BUTTE — Some faculty and students at Montana Tech plan an unprecedented boycott of the university’s spring commencement in protest of the ceremony’s featured speakers, a wealthy couple from Bozeman whose critics say have radical social and religious views.
Greg and Susan Gianforte are best known for founding RightNow Technologies, a hugely successful software engineering company sold in 2012 for $1.5 billion. He is an electrical engineer and computer scientist by trade and she has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA.
But the couple is also known for their involvement with an affiliate of Focus on the Family, and with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative political think tank in Washington, D.C. The Gianforte Family Foundation made a donation in 2009 to the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum, which presents a faith-based view that the world was created only a few thousand years ago and that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. And Susan Gianforte recently testified against an ordinance proposed in Bozeman that would bar discriminating against people because of their sexual orientation, a measure based on a similar law passed in Butte last month.
Outraged Tech professors who plan to skip the ceremony say the Gianfortes’ beliefs fly in the face of the science being taught on campus. And one student group is considering holding its own graduation ceremony with a different speaker.
“In 24 years at Montana Tech, I’ve never heard about faculty or students boycotting a grad ceremony. It’s unprecedented,” said Pat Munday, the head of the technical communications department. “Do we want to give people with those extreme social conservative views a platform and legitimize them as graduation speakers?”
Greg Gianforte said the speech he and his wife are planning is strictly about engineering and how to be successful.
“My wife is going to talk about her educational career as a mechanical engineer, and specifically the uniqueness of being a woman engineer and the opportunities that created in her career,” he said. “I’m also an engineer. That’s why we have such synergy with the Diggers. I want to talk about a couple of lessons I’ve learned and provide that advice to graduates to help them find satisfaction and contentment in their work.”
He said he and his wife are not in favor of discrimination.
“This is all much ado about nothing,” he said. “At RightNow we employed gays and we ran a complete meritocracy. This will not be any part of the presentation at Tech. We won’t do anything to embarrass the faculty or Butte or Montana Tech.”
But some on campus are already cringing.
“I think (the Gianfortes are) a bad choice,” said Henry Gonshak, a professor of English in the liberal studies department. “For one, their very active affiliation with Focus on the Family, which is an extremely homophobic organization. It claims to be able to cure gay people, which can’t be done and just makes them miserable.”
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Gonshak teaches a gay studies class and noted that the college has pledged not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
“There’s also the fact that they’re creationists,” he said. “We’re a science-oriented college that teaches evolution. Do we want commencement speakers who are creationists and believe the world was created 6,000 years ago?”
Student Caleb Hill said he and other students are writing letters to Chancellor Don Blackketter to express their disappointment. They’re also considering an alternative ceremony with a different speaker, calling the choice to have the Gianfortes speak a “slap in the face” to Tech’s gay community.
“To polarize the public at a science school seems like a poor choice on my end,” Hill said. “It seems like they’re very accomplished in the tech world, but there are a hundred better choices.”
Chris Danielson, an associate professor of history in the liberal studies department, met Tuesday with Blackketter to discuss faculty concerns about the choice of speakers.
“It was a very positive discussion,” said Danielson, the campus adviser for the Alliance for Equality, the student lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group. “Some faculty were upset about (the Gianfortes’) support of issues of creationism. I was talking more about their support of various anti-gay groups, like the Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family. Blackketter said he understood the points I was raising about how this would be received.”
In an interview with the Standard, Blackketter said he chose the Gianfortes because of their inspiring business story.
The Gianfortes have not given any money to Montana Tech, the chancellor said. But they have partnered with Tech in the Code Montana program, which gives scholarships to high school students hoping to pursue degrees in computer science after the students complete a free online program.
“It’s something that speaks to how they’re invested in higher education and Montana Tech,” Blackketter said. “We have quadrupled our applicants to the computer science program.”
Blackketter said he was unaware of the Gianfortes’ religious and social beliefs until just recently.
“It’s important to remember what grad commencement is all about,” he said. “It’s not political agendas or religious beliefs; it’s about sending the graduates off into the world after they’ve had great accomplishments.”