This article was written in collaboration with ASMSU President Kiah Abbey due to her unique insight and involvement in this issue.
This fall, ASMSU and the Associated Students of the University of Montana (ASUM) co-wrote and passed a resolution supporting the addition of gender identity and sexual orientation or preference to the Montana University System’s non-discrimination policy.
The initiative was originally driven by a concern over the lack of unisex restrooms on the MSU campus. Senators in both bodies, however, found that the problem was rooted in the limited scope of our statewide university system’s non-discrimination policy.
After passing the resolution, the student senates sent the resolution on to Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education (OCHE) to add to November’s Board of Regents agenda.
The Board of Regents (BOR) is the body that oversees and sets the direction for the Montana University System. OCHE implements decisions made by the Board of Regents and also sets the agenda for BOR meetings.
Despite student support from the two largest campuses in the system, OCHE has delayed acting on the resolution. Currently, the Montana University System’s non-discrimination policy includes neither sexual orientation nor gender identity — state law protects sexual orientation but not gender identity. However, OCHE has encouraged individual campuses to be more comprehensive in the protection of individuals. Presently, both Montana State University and University of Montana include sexual orientation or preference in their policies, but do not include gender identity. The system policy will remain unchanged until brought to a vote at a Board of Regents meeting.
There appear to be three reasons for the delay:
The policy has the potential to create substantial change in the system. OCHE would like to have an implementation plan in place before passing the policy.
This policy change may be more appropriate at the campus level.
OCHE has not heard any stories of concern that would warrant the policy change.
These reasons, however, are not sufficient to address the fact that our state’s university system is leaving a portion of its constituents unprotected and underrepresented.
There are pressing needs to move this initiative forward in the upcoming months. First and foremost, we cannot afford to wait for an incident of discrimination to occur before we act to protect our students and citizens. As a university system, we must be proactive rather than reactive, especially when dealing with issues such as equality and discrimination. OCHE’s reason to postpone action until stories of concern emerge is short-sighted and dangerous.
Changes could be implemented campus-by-campus but, if universities each set their individual policies, it will be hard to ensure that all students attending Montana universities are subject to the same protections. Students — whether they attend UM-Western or MSU-Billings — should have the same assurance of protection.
If the whole university system addresses these unprotected people at the same time, there will be an opportunity for campuses to collaborate while creating implementation plans. In other words, each campus will be able to design a plan that meets their unique needs while consulting with other campuses.
Universities are composed of a more diverse population than their surrounding areas. As a result, the Montana University System has the opportunity and responsibility to lead the state in providing equal support for all individuals.
Finally, other universities in our region have already passed similar initiatives, including North and South Dakota and Wyoming. The Montana University System should be following the lead of these precedents rather than falling behind state regulations.
We can no longer have a system-level non-discrimination policy that is deficient in its protection of all people. We need to urge Commissioner Clay Christian and the Board of Regents to understand that we want a system that is proactive in its protocol surrounding hate crimes and discrimination, rather than reactive. A system that creates a culture of support for diversity of thought and ideas. Ultimately, one in which every student, staff and faculty member feels safe and comfortable to learn, work and make our state a better place.