Montana State University faces another federal investigation, one from a complainant who alleges the Bozeman flagship discriminated against students of Jewish ancestry and against female students.
It’s the second time this year the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has informed the state’s largest public university it is under investigation for discrimination.
In this complaint, the Office for Civil Rights said it will investigate whether MSU failed to respond to allegations of harassment of students “and other individuals” on the basis of national origin, specifically Jewish ancestry, and harassment of female students on the basis of sex.
The letter from the federal agency follows a separate letter to MSU this fall about another civil rights investigation.
In October, the federal agency informed MSU President Waded Chruzado it had received more than 20 complaints alleging the university failed to respond to threats against a campus group that supports LGBTQ+ students, the Queer Straight Alliance.
MSU provided the Dec. 5 letter to the Daily Montanan following a request for the status of the earlier probe and any additional notices from the agency.
The Office for Civil Rights enforces regulations that prohibit discrimination, including on the basis of national origin and on the basis of sex.
“As the university receives federal financial assistance from this department, it is required to comply with these federal civil rights laws,” the letter said.
The letter requests data from MSU, such as copies of discrimination complaints involving antisemitism and witness statements. However, it does not further detail the allegations in the complaint that prompted the investigation.
In an email, MSU Vice President Tracy Ellig said the university is cooperating with the OCR process; it provided all the information requested in response to the first investigation and plans to do so for the second as well.
“While we are always willing to collaborate and assist OCR in their processes, it is important to note that these are allegations that are under investigation,” Ellig said. “OCR has not issued any findings indicating MSU’s response was lacking.”
In an email, Commissioner Clay Christian, who oversees the Montana University System, said he takes all complaints of discrimination seriously and is in regular contact with MSU leadership.
“If OCR finds we can do more to protect students, we welcome those recommendations,” Christian said in an email provided by a deputy with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education. “We are always looking to improve how we support students in an ever-changing environment.”
The new investigation follows recent national attention to antisemitism — and free speech — on college campuses. It also comes after a death threat to the Queer Straight Alliance at MSU in February and ensuing criticisms from students who described a pallid response from administrators last semester.
At the time, law enforcement said it didn’t find a credible threat of violence, and the event promoted by the Queer Straight Alliance took place safely. However, MSU administrators didn’t publicly acknowledge the situation for weeks, raising the ire of club members and other students and supporters on campus.
A student who is part Asian and faced her own separate ongoing harassment at MSU — and, she believes, MSU’s apathy — put up posters last semester and this one to encourage other students on campus to file any discrimination complaints with the Office for Civil Rights.
In a text, Alexandra Lin, who is part Taiwanese, confirmed the Office for Civil Rights informed her she also could file a formal complaint against MSU given the information she already provided to the agency about her ongoing harassment there.
Lin said she plans to do so. She said she encouraged students to file complaints directly with the federal agency as opposed to the campus office that investigates discrimination because she believes MSU fell short in her own case — which preceded the death threat against the QSA last semester — and cases filed by other students.
“The university has shown a lack of transparency and accountability for their actions and inaction,” Lin said. “I hope that encouraging students to engage in the OCR process will allow for more meaningful resolutions.”
The federal agency typically does not discuss investigations while they are underway, and it wasn’t clear if the investigation into antisemitism and sexism are linked to the profusion of complaints last semester.
However, the Daily Montanan earlier spoke with six students who filed seven complaints with the Office for Civil Rights last semester, including one who said she found Nazi propaganda on her car and around a campus parking lot and reported it.
The students generally alleged MSU was not doing enough to ensure the campus is a safe place for minority students, and they argued money and politics play an undue influence on Cruzado and MSU leaders, who they said kowtow to conservatives in Montana.
Antisemitism on college campuses has been in the national spotlight lately following Hamas’ attack on Israel in October and Israel’s invasion of Gaza. The University of Pennsylvania president resigned after critics said she didn’t take a strong enough stance against antisemitism at a congressional hearing, and the leaders of Harvard University and MIT also faced pressure to step down.
Just last week, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican, announced he is sponsoring legislation to defund colleges and universities that promote antisemitism. However, in his email, Daines blamed “diversity, equity and inclusion” policies he said push “a liberal worldview.”
Citing the Anti-Defamation League’s data from rhetoric on a messaging service, he noted violent language and threats against the Jewish community and Israel increased 488% in the first 18 hours after Hamas’ attack.
The conflict abroad has heightened debates about free speech on university campuses in the U.S. in the wake of protests by supporters of Palestine.
A poll reported this month by National Public Radio said most U.S.-based scholars self-censor when they talk about the Middle East in academic and professional settings out of fear of offending campus culture and students. The story said the issue about which most felt the need to self-censor was criticisms of Israel at 81%; 11% said criticisms of Palestinians; and 2% said criticisms of U.S. policy.
Daines’ office did not respond by press time Monday afternoon to an email for comment about whether his constituents are raising concerns about antisemitism at MSU or on public campuses in Montana.
MSU has not issued a message to students or the campus community about the discrimination investigations, and Ellig did not directly address whether President Cruzado believes the university needs to make any improvements given the mounting federal scrutiny.
In his email, Ellig said MSU is “committed to fostering a campus environment that is conducive to learning and free from discrimination and harassment.” He also said the campus is cooperating with OCR in any way necessary.
“To safeguard the integrity of this and any other investigation, MSU refrains from publishing statements or making expressions regarding these processes,” Ellig said.
He also said MSU has offices that support students, including a Title IX office that investigates complaints of discrimination and harassment, and others that “empower and assist” students with physical and mental health and wellness on and off campus.
“We are proud of the dedicated staff who provide these services every day with attention and care to our students,” Ellig said.
Commissioner Christian, too, touted existing and new services and programs, “from campus events focused on student belonging, education about resources if a student experiences discrimination or feels unsafe, and adding additional security measures.”
In an earlier interview, the Board of Regents chairperson noted campuses provide many services, but students don’t always know about them.
This article was originally published in the Daily Montanan, Dec. 18, 2023.