One of the most visible figures throughout the months-long sexual assault controversy at the University of Montana has dropped from sight.
When the university began an investigation in December into two alleged gang rapes, the confirmation came from UM Vice President Jim Foley.
Foley accompanied President Royce Engstrom to public forums on the issue as the investigation expanded to cover 11 alleged assaults.
And he publicly chastised UM’s student newspaper, the Montana Kaimin, when it called for his firing. Foley blasted back in his published response to the Kaimin: “The watchdog never barks at one of its own family members.”
As vice president for external communications, part of Foley’s job involves responding to reporters writing stories about the university. But Foley himself recently became the story with the release of some of his emails.
In them, Foley questioned whether an alleged rape victim violated the Student Code of Conduct by talking publicly about her ordeal. He also wondered why the Missoulian used the term “gang rape” instead of UM’s preferred “date rape” to describe allegations of women being drugged and assaulted by multiple men.
And he fired off a 5:46 a.m. email to Mayor John Engen when a Missoula police officer – on his own time and on a personal email account – urged the university to “stop this spiraling PR mess.” Engen assured him the officer would apologize – and then himself apologized when the exchange became public two weeks ago.
Foley did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the emails, obtained in a joint public records request filed by the Missoulian and the Wall Street Journal, and hasn’t spoken publicly on behalf of the university since.
UM said he was on a trip to Atlanta the week after the emails were released. Foley was in and out of his office all last week, Engstrom said. But he no longer serves as the university’s spokesman on high-profile matters.
Engstrom and Kevin McRae, the state’s assistant higher education commissioner, now fill that role.
Foley remains busy on behalf of UM, Engstrom said.
“Jim has quite a portfolio of activity under his title of external relations, government relations, community relations. Jim is just focusing on those aspects,” he said.
Foley did not respond to requests for comment.
Foley, a staff director for former Montana Congressman Pat Williams and former chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, came to UM in 2005.
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UM’s media relations policy was revised that year, and again in 2007, to direct all questions on university policy and “public interest” to the president and/or Foley.
The policy said that faculty and staff should feel free to respond to media inquiries regarding their expertise, scholarship, teaching or research. But Doug Coffin, former president of the University Faculty Association, said that most campus employees don’t know what they’re allowed – and not allowed – to discuss.
“People are reluctant to talk because people can’t make that distinction and (UM administrators) don’t mind the fact that the faculty won’t talk to the press because that way it mutes internal criticism,” said Coffin, a molecular genetics professor.
People have felt obligated to run any media interactions through the executive vice president’s office first, he said.
After George Dennison retired as UM president in 2010, Foley retained his role in Engstrom’s administration.
When Engstrom took over as president, he listed improving communication among his top priorities. It’s still identified as an area that could use improvement on campus.
The UM Foundation board identified integrated communications with the university as an area where all sides need to improve, Beth Hammock said. She’s vice president for strategic communications, a position only recently created. Some of her duties previously fell under Foley.
Hammock is charged with helping lead the university through a rebranding effort, which began in October.
A strategic communications and marketing audit contracted by UM in February found that UM’s marketing and communications efforts are “significantly underdeveloped,” and termed those structures “unusual” among the country’s universities and colleges. It called for collaboration among various offices on campus, noting “communications authority on campus clearly resides with the executive vice president.”
It’s not part of his job description, but one of Foley’s most noticeable roles has been as a sports fan who travels with the Grizzlies football team to all away games. That prominence caused controversy last fall after two standout football players were Tased by Missoula police trying to break up a post-game party.
The day after the party, a Sunday, Foley met cornerback Trumaine Johnson and cornerback Gerald Kemp at the law offices of prominent Missoula attorney Milt Datsopoulos. The two eventually pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct.
At the time, Foley said it was routine for university administrators to meet to determine how to respond to high-profile cases involving students. He also said Kemp and Johnson paid their own legal fees. NCAA rules forbid universities from providing or funding legal counsel for student athletes.
The NCAA launched an investigation into UM’s football program in January, but has not specified why. That investigation was not revealed publicly until last week.
UM is also under investigation by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education over how it handles sexual assault cases.