Students push for discrimination policy update

Student government representatives from MSU and the University of Montana have proposed revisions to the Montana Board of Regents’ (BOR) non-discrimination policy, but the board is waiting to act on the potential revisions until it understands the implications of the proposal.

The new proposal comes from a joint resolution passed by the student governments of both universities, and would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the BOR’s statewide non-discrimination policy. The policy provides legal protection for employees and students on university campuses.

These protections are currently in place at the campus level at MSU, and include sexual orientation but not gender identity.

The BOR decided not to include the resolution on the official agenda for its November meeting. However, university students and other representatives spoke about the resolution during a public comment session.

“It’s really good that we got it on the public record,” said Kiah Abbey, MSU student body president. “It shows that we’re moving forward and trying to gain support from smaller universities.”

The Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education offered three reasons why the BOR has postponed approval of the resolution: Policy changes may be more appropriate on the campus level, the fiscal impact has not been determined and commissioners have not heard stories of concern that would require a policy change.

Kevin McRae, associate commissioner of higher education, is concerned that universities outside Bozeman and Missoula have not had the chance to provide their input. He also said the BOR has not determined the full intent of the proposed policy changes.

“We’re not sure if the policy change is intended to go further, such as the construction or remodeling of facilities,” he said. This could involve the creation of more unisex bathrooms, an idea brought to ASMSU by a concerned student in the fall of 2011.

In addition, McRae explained the BOR would like to have at least one-third of Montana university student governments participate in the discussion until it moves forward. “We don’t want to impose policy changes [other student governments] haven’t had the opportunity to weigh in and give input on,” he said.

Despite these concerns, McRae said, “It is admirable that students are taking the initiative to do the right thing.”

Troy Duker, a former MSU student senator who helped draft the resolution, explained, “This is Montana, and we don’t have a long history of recognizing the LGBTQ community.” Though the resolution is being held up, he recognizes that “it’s going to be a process” and changes are not going to take place overnight.

However, Abbey takes issue with the BOR’s reasons for delaying action on the resolution. “This is a safety and quality of education concern,” she said. “Students at campuses outside the flagships should not have to wait to feel safe.”

McRae explained that if urgent safety concerns were present, the BOR would more swiftly address the resolution. In addition, the BOR would work with campus administrations to protect students in the event of reported incidents of harassment.

In the meantime, Abbey, Duker and other backers of the policy changes will work to gather support from other student governments. “Knowing [the board is] waffling on my own protections is frustrating,” Duker said, “but I can only be supportive in the direction they’re heading.”

The BOR is currently assembling an implementation committee to evaluate the resolution, Abbey said.

To view the current BOR non-discrimination policy, visit mus.edu/borpol/bor700/703.htm.