This month, leaders of the University of Montana Advocacy Coalition presented a series of concerns, including the possibilities of unfair hiring practices and religious favoritism, to Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian.
In a letter following up on a meeting with the commissioner, professors Doug Coffin and Mehrdad Kia raised the possibility of a vote of "no confidence" in Provost Perry Brown and President Royce Engstrom. They also called for a system-wide review of recruitment and hiring practices.
"Instead of a campus culture that takes pride in competence and diversity, UM has gained a notorious reputation where personal friendships, perceived loyalties, unquestioning obedience, and rumors of religious associations appear to supersede concerns regarding competence, professionalism, and relevant experience," the professors noted.
Coffin is a professor of molecular genetics, and Kia is a professor of history. The coalition is a loosely organized group made up of faculty and community members, and the letter reiterated problems the professors raised with the commissioner at the meeting Jan. 20.
Since Brown took the post of interim provost at the University of Montana in 2010, the campus has filled several high-profile positions with people who share his Mormon faith or received their education at Utah State University.
Brown is the top academic officer at the flagship campus and second-most-powerful official at UM. He is also a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And he earned a doctorate degree from Utah State University.
Mormons make up just 2 percent of the population in the U.S. and 4 percent to 5 percent in Montana. In Utah, 60 percent of the population is Mormon.
In the past few years, members of the campus community have privately questioned the apparent "religious bent" to hires at UM.
Former faculty member Dean McGovern, who worked at UM from 1999 through 2014, said the similarity in religious affiliations among some top UM leaders arose off and on in casual conversations and social gatherings.
"People were noticing there might be a religious bent to some hiring," said McGovern, who is now the director of the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center, also based in Utah at the University of Utah, a state school.
In an interview with the Missoulian, Brown said he has hired 50 or 60 people in his career, and he believes he has hired only two individuals who share his faith. He said he believes he has taken recommendations from search committees, and he values a campus that is rich in intellectual diversity.
"I've hired people from virtually every religion that I could think of," Brown said. "It's never been an issue."
On Jan. 13, the president announced Brown would retire at the end of this fiscal year, in June.
Peggy Kuhr, vice president for communications at UM, said she does not believe there is any factual basis in claims of religious bias.
“To our knowledge, no one, and I’ll repeat, no one has raised a complaint about discrimination in hiring, and if someone wants to file a complaint or has a concern, the university has a formal process to review that if there’s a violation of any protected class,” Kuhr said.
She said UM has a process to investigate allegations, and people who have solid information should file a complaint so the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action can independently review it.
“They should not be adding to the rumor mill,” Kuhr said.
Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner for communications at the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said his organization works with UM in its hires on a daily basis. He said the office has "never been presented with evidence of religious discrimination," and the coalition did not mention the issue in person.
"We don't and can't ask people about their religion," McRae said in an email. "It would be inappropriate and illegal. We hire the most qualified applicants at salaries that fit our institutions' ability to pay."
An academic scholar and nationally recognized expert on Mormonism said church members place a high value on education, graduate at a higher rate than the average population, and excel professionally. So it isn't uncommon to see people who are Mormon land top posts in a variety of fields, from the legal profession to higher education, said Patrick Mason, chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California.
"Even though they're only 2 percent of the national population, they are disproportionately represented at this higher end of the professional (spectrum)," Mason said.
At least three members of the president's Cabinet of 15 are Mormon, with the provost as one. UM's hiring announcements in recent years include people from Utah State and from Brigham Young University, a private Mormon school:
- 2012: Kent Haslam, Cabinet member, was promoted to be director of athletics. Haslam attended Brigham Young University and has spoken openly about his LDS mission.
- 2013: Michael Reid, Cabinet member, was hired as the vice president for administration and finance. He received his master’s in business administration and bachelor’s degree in finance from Utah State University, and the Mormon church has extolled him as a church leader on social media.
- 2013: Martin Blair was hired as the director of UM's Rural Institute on Disability. He came from Utah State University, and he has served as assistant director of LDS public affairs in Missoula.
- 2014: Nathan Lindsay was hired as associate provost for dynamic learning. Lindsay has an undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University.
Nancy Hinman, professor of geosciences at UM, also applied for the job of associate provost.
"I did not interview well online and understand that that is probably a significant contributor to not making the finalist list," Hinman said.
