A University of Montana student pushing free market ideals and limited government alleged she experienced politically motivated harassment encouraged by an anthropology professor.
Taylor Powell, a student in psychology and political science, said students told her to "f--- off" and "f--- your organization" as she worked at a table for a conservative group, Turning Point, U.S.A., in the University Center. She said at least four students made rude and vulgar remarks to her.
Last week, Powell made a formal complaint to the Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action office. A letter from the office noted it will investigate "whether it is more likely than not you experienced harassment resulting in a hostile environment due to your political ideas."
However, the letter also noted the discrimination policy at UM protects "academic freedom" and "constitutionally protected expression."
Powell, a junior, said she faced verbal harassment by students of Professor G.G. Weix after the professor sent them to "gather information" for a "methods class." She said Weix not only debated with her, the professor said she sent students to Powell.
"How'd you like my students?" Powell said Weix asked her.
At UM since 1992, Weix did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Missoulian via emails and a voicemail. The Missoulian also tried unsuccessfully to reach Weix through the chair of the Department of Anthropology.
Powell said she is speaking out because she does not want other students with different ideas to face the same hostility.
"I'm just trying to promote and expose a different viewpoint," Powell said. "And so it does make it incredibly difficult for students who are more shy and don't want to face the attacks from a professor and other students."
Powell said she is accustomed to debating ideas, but the students who confronted her in recent weeks crossed a line. She said she never felt unsafe and no one physically threatened her, but they swore at her and attacked her as a transplant.
She said she transferred to UM from the University of North Dakota because she wanted to join the political science department in Missoula: "These students were personally attacking me because I'm from North Dakota, which seems to be an issue."
Powell had been pleased that Turning Point, U.S.A., became an officially recognized club on campus last semester. She was volunteering to recruit members. She said she anticipated debates and isn't bothered by civil discourse.
"I think it's important to have these conversations, even if we do disagree," Powell said.
However, she said the attention and attacks were unusual. Last week, when she came to believe the unpleasant interactions were a product of an anthropology class, she broke down and cried, and she questioned whether she could withstand the insults.
"If this is how it's going to be every single week, different professors, the same professor, sending students after me, it would be definitely a difficult task to endure," Powell said.
She said she filed the complaint so other students who aren't as bold will be protected from similar attacks. This week, she said she will continue to work tables for the club, which notes on its website it aims to recruit students and "empower free market activists."
Turning Point has engaged with UM previously. Its website states it combines culture and politics to “rebrand free market values” and engage young people, and it claims “a stronger, more organized presence” than “all of the left-wing campus groups combined.”
In 2016, Turning Point placed on a “Professor Watchlist” Tobin Miller Shearer, director of the African-American Studies Program at UM and associate professor of history, after one of his lectures about white privilege. The list notes it names professors who "advance leftist propaganda."
Shearer is currently the only professor on the list from Montana.
In an earlier blog post, Shearer said he had received death threats as a result of being named, but in an email Tuesday, he said being on the list has become more of an annoyance.
“The primary crime of those of us who are listed is that we don’t agree with Kirk (conservative activist Charlie Kirk) and his Turning Point colleagues,” Shearer wrote in a post.
Powell said the Turning Point recruitment at UM so far has been successful, with more than 30 members joining Turning Point.
She isn't the first conservative to run into friction in Missoula and at UM.
In 2011, retired law professor and outspoken conservative Rob Natelson was denied emeritus status at UM despite producing a significant body of scholarly work compared to his colleagues and receiving merit pay increases for excellence in teaching and research.
More recently, the former dean of the School of Journalism pulled the plug in 2017 on sponsoring conservative columnist and flamethrower Mike Adams of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. A benefactor held the lecture anyway, and the First Amendment event packed a theater at UM.
In an email, Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Director Jessica Weltman said complaints to her office concerning political views are not common. She said UM's discrimination policy prohibits harassment based on "political ideas," and it also protects "academic freedom" and "constitutionally protected expression."
"This means that the Discrimination Policy cannot be applied in a way that it restricts academic freedom or free speech," Weltman said in an email.
She could not comment directly on the case. However, she said her office makes an effort to conclude investigations within 60 days, and she addressed possible outcomes for a case that involves a faculty member.
"If conduct involves an employee, any decision about response or repercussions are decided by the 'University administrator with the authority to impose sanctions in accordance with applicable employment policies and procedures and collective bargaining agreements.'"
Weix did not response to requests to explain the course, the class assignment, or how the directive to "gather information" as described by Powell may have gone awry in the UC.