Reviewing MSU’s response to 2014 sexual misconduct complaints

A female student came forward with sexual misconduct complaints against former associate professor Todd Feeley just after the Fourth of July in 2014, resulting in an eight-month sexual misconduct case. At that time, former MSU Title IX Coordinator, Kathleen Grimes, began interviewing the complainant and various other students about a summer geology field camp. Students said that Feeley drank excessively, lost a few students, leaving them with no geology instruction, and caused one female student so much discomfort she spent the trip avoiding him in an effort to not make him angry and get an unsatisfactory grade.

The initial report from the Title IX office concluded on Oct. 31. On Nov. 19, a second student came forward with allegations of “verbal abuse” to the extent that she feared being near Feeley in class and offices. With the new allegation, the university asked Grimes to investigate the second case before acting on the first because of “the necessity to be thorough,” Executive Director of University Communications, Tracy Ellig, said.

On Nov. 13 of this year, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle released an article questioning whether MSU was slow to react to the alleged sexual misconduct of Feeley. After a year-long legal fight between the university and the paper, 87 pages of emails and documents were released to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle pertaining to the case. Various professors and leaders in the Earth Sciences Department requested quick action in the obtained emails. The Department of Earth Sciences Head Dave Mogk wrote in an email, “Is there any hope we can get the President and Provost to take clear and decisive action in this case to send a message to the department, campus and community that this type of behavior absolutely will not be tolerated at MSU?”

However, MSU officials responded to student allegations quickly, “often within hours,” the Chronicle reported. Although, Feeley was still receiving paychecks as an MSU professor when the Title IX report was completed on Dec. 8, eight months after the complaints were first filed. This was due, in part, to the bureaucratic processes surrounding a Title IX Complaint. Ellig said, “What some people characterize as bureaucracy others characterize as due process, which means going through a thorough process for both the complainant and the accused to arrive at a fair resolution. We believe that this process moved along at a reasonable pace given the complexity of these issues.”

University Provost, Martha Potvin emailed President Waded Cruzado the reports on Dec. 17, a week after the investigations concluded. Cruzado responded in 16 minutes, reminding Potvin about confidentiality, and requested that they not delay action until after the Christmas, rather, notifying Feeley that week that he was not to work with students and focus on research for the spring 2015 semester. Feeley, however, took medical leave, further delaying the decision until after the spring semester when his medical leave expired. In addition to the previous complaints against Feeley, a female student reported a violation in Feb. 2015 and asked for her office lock to be changed. In March, Feeley took his own life.

According to Ellig, Feeley “was told to stay away from the students immediately,” but was still allowed to walk around Traphagen Hall and use his office until the second student came forward. From the perspective of professor Dave Lageson via an email obtained from the Chronicle, “it is beginning to appear that the university is not taking this very seriously, despite the severe allegations.”

However, Ellig wanted to make clear that the university responds to each complaint based on its severity, while still preserving due process. Ellig said, “It’s a rare case where we would suspend faculty before investigating. The accusations made against Feeley are protected confidential information, but I can tell you the accusations did not include rape.”

When allegations of rape and sexual misconduct against former MSU Symphony Orchestra conductor Shuichi Komiyama were brought forward, he was immediately suspended from campus before the Title IX investigation even began. Ellig emphasized that if the allegations against Feeley were that serious, more severe actions would have been taken.

In response to the Chronicle’s article, Ellig wanted to emphasize that “the reporter does not know what the actual accusation was, [and she] never reported any dissatisfaction on the behalf of the complainants.” Despite the eight months between the first allegation and Feeley taking his own life, Ellig defended the process, “There needs to be an understanding that there is a process that needs to be followed and that process takes time. As much as we’d like things to happen in an instant, people are entitled to due process.”

Ellig encourages any student dealing with harassment to contact the Office of Institutional Equity at (406) 994-2042. The current Title IX Coordinator, Jyl Shaffer, can give students an accurate timeline of Title IX Complaint proceedings. Ellig said,“the university did act. It started investigating immediately.”