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Martin Kidston

Martin Kidston

In early October, a former Montana State University student filed a lawsuit against the school alleging that she and other women had been sexually assaulted and harassed by a former music professor.

One week earlier, MSU suspended two fraternities over allegations that their members had sexually assaulted two women.

Two hundred miles away at the University of Montana, faculty members dealt with criticism from Missoula citizens who had seen “Montana” and “University” in the headlines for sexual assault.

Readers somehow missed the word “State” in the stories out of Bozeman, and given UM’s recent struggle to address its handling of sexual assault reports, some concluded that the attacks had occurred, yet again, at UM.

At a University Council meeting last week, one faculty member brought this up, saying he was tired of UM being linked to every sexual assault case on every other college campus.

He asked the logical question – what’s UM doing to protect its reputation and spread the word that it’s working to correct the past and emerge as a national leader on the issue.

The question prompted an interesting philosophical debate among those present. Does the university continue to discuss the progress it has made in handling complaints of sexual assault, but risk keeping the past alive in doing so?

Or should the university leave the past behind and focus on the good that’s taking place – the research that’s garnering national attention and the success of its students? Headline opportunities are limited and so, the thinking went, it must be one move or the other.

Opinions were mixed. As another faculty member noted, she will always think of Kent State for its shooting and Green River, Wash., for its serial killer. In her opinion, there is nothing wrong with continuing the discussion, even if doing so trumps other noteworthy topics of a more academic nature.

While Yale University drew the ire of the Department of Justice over its own handling of sexual assaults long before UM did, it’s UM that has emerged as a national leader on the issue, and whose reputation may be tied to the controversy for many years.

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But this may not be a bad thing.

Michael Reid, vice president of administration and finance, was recently in Oregon with representatives from universities in Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.

“When we started talking about sexual assault, everyone wanted to know what UM had done and what we can help them with,” Reid said. “They’re all looking at us.”

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Reid reiterated his point by noting the recent cases at MSU, and how well university officials there had responded to the incidents. That response was strong thanks to the work done at UM, and the training it has offered on the issue, he said.

“They were well trained because they attended the training that was put on here,” Reid said. “Montana in general is better off, and those in other states are looking at us and asking how we moved forward.”

UM’s mandatory student tutorial on the issue, Personal Empowerment Through Self Awareness (PETSA), also has caught on at other universities. Christine Fiore, a professor of psychology who helped develop the program, noted that Vanderbilt University recently launched its own VU-PETSA program using materials created at UM.

“We have requests from a lot of different schools trying to work through the process and trying to do mandatory education,” Fiore said.

Beth Hubble, co-director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at UM, noted the same thing earlier this year.

“With PETSA in particular, we’ve had several other universities contact us to use it,” she said, also naming the University of North Carolina. “It’s seen as a DOJ-approved training tool, and we’ve given it to them to use and adapt.”

The study of distant planets, bees and human health are far more glamorous and traditional for a university aimed at research and student success.

But as those in the room suggested, there may be nothing wrong with taking something as dark as sexual assaults and turning it into a positive, helping universities across the country tackle the issue using the response tools created at UM after its own ugly experience with the subject.

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Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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