However, the finalists for the job were Lindsay, who was selected, and another woman candidate, one from outside UM. Hinman said she does not believe she was inappropriately passed over, but she also called on the administration for assurances of fairness in hiring.
"I would like to be certain that the best candidate was hired, the most qualified candidate was hired," Hinman said. "I think it's important that the community and the campus trust the administration is making decisions about hiring that are entirely appropriate."
In an interview, Provost Brown said both candidates had different strengths, and he would have liked to have hired both.
However, he said he heard much praise for Lindsay from others on campus, and he did not observe the same enthusiasm for the other finalist.
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The coalition is raising concerns at a time UM is in the midst of a budget crisis from a continued enrollment decline and turmoil on campus.
Professor Coffin said the group is hearing complaints about hiring practices, including ones of religious favoritism. He said it isn’t appropriate for concerned parties to start inquiring about employees’ religions, but the matter supports a wide review of business and hiring practices at UM in general.
"Specifically, that means enacting best and proper business practices when hiring administrative personnel at a public university and naming the most qualified people to the Montana Board of Regents," Coffin noted in an email.
This month, the coalition raised concerns to the commissioner about the effects of management decisions on academics; budget and financing issues; and staffing and hiring procedures.
"In the past four years, questionable hiring practices at the UM and the MUS have eroded the confidence of university employees in the credibility of the current administration, and forced members of the UM faculty to consider the possibility of a vote of 'no confidence' in the president and the provost," according to the letter.
The professors noted that the campus community "feels that greater inclusion of women and members of ethnic minority groups in the present administration are essential to build a university for the global century."
It specifically called on the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education and Board of Regents to ensure the process to replace Provost Brown and vice president of student affairs Teresa Branch meet "the high standards expected of a public university."
Branch is a black woman and member of the president's Cabinet, and she retires in June.
McRae, with the Commissioner of Higher Education, said a system to review hires is already in place at UM. He said the commissioner listened to the group's concerns, but the office stands by its "solid hiring practices."
"Effective and sound hiring is what we do," McRae noted in an email. "We know our hiring practices are working as assuredly as our grading practices and advising practices and our research practices. Everything we do is subject to continual review.
"The request from the group won't change that. We make sure our practices are sound in all functions of our business."
Mason, of Claremont Graduate University, said Mormons seek high levels of education, many times at Ivy League schools, and their strong performance translates into a notable presence in top professional positions.
The church represents a subculture with a "strong sense of tribalism," and as such, church members may subconsciously feel more comfortable with others who share their faith.
"It is true that oftentimes, Mormons hire other Mormons because they trust them. They know them. They get them," Mason said.
Jeffrey Breinholt, a lawyer who has compiled court cases linked to the Mormon church since the 1970s, said Mormons are mindful of the way they stand out in the world.
One way of handling the dissonance is to help each other succeed, he said. Breinholt has access to cases as a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice, and he tracks them out of interest he developed in the Mormon culture as a former prosecutor in Utah.
He said the partiality extends to people of other conservative religions: "What strikes me is the people who do this kind of stuff, if they don't have any applicants who are Mormon, they'll settle for the next best thing."
The coalition has called for a review of hiring practices at UM, but the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education stands by its practices.
Breinholt, though, said an institution that appears to have allowed bias in hiring dampens the interest of qualified candidates who believe they will be excluded because they are not part of the club.
"That's really the pernicious part of this whole thing. When you're labeled as a fiefdom, you chill people who would otherwise apply," Breinholt said.
Brown is an influential official on campus, but he dismisses any notion that he has used his positions of authority in the church and at the university to push for the employment of fellow church people at UM. He said he has sought in his hirings to support diversity, especially when it comes to intellectual backgrounds.
Before becoming provost, Brown was the dean of the College of Forestry and Conservation. When he started, the college had just two women in top posts, he said; when he left, it had seven or eight.
"Because the student population is changing, we needed role models," Brown said. "So if you have a really talented woman that is on your list, and you think this would be good for the total college ... that's going to help those students realize the dreams that they have."
Bringing together people who hold different world views and have different backgrounds creates a rich environment for discourse, intellectual activity and debate, he said: "And that's what a university is about."
"You can't do that if you're all looking the same or all believing the same things," Brown said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story contained an error. Utah State University is a public institution.