress in a dorm room by another student. The student reported additional harassment and a “steep decline in physical and mental health.” The victim is no longer enrolled at MSU.
  • One student said she reported a poster with Nazi imagery and eugenics propaganda placed on her car. She saw similar posters plastered to poles around the parking lot.

A call for reform

Alexandra Lin is the MSU student who wanted the no-contact order to stay in place and whose lawyer argued the university should have kept it in place to protect her.

The no-contact order was between two students, however, and the other student was a plaintiff in a politically charged lawsuit against MSU. On March 3, the plaintiff signed a settlement to release MSU of charges on condition MSU dissolve the no-contact order.

Lin said she had felt safer knowing the order set distance between her and the other student. But MSU removed the order, which essentially barred any physical or digital contact between the students.

A March 8 notice to Lin, who was not party to the lawsuit, said MSU removed the no-contact order “independent of the litigation” and because no violations had occurred over 17 months.

Last semester, Lin, who is part Taiwanese, filed a complaint against MSU and encouraged other students to report to the Office for Civil Rights.

In an interview with the Daily Montanan, Lin said she has received numerous death threats, graphic images of Asian porn, and racist messages, such as an email telling her to “Kill yourself, ch–k.” She provided screenshots of the harassing messages to the Daily Montanan.

Last semester, Lin temporarily left the state in fear of her safety.

“These threats are horrific, but the actions of our university administration are worse,” wrote Lin in her complaint to the Office for Civil Rights. “They have failed to acknowledge any of the threats and given us little to no support.

“The MSU administration has failed to protect students and their rights.”

Marquayvion Hughes, who is Black and filed two complaints against MSU, explained his reason for doing so.

“We just need to help reform the university,” said Hughes, who since transferred to Iowa State University.

Hughes left MSU in part because he no longer wanted to face white supremacism, he said. He was called the “n” word at MSU, saw Nazi propaganda in trash cans on campus, and heard Bobcats at a football game “screaming racial slurs to members of the other team.”

Threats against the Queer Straight Alliance

According to interviews with students, MSU’s lack of swift public acknowledgement that LGBTQ+ students had received threats, including the death threat, is one subject of several complaints the university is failing minority students.

In February, the Queer Straight Alliance received a couple of harassing emails, including one that said people who planned to attend the queer-friendly dance party downtown would meet an early death.

The Queer Straight Alliance describes itself as the longest-standing student-run organization at the university and active for more than 40 years.

The subject line from the Feb. 16 email said “killing all the groomers and f—ts” (the email spelled out the slur). The message said sinners needed to turn away from “isis terrorists” and Sharia law to the “white god of Christianity.” A second email Feb. 23 said “true Montanans” would “expel” “colored people” from campus and the state.

MSU Vice President of Communications Tracy Ellig said law enforcement didn’t find a credible threat of violence after reviewing email content, delivery method and additional details; he said in an email the threats remain under investigation.

The email sender used a fake address for the Turning Point USA Club at MSU, and the message was sent through an encrypted service. Turning Point could not be reached for comment, but it earlier disavowed the message and said it did not tolerate its content, according to a Faculty Senate resolution and email from Ellig.

Turning Point is a conservative national organization advocating that young people “rise up against the radical Left,” according to its website. Its leaders have made racist and homophobic statements, according to the Anti-Defamation League and other media reports.

The MSU administration did not publicly address the death threat and ensuing hate mail until Sunday, March 26, more than four weeks after the first message. An email from President Cruzado mentioned the threats, defended the actions of law enforcement, and issued a statement against threats in general.

“We decry communications that contain threats because, whether they represent real or perceived harm, their inimical language erodes the community spirit that we treasure at Montana State University,” Cruzado said in the email.

Students interviewed by the Daily Montanan deemed the response too little, too late.

Office for Civil Rights makes demands

The letter from the Office for Civil Rights requested the university provide documents including all reports of sex-based harassment against students during the 2022-2023 academic year and all reports of harassment based on race, color and national origin. It requested related records such as disciplinary findings.

An extension in an Oct. 10 letter set the deadline for response at Oct. 25, and MSU said it would respond to the letter accordingly.

Additionally, the Office for Civil Rights requested “any other documents or information the university believes will assist OCR in resolving this complaint, such as the narrative of the university’s position regarding the complaint allegations.”

The Office for Civil Rights said allegations may be resolved in a variety of ways. It said MSU may agree to take remedial actions the federal agency deems appropriate or enter into mediation if appropriate.

“If a resolution of the complaint is not reached before OCR completes its investigation, OCR will make findings and a determination as to whether the university is in compliance with the applicable legal standards,” the letter said.

It said if MSU is found to be in non-compliance, “OCR will propose that the university enter into a voluntary resolution agreement in which the university commits to take specific steps to comply with applicable laws and regulations.”

Universities generally comply with such investigations given federal funding is at risk if they don’t.

MSU touts support for students

In an email last week, MSU Vice President Ellig said the events last semester were “extremely complicated,” incidents took place quickly, and MSU investigated “every threat, claim of harassment or discrimination” in its jurisdiction.

The morning after the Queer Straight Alliance received its first threat, Ellig said Cruzado led an emergency meeting in her office and “emphasized the seriousness of the incident and the need for immediate action.”

Ellig said directors and leaders of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Diversity and Inclusion Student Commons, Dean of Students Office, University Police, University Student Housing, and others were directed to reach out to the MSU LGBTQ+ community to provide support.

Through the semester, Ellig said university administrators met with a wide range of students and offered help, including through counseling and a teach-in to brainstorm how to create “a sense of belonging for all students.”

He said MSU held numerous solidarity events that spring and did outreach to faculty “to help them better direct students to the university’s many support services.” He also said MSU has continued support through the fall semester.

“Based on positive student feedback from the spring ‘Week of Belonging,’ the university again holds a ‘Student Resource Fair’ on the mall highlighting university offices to help students navigate barriers that may pop up at the beginning of the semester,” Ellig said in a timeline of MSU’s responses. “The resources at the fair are directed towards four areas: safety, wellness, paying for college, and academic help.”

Ellig also said the university has driven up enrollment for minority students.

“This fall, MSU enrolled record numbers of African-American students (293), American Indian/Alaska Native students (817), Asian students (708) and Hispanic students (955),” Ellig said.

Ellig noted retention, or keeping students from their first year to their second year, is also up for minority students since 2022. It’s at 76.1% for Asian students compared to 69.5% the previous year, for example, and 66.7% for Native American/Alaska Native students compared to 52.2%.

“The retention rate for African-American and Hispanic-identifying cohorts are modern records,” Ellig said in an email, respectively 66.7% and 73.8%.

Not all students stay, and MSU does not track the reasons students decide to leave. Ellig said national research shows finances, personal or family mental and physical health, relationships, and academics are the most prominent reasons.

“There doesn’t appear to be a single intervention that is a ‘magic bullet’ in terms of student retention across a population of nearly 17,000 students,” Ellig said. So he said MSU works on all of those fronts. “We do our best to provide student support in all of these areas.”