The Montana Board of Regents wants to address sexual-assault issues on all of the state's university and colleges campuses following a spate of incidents — and an ongoing investigation — at the University of Montana.
At Thursday's meeting in Helena, board members expressed concern about the serious nature of recent sexual attacks at UM and voiced their commitment to preventing similar acts on other Montana campuses.
"We really believe there needs to be a systematic and systemic plan for what we're learning here about changing the culture of any kind of tolerance or silence in regard to this issue," said Shelia Stearns, commissioner of higher education.
Many of the regents commended UM President Royce Engstrom for the way he's handled news of multiple sexual-assault allegations involving UM students, both on and off the Missoula campus. UM launched an ongoing investigation into the reports and has asked anyone with information to come forward.
Spring semester classes at UM begin next week. The university plans to host several student information sessions on the alleged sexual assaults and the ongoing investigation.
The regents on Thursday called the attacks "intolerable" and reaffirmed their commitment to safe school environments. This is not a problem limited to UM, student regent Joe Thiel said.
He requested that each campus evaluate the way sexual assaults are handled and report back to the board with ways to improve prevention and reporting methods.
"I take the reported incidents at the University of Montana very seriously, and I hope that lessons learned in the process of addressing these sexual assaults can be applied systemwide to ensure all University System students have the safe environment they deserve," Thiel said.
Stearns and Clayton Christian, who has been named to replace the retiring Stearns, promised to develop — in conjunction with campus leaders — an action timeline and systemwide approach for dealing with sexual assaults. That report will be presented at the March board meeting.
Part of that report will include talking with each university about long-term educational approaches to preventing sexual assaults on campus, Stearns said.
"It will have a commitment from campuses to change any kind of appearance or actuality of culture of silence about this problem," she said.
Engstrom plans to address the UM campus community Wednesday at a public forum to provide a midyear update on a variety of topics, including this one. He will take questions from the audience, and students, faculty, staff and the public are welcome to attend. At that forum, UM will announce the dates of future student forums, which will focus specifically on the sexual assault investigation.
The midyear update will take place from 4 to 5 p.m. in the University Center Theater.