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Federal Office for Civil Rights officials to visit Montana State University

MSU faces third investigation for discrimination
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Posted at 10:03 AM, Feb 01, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-01 12:03:55-05

Montana State University received notice last week the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating a third discrimination complaint against the Bozeman flagship.

The Jan. 25 notification letter to MSU President Waded Cruzado said the Office for Civil Rights will investigate whether the university discriminated against a student by failing to respond to reports of sex-based harassment by another student last school year.

MSU is also under investigation for failing to respond appropriately to reports of discrimination against female students; students and others of Jewish origin; and members of the Queer Straight Alliance, a group that supports LGBTQ+ students on campus.

Next week, officials with the Office for Civil Rights will be on campus as part of the federal probe. The Office for Civil Rights alerted MSU last semester of the earlier investigations in two separate letters.

The Office for Civil Rights enforces regulations that prohibit discrimination, including on the basis of national origin and on the basis of sex, against educational institutions that receive federal money.

MSU provided the Daily Montanan notification of the third investigation in response to a request Tuesday from the news outlet about additional notices from the Office for Civil Rights and questions about the upcoming site visit.

Tuesday, MSU administrators also sent emails to campus announcing the visit from the Office for Civil Rights next week.

One from President Cruzado was addressed to the MSU Community. It said officers from the Office for Civil Rights would visit the campus Feb. 5-8 to “gather information regarding the university’s policies and practices for addressing discrimination.”

“OCR gathers information in a variety of ways, including meeting with students in forums and with invited faculty and staff in individual meetings regarding their experiences — positive or negative — on campus,” said the letter from Cruzado. “To that point, OCR is asking to meet a wide representation of MSU students, faculty and staff in individual sessions and/or as part of group sessions.”

The letter also said “attendance and participation for in-person sessions is conducted by invitation only.” The president encouraged people who receive invitations to attend.

In the letter, Cruzado also said members of the public may provide written comments or call an investigator, attorney or paralegal specialist with the federal agency.

“We welcome the U.S. Department of Education’s OCR officers to Montana State University, and we look forward to their input and recommendations,” Cruzado said in the letter.

A separate letter to students from the vice president for student success outlined times representatives from OCR would visit with students, with separate times slotted for students of different years and one reserved for all students.

“During the visit, OCR will hold a series of group sessions with students to gather information regarding their experiences with the university’s policies and practices for addressing discrimination based on race, color, national origin (including shared ancestry), sex, and LGBTQ+ identity on campus,” the letter said. “Students are encouraged to participate in scheduled group sessions. Attendance and participation is limited to current Montana State University students.”

In October, the Office for Civil Rights informed MSU it had received more than 20 complaints alleging the university failed to respond to threats against the Queer Straight Alliance the previous semester.

Alexandra Lin, who is studying wetland biology at MSU, had led a campaign to encourage students to report allegations of discrimination to the federal agency last year after experiencing it herself and seeing friends experience it.

Lin had urged students to reach out to the federal agency as opposed to the campus office that investigates discrimination because she found MSU’s response to her own case to be inadequate.

As a result, students filed complaints about MSU’s response to threats last year against the Queer Straight Alliance — including a death threat MSU found was not a credible threat of violence. They also filed unrelated discrimination complaints.

Lin said Tuesday the Office for Civil Rights has requested help with contact information for previous student government leaders, although OCR did not share the reason with her.

The email Tuesday from Cruzado also included a Frequently Asked Questions section. Among other questions, it addressed “With whom is OCR meeting?” and “What will we learn from this process?”

In response to the first question, MSU said OCR is meeting with a select group of MSU students.

“In order to protect the privacy of students, faculty and staff, the university is not disclosing the identities of MSU community members who have been invited to meet with OCR representatives,” said MSU in its answer.

As for what it will learn, MSU said it has been working to adopt best practices in addressing discrimination.

“And we have confidence that we are making substantial progress,” the university said.

The Daily Montanan had asked MSU if it was doing anything differently following the allegations of discrimination, and MSU did not offer specifics.

“MSU’s policies, procedures and practices have been developed in accordance with the law and federal guidance,” said MSU spokesperson Michael Becker in an email. “MSU is cooperating and assisting in the process as OCR evaluates the institutional compliance with federal regulations.

“OCR has not issued any findings indicating that MSU’s responses have been lacking. MSU is strongly committed to fostering a campus that’s conducive to learning and free from discrimination and harassment.”

Tuesday, MSU declined to answer a question from the Daily Montanan about which members of the administration had meetings with officials from the Office for Civil Rights and whether President Cruzado would meet with them.

Students and some faculty have said under the leadership of Cruzado, MSU has allowed conservative politics and money in Montana to influence the campus’ response to issues that can be seen as sensitive, such as discrimination, to the detriment of student safety.

“Montana State University welcomes the OCR site visit to campus and we look forward to collaborating in any way we can,” Becker said. “So as to not interfere with OCR’s work, we are deferring this question to them.”

A press officer for the Department of Education did not have a response from its Office for Civil Rights on Tuesday in time for this story.

This article was originally published by the Daily Montanan on Jan. 30, 2024.