MISSOULA — Student groups from the state’s two flagship universities have asked the Montana Board of Regents to put safety ahead of politics by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to its nondiscrimination policy.
The board didn’t take action on the student-driven request during its November meeting in Missoula, although it’s expected to consider the proposal in the months ahead.
“This needs to be well vetted,” said state Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian. “We need to look at it from a systemwide perspective.”
Student senate members from the University of Montana and Montana State University addressed regents on the issue, as did members of the Lambda Alliance and several individuals, including one transgender woman.
They were united in urging regents to add sexual orientation and gender identity to Policy 703 — the Montana University System’s nondiscrimination regulation.
“It’s crucial the Montana University System progresses in drafting a policy to ensure every person feels safe and welcome on campus,” said Kiah Abbey, president of the MSU student senate. “It not only supports our priority of access, but also creates campuses that foster diversity of thought and experience.”
Abbey asked regents to create a task force that’s co-chaired by a student. Adding the student, she said, would help members of the task force understand the plight of the gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual and queer community.
“I’ve always known that universities are places that challenge norms and foster new ways of thinking,” said UM student senator Topher Williams. “We need to make sure that students, faculty and staff are welcome on our campuses if want to continue our legacy of excellence.”
The push for a policy change found its spark in 2011 when a transgender MSU student realized the university had no private showers at the gym. She approached the MSU senate with her complaint, but the senate declined to act.
Frustrated, the woman followed with a letter to MSU Dean of Students Matt Caires, who took the issue back to the student senate. The group unanimously passed a resolution in September, urging regents to add sexual orientation, gender identity and preference to its nondiscrimination policy.
The student senate at UM followed with a resolution of its own, unifying the state’s two flagship institutions in their request to regents.
“I received a telephone call from MSU student senator Troy Duker, who informed me that (the regents’) policy doesn’t include protection for sexual orientation, gender identity or preference,” Williams said. “We both agreed that it should. Mr. Duker and myself worked closely to draft identical resolutions and passed them through our respective senates.”
Kevin McRae, associate commissioner with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said current regents policy is rooted in the statutory civil rights language for protected classes, which covers such things as age, race, sex and religion.
The language mirrors the nondiscrimination policies in place at UM and MSU. The campuses, however, have already taken the language one step further by adding sexual orientation.
“We have not updated our language in quite a while, and if the request was for the board to include sexual orientation in its policy, then we could probably do that pretty matter of factly,” McRae said. “It’s already been in the campuses’ policy for some time.”
While the policy at UM and MSU includes sexual orientation, it does not cover sexual identity. McRae said adding sexual identity to the regents’ policy would require more vetting.
“We certainly can see and understand the basic decency and respect that underlies or motivates this student government proposal,” McRae said. “But there are still some details that need to be communicated and some interests that need to be fleshed out.”
If sexual identity were added to the policy as a protected class, McRae said, the universities could be required to provide accommodations, such as separate showers and restrooms, for transgender students. It was something the vetting process would take a closer look at, along with any potential costs.
McRae added that while the UM and MSU student senates already have passed and submitted their resolution for a policy change, the regents have not received input from other student groups at other Montana University System campuses.
In the coming weeks, he said, student affairs officers — including the vice presidents for student affairs, provosts and deans, among other campus leaders — will be asked to look into the issue at their respected institution.
“They’ll give us guidance or feedback that could result in a proposal for a policy change,” McRae said. “If that were to happen, it could happen in March when the regents meet again in Helena. Procedurally, that’s how it works.”