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University of Montana Main Hall

The Main Hall at the University of Montana

University of Montana Dean of Students Rhondie Voorhees has appealed her employment grievance to the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

Voorhees was asked to depart the campus in August although UM identified her at the time as a paid employee who remained "in good standing." Her departure left UM for the better part of a school year without a position that the president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana considers critical to the student body.

A campus employee since 2012, Voorhees filed a grievance following her dismissal; Human Resource policies note administrators may dispute terms and conditions of employment and request remedies.

At the time, the dean addressed the nature of her grievance complaint in general terms. Voorhees said she would always stand up for the rights of employees to speak "without fear of retaliation" on serious issues of student safety, campus safety, and "my own personal safety." 

A spokesperson for the Commissioner's Office said a decision on the grievance likely will be made around June.

"After that, if the complainant is unsatisfied with the commissioner's decision, she can then appeal to the Montana Board of Regents," said spokesman Tracy Ellig in an email.

UM still lists Voorhees as dean of students on its website, although it identifies the UM housing director as the top contact under the Student Affairs web page for the dean of students. In the absence of a dean, UM had tapped a student conduct officer to temporarily oversee conduct matters, but an attempt to recruit a director of student conduct this school year was unsuccessful.

ASUM President Alex Butler said the lack of a dean of students has been difficult for students who would have sought her help, including those in leadership positions. He said the dean not only handles conduct matters, but the person in the role serves as an ally for students.

"I would emphasize it's detrimental to students to not have that position," Butler said.

***

At the time of her dismissal, Voorhees said the decision came as a "complete surprise" to her. Records show she had taken the lead on crafting recommendations for how to undertake a Student Affairs reorganization announced by UM President Seth Bodnar. 

UM officials maintained her dismissal was part of the restructure, but they never provided evidence the change had been discussed or contemplated. And as late as Sept. 19, the campus posted a job stating an incoming and newly created vice provost for student success position would oversee the dean of students.

Student Affairs includes units such as Campus Recreation, UM Dining, UM Housing, Multicultural Affairs, Career Services, Disability Services for Students, and the VETS Office.

Over the last couple of years, the flagship has been making staffing cuts in response to an enrollment drop and ensuing budget trouble.

In discussions about the reorganization, Voorhees said she expressed "the strong need" for UM to support Student Affairs, especially given recent "high-profile student issues." She also said failure to properly staff such functions "created severe vulnerabilities" in "the highest-profile safety and risk-management" issues and for federal compliance with Title IX and the Clery Act.

"I asked for help and support. That the university responded by eliminating the dean of students position, given the staffing shortages already, is unfathomable and is no no way in the best interests of students," Voorhees said in an email to the Missoulian.

In the fall, the U.S. Department of Education levied one of the largest fines on record against UM for violations of the Clery Act in reporting "inaccurate and misleading" crime statistics. UM made its own corrections and appealed the fine, and the department reduced it from $966,614 to $395,000.

***

UM confirmed it retained outside counsel to represent President Bodnar in the grievance. Spokeswoman Paula Short said UM hired lawyer Natasha P. Jones, who is a shareholder with Boone Karlberg, at the rate of $220 an hour; at press time, UM had not provided the contract after multiple requests since last week.

"We might choose to (retain outside counsel) for subject matter expertise, conflicts, or current workloads of in-house counsel. There also might be strategic reasons in some cases," Short said in an email.

UM provided some correspondence to the Missoulian in response to an earlier records request related to the dismissal of the dean. However, UM also withheld some records, and Voorhees earlier said the flagship omitted documents "selectively," including email communication she had with former acting provost Paul Kirgis.

The Missoulian made a follow-up request for specific correspondence between the dean and former acting provost to UM legal counsel. Legal counsel in the Commissioner's Office responded and denied access to the record.

Voorhees said she included examples of selectively omitted records in her grievance, and she believes they should come to light.

"My hope is that any and all records related to this case will be made available to the public. I believe the public has a right to know," Voorhees said in an email to the Missoulian.

***

The Commissioner's Office identified the Montana Board of Regents policy that governs the appeal.

Generally, an appeal can be brought by “any party adversely affected by the final decision of a university president.”

It states the commissioner "may in his or her discretion limit the scope of review to procedural matters." It also states the commissioner "may not substitute his or her judgment for the substantive decision made by the president, unless the president's decision was arbitrary and capricious, clearly erroneous based on the facts in the record, or violated some legally protected right of the appellant."

In her email in response to questions from the Missoulian, Voorhees said the grievance process concluded at the university in December. She said she and her attorney, William Rideg, submitted the appeal of President Bodnar's decision to the Commissioner's Office last month.

In her email, Voorhees said she spoke only on her own behalf and not as a representative of UM.

In August, Human Resource Services director Terri Phillips confirmed the dean remained "in good standing," but Monday, she did not comment further on the dean's status with UM.

"Rhondie Voorhees continues to be employed by UM.  Beyond that, I am unable to comment on pending employment issues," Phillips said.

***

After UM dismissed Voorhees, a campus spokeswoman said it was not unusual for a campus to have functions of a dean of students housed within a director of student conduct position and vice provost for student success.

Last month, UM brought on Sarah Swager as vice provost for student success. The website notes UM will recruit again for a director of student conduct; the timeline was unclear at press time.

"The search committee is preparing a new recruitment. Information on that recruitment will be posted on a new web page when more information is available," the campus said on the website.

ASUM President Butler said he is excited to hear Swager's plans for addressing students' needs.

He said many people think of the dean of students as a disciplinary position, but students also look to that professional for help with a variety of issues. For example, he said the dean serves as a mediator when students have trouble with each other or with professors or staff.

"If you're a student who has a problem with faculty, staff, administration, you have an ally. You have someone there to support you," Butler said.

He said Erinn Guzik, who temporarily filled in, "did an amazing job" as a student conduct officer, "but that's not the position. The title of it maybe even made it difficult for students to approach her."

He said Voorhees in particular helped students navigate resources on campus because she herself had "a great relationship" with Residence Life, the Student Advocacy Resource Center, and other campus offices. He said if she couldn't solve a crisis, she knew the person who could and served as the liaison.

"I've realized that getting a position filled to fill that void is going to be really, really important for students," Butler said.

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