BILLINGS – A white student was removed from Montana State University-Northern's campus after his comments about Native Americans caused some classmates to fear for their safety.
However, the student can still use campus football facilities where he remains on the football team.
The university's Dean of Students Steven Wise alerted campus to the situation in a school-wide email on April 18. While the message was vague about the incident, it indicated that a student's statements caused others to be “deeply concerned.”
There was no imminent danger, the email said, although some students reported they continued to feel uneasy on campus.
In the email, Wise said the school had banned the student from campus "to reduce the level of anxiety” created by the situation.
Wise didn't describe in the email that after overseeing the student's removal, he invited the student to live in his private home. As dean of students, Wise oversees student conduct issues and discipline.
Wise said last Friday the email was to let people know the university had done something to address student concerns.
But the carefully crafted email raised more questions on campus than it answered, said Jim Potter, director of MSU Northern's university relations.
“That email should not have gone out,” Potter said.
For some students and faculty at MSU-Northern, the details of how the university handled the situation reflects a larger attitude toward Native American students and their concerns. The ACLU Montana has begun working with a Native student group on campus and others are speaking out about the racial climate in Havre.
“It is my professional opinion that this school has never acknowledged its institutional racism,” said John Snider, an arts and sciences professor of 28 years at MSU-Northern.
Cause for concern
The student uttered at least one of the derogatory remarks during a Native American Studies class on April 10, according to three professors and one student who independently described the situation but didn’t witness it.
The now-banned student said that if all Native Americans had been wiped out, the studies class would be unnecessary.
He said other things in earshot of Native students, some of whom feared for their safety. Potter confirmed that a "series of statements" made by the student led to his removal.
A few Native students shared their concerns to professors like Snider, who emailed the school’s provost to request a faculty meeting, where they could plan a course of action. The provost, William Rugg, emailed Snider back, saying simply that “the situation is being handled by the administration.”
“What I have called for is to have the university confront this in some public forum,” Snider told Lee Montana Newspapers. “Their impulse is to sweep it under the rug.”
The investigation, led by Wise, concluded that there was no threat from the student who made the remarks. Their decision was to ban him from campus classrooms, the library, the Student Union building and residence halls.
It wasn't a full campus ban. The student is still able to visit campus to play football for the MSU-Northern Lights, which held a spring game on Saturday. Head Coach Aaron Christensen confirmed that the student remained active on the roster but declined to comment any further.
Wise maintained that his action helped ease the tension.
“The important thing is that the student who brought concern feels much safer on our campus again,” Wise said. “That would be our goal in any situation.”
But Wise declined to comment when asked if that same student was living in his private home.
“It’s a question about my privacy and perhaps the student’s privacy,” Wise said.
Potter, the school's university relations director, insisted that banning the student from most campus facilities wasn’t disciplinary. University policy allows for "informal" resolutions to these situations. He said the student agreed to leave campus for the remainder of the year.
Potter said Wise was “gracious” to let the kid stay with him.
“Steve (Wise) kind of opened his heart and said, 'Why don’t you just stay at my place?’ ” Potter said Monday.
“My fellow Native American students and I do not feel safe on Northern’s campus,” wrote Amy Murdock, president of the Sweetgrass Society, a Native student group.
Murdock wrote the letter to several people to express the group’s feelings and to seek support. She wrote about the lack of response by university officials to Native students’ concerns, while at the same time sheltering a white student in the dean’s private home.
Now the Sweetgrass Society is working with ACLU Montana on a human rights complaint.
“Unquestionably there is a culture up there of targeting Native American students,” said Alex Rate, legal director for ACLU Montana.
Rate said their effort includes the university’s handling of the student’s recent remarks but also stems from issues raised in November, during the campus Hello Walk.
Students and groups paint the steps of the Student Union Building every year for the Hello Walk. In November, the Sweetgrass Society painted “#NoDAPL” in support of the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters.
The student government painted over the Sweetgrass message because the Hello Walk was not a place for political statements, according to the Havre Daily News. Later that month, a student was arrested by plain-clothes officers while defending the Sweetgrass Society's statement at a campus forum.
Rate said that they are determining if MSU-Northern violated the Native students’ freedom of speech, human rights and university policy protections.
The last day of the semester at MSU-Northern is May 5. In the waning weeks, Snider, the professor, is wondering why this situation – like others before it – wasn’t handled differently.
“You have a discussion with everyone involved,” he said about the student’s purportedly racist remarks. “Our job is to educate the young people.”
Instead, the university instituted a campus ban that didn’t extend to the football team, even in the off-season. And as Native students sought a platform to air their concerns, a university dean took in the person who disparaged them.
MSU-Northern Chancellor Greg Kegel did not return repeated calls for comment. Montana University System officials expressed confidence in the actions of MSU-Northern administrators.
In the view of Potter, the university’s spokesman, the student took the consequences for his reportedly racist comments in stride.
“It was a nothing thing,” Potter said. “So this (campus ban) was a gracious step on not only the student’s part but the dean’s part.”