Students lobbying the Montana University System to change its nondiscrimination policy have upped the ante by launching a new social media blitz they hope results in change.
Dubbed “703 Equality,” the new campaign uses Facebook, Twitter and Blogspot to take aim at the Montana Board of Regents and its policy on nondiscrimination, which includes 12 protections covering everything from race to political ideas and national origin.
While the policy has served the Montana University System since it was adopted in 1976, students would like to see it modernized to cover gender identity and sexual orientation, or preference.
Student leaders from the University of Montana and Montana State University lobbied regents for the changes in November, and they don’t all feel the board has given their request its full attention.
“We think they’ve been disengaged, and we wanted to reaffirm that there’s public support for this,” said Topher Williams, a member of the UM student senate. “We’re encouraging them to take action on this policy this semester so students, faculty and staff in the university system are guaranteed equal protection.”
Neal Moisey, a tenured professor at UM and the interim deputy commissioner for academic research and student affairs, said the Montana University System is taking the request seriously and is researching policies across the system.
“Any time we do a change in board policy, there’s certain due diligence we have to go through to understand what the implication of those policies are,” said Moisey. “We don’t take it lightly.”
Moisey said legal counsel for the MUS met recently to review Policy 703, as it’s known in the books, and is working to summarize its findings.
Officials are also reviewing individual policies on each state campus. UM and MSU have already added sexual orientation to their nondiscrimination policies, though they haven’t added gender identity.
While the state’s two flagship universities represent nearly 70 percent of all Montana students, Moisey said the board must decide whether the discussion should be extended to other campuses, and if changes should be localized or system wide.
“They (students) probably want this now, or yesterday,” said Moisey. “The process we’re going through is looking legally at what the issues are, what state law is, what the policy is, and what the policies are on each of the campuses.”
Kiah Abbey, president of the Associated Students of MSU, brought the issue to the Board of Regents in November, asking them to create a task force chaired by a student.
Abbey said she feels confident that regents will eventually address the policy issue, though she suggested this week any solution needs to take place centrally and not be left to each individual campus.
“One of my biggest concerns is the way the policy is set at the system level – that it’s simply complying with state and federal regulations,” Abbey said. “The policy should be centralized instead of waiting for each of the campuses to change their policy.”
Policy 703 was originally adopted in 1976. It was revised in 1991 and again in 1999 when changes switched “institution” to “campus.”
Kevin McRae, associate commissioner with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said current policy language is based upon the statutory civil rights language for protected classes.
The language hasn’t been updated in awhile, he admitted, and it’s possible the board could discuss adding sexual orientation at one of its meeting in March or May.
“We appreciate and view the comments that have been submitted as being part of the respectful, decent and dignified motivation behind this,” McRae said. “This (campaign) is a normal extension of student interests being expressed.”
The Facebook page launched by the 703 Equality campaign includes petitions that visitors can sign and links to submit comments to state officials. The social media sites also provide supporters a place to unite behind the campaign.
“A safe living, working and learning environment should not be left to circumstance or personal opinion,” said Williams. “It should be guaranteed to all within our university system.”
Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at (406)-523-5260 or martin.kidston @missoulian.com.