MISSOULA — A group backing Pat Williams’ confirmation to the Montana Board of Regents has rallied behind the former U.S. congressman, saying his work on behalf of the University of Montana outweighs any statements he made to the New York Times regarding the university’s past football recruiting practices.
Supporters launched a petition late Monday asking Billings Sen. Jeff Essmann, regents and Gov. Steve Bullock to endorse Williams’ pending confirmation to the board, which sets policies for the Montana University System.
Posted on Change.org, the petition had 790 supporters by Tuesday morning, but had surpassed 1,000 by mid-afternoon. They’d also launched the Twitter handle “Stick with Pat” in seeking support.
“I want to go to school in a place where rape and assault aren’t OK and the people in charge of looking after the university aren’t afraid to say so,” said Aylinn Inmon, who helped launch the petition. “Because (Williams) has always stood up for this school, for students, for lower tuition and higher education in Montana, I believe he should absolutely be confirmed to the Board of Regents.”
The move among supporters seeking Williams’ confirmation counters an opposing petition launched by a group of UM football fans who are seeking his removal from the Board of Regents.
That petition, which is circulating on eGriz.com, asks the Governor’s Office and higher education officials to censure Williams and block his confirmation to the statewide board.
Backers of that petition have repeatedly declined to discuss the matter with the Missoulian.
“Mr. Williams’ statements are now national news,” their petition says. “Your decisive action to terminate the appointment of Mr. Williams will also be national news.”
The two opposing camps emerged after Williams told the New York Times in a January interview that the university had recruited “thugs” to its football program.
“We’ve had sex assaults, vandalism, beatings by football players,” Williams told the Times. “The university has recruited thugs for its football team, and this thuggery has got to stop.” He made similar comments to ESPN.com.
Williams later clarified his statement, telling the Missoulian he was referring to past crimes committed by a handful of football players, one of whom was recently convicted of raping a childhood friend.
Some Grizzly football fans maintain that Williams’ comments were misleading and, given the reach of the Times article, gave the UM football program a national black eye.
“Publicly labeling our football players as ‘thugs’ is obviously untrue and knowingly damaging,” their petition reads. “These young men have dedicated the better part of their lives to achieve this level of collegiate athletics, resulting in nationally recognized academic and athletic success.”
William’s supporters disagree. They believe that Williams, as a former UM student, faculty member and parent of three UM graduates, has always had the university’s best interest at heart.
“Pat has been a longtime ally for Montana students and education,” said Cynthia Wolken, a member of the Missoula City Council and a petition supporter. “After his time in D.C., he moved back to teach in Montana when he could have stayed there. I know him personally. He’s very positive about the university, the students there and their potential.”
The petition calls Williams “eminently qualified” to serve on the Board of Regents. It cites his chairmanship of the House Committee on Postsecondary Education during his service in Congress.
Williams was appointed to the Board of Regents last year by Gov. Brian Schweitzer. He faces a confirmation hearing next month. Regents are confirmed by either the Senate Administrative Committee or the Senate Education Committee.
The Montana University System hasn’t commented on either petition being circulated. A spokesman for the MUS has told the Missoulian that while the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education disagrees with Williams’ comments, regents are entitled to their opinions.
“The Board of Regents is confident that the student-athletes, coaching staff and administration are committed to representing UM and the Montana University System with both honor and integrity,” the other regents offered in a recent statement.