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Amid Right-Wing War on Higher Ed, Montana State Students Fear for Their Lives

LGBTQ students targeted by death threats say they have dropped out of classes and have trouble going to sleep at night.

Spring campus scene at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana.

On February 16, the Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) at Montana State University (MSU), a student club dedicated providing community to LGBTQ+ students and community members, received an email from an anonymous email account. The email said, “Sinners of the QSA you must repent and turn to … the white god of Christianity,” and threatened to kill everyone at an off-campus dance party that same evening.

The students flew into action when they received the email, despite their fear. They spread the word far and wide so it could reach anyone they thought might be attending the event, they contacted multiple campus and police agencies, began arranging alternative housing for students who were afraid to return to their homes, and even set up a clothing resource for students who thought they might be targeted due to an overt LGBTQIA+ presentation. Coming in the wake of the mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs as well as other recent attacks at trans and queer events, they took the threat seriously and worked to protect each other and their community.

The email was signed “TPUSA MSU-Bozeman” and sent from the secure email provider, Proton. The Turning Point USA (TPUSA) chapter on campus sent a statement firmly disavowing both the content of the email and that it had anything to do with their club. Turning Point USA is a right-wing organization that maintains a “professor watch list,” and which actively stokes the flames of attacks on the lives of trans and queer people. The MSU club is unofficial because it does not currently have a faculty adviser.

An Atmosphere of Fear

The hate-filled, threatening email arrived into a context in which many students already had grievances against the university’s administration.

Contrary to what Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis say, universities are not bastions of leftist, “woke” thinking. In fact, universities across the U.S. are bowing to Republican pressure, and in some cases, like MSU Bozeman, are even enabling right-wing attacks on students and faculty. Through a combination of false equivalencies, silence and an atmosphere that punishes students and faculty for speaking out, Montana State University is allowing violent speech to thrive on its campus.

The result is a pervasive environment of fear in which faculty are afraid to have their names appear in the press, students have dropped out because of the stress and at least one student has attempted suicide. In March, the Montana Human Rights Network even issued an alert about the campus.

The environment at the school is partly driven by the changing politics in Montana, which has become increasingly conservative since the 2016 election; in 2021, right-wing millionaire Greg Gianforte, well-known for having assaulted a journalist, came to power as governor in the state with a new Republican legislative supermajority. As a public university, MSU is dependent on state funding and favor from politicians. Gianforte has exerted influence on MSU with donations from his family foundation, while the Republican supermajority has debated changing the state constitution to assume greater authority over university governance.

One student, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said this “whole process is really triggering to what’s happened in the past because it just shows MSU’s lack of care. And their lack of action, which is something that we said years ago was harmful.” The student points to MSU’s repeated failure over the last several years to remove white supremacist flyers on campus, and responses from MSU’s equity officers that minimize racist comments and their effects by emphasizing that the remarks don’t represent a majority of students.

According to all the students and faculty that spoke with Truthout, the administration did not make any public response after the email. The administration told Truthout that they met the next morning with “all the relevant administrative units to debrief on what was known and what action could be taken,” including reaching out to offer support services to members of the QSA. However the first campus-wide statement from the university was five weeks later, an email that was long delayed if the intent was to inform campus members. This is in contrast to the many alerts sent out recently to the entire campus about a cyber-attack.

In the interim, without any official statement from the university, students took it upon themselves to inform each other of what was going on, eventually organizing a well-attended teach-in on the events. The lack of official response and students’ desire to inform their impacted classmates, however, also led to rumors. Multiple faculty that spoke with Truthout said that they became aware of the threat and the situation because the students’ distress bubbled over into class time. Sources stressed that they did not have a clear way to dispel rumors from facts without any public discussion by the administration.

It isn’t just DeSantis and others like him that claim universities are bastions of so-called left-wing views like diversity and equity. Many students and faculty are attracted to university life because they believe it will be a safe place. Indeed, the values extolled in university mission statements echo this sentiment, placing diversity and inclusion squarely within the university’s purpose. When the university fails to live up to these values and create that safe place, it can be traumatizing.

The Right-Wing Threat Off Campus

Weeks after the death threat was received by the Queer Straight Alliance and before the university issued a formal statement about it, a lawsuit relating to incidents that happened in 2021 was settled, Danley v. Christian et al.

One issue in the free speech suit was a no-contact order that was issued by the Office of Institutional Equity at MSU for two students in the same sorority, Daria Danley and Alexandra Lin. The no-contact order was issued in 2021 after Danley was alleged to have used racial and anti-LGBTQIA+ slurs “on more than one occasion to identify individuals publicly in the sorority house and during sorority functions,” among a long list of other actions constituting discrimination and harassment, according to the Title IX complaint filed by the university. Lin, a Taiwanese student, says that on one occasion, she found a noose in her closet in the sorority house.

Backed by a lawyer with a right-wing political history, Danley sued the university. Despite Lin’s insistence that the university not drop the no-contact order, MSU settled the suit under terms that included dropping this order. The settlement was widely publicized on “alt-right” websites like the TPUSA-affiliated College Fix and Breitbart as a “victory over pronouns.” This was construed as a “win” by the likes of Breitbart — and it brought Alexandra Lin’s name to the attention of right-wingers nationally.

Within days, Lin, a queer Asian American student, received a graphic and pornographic Nazi image and an email that said “Hi [anti-Chinese slur redacted] I have people watching over your house day and night.” That same evening, an unordered pizza was delivered to her home address in the name of a local member of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), another right-wing site of campus organizing. Lin fled the state for a few days.

Like the email to QSA, these threats take place in a larger political context of active legislation against trans people, and the censorship of speech and knowledge about queer people and Black, Indigenous and people of color, and their histories. Throughout these events, some of these same students being targeted were also going to the Montana state legislature to protest a slew of anti-trans bills and to support trans State Rep. Zooey Zephyr’s right to speak in the chamber.

Japanese faculty member Tomomi Yamaguchi says that she feels afraid hearing the threats that have been made against Lin and their specifically racist and anti-Asian rhetoric. Yamaguchi highlights that these threats take place in a context of increased attacks against Asian American and Pacific Islander communities nationally.

To date, the only official administrative response informing the university community of the situation on campus has been an email with the vague subject line “As It Snows…”

In the email, university president Waded Cruzado equates the death threat received by the Queer Straight Alliance with a remark made a few weeks later to a member of the conservative Young Americans for Liberty in the middle of an argument during YAL’s event. Highlighting both incidents, Cruzado says her “heart goes out to” those impacted by these “several difficult situations.” Alexandra Lin, meanwhile, has dropped out of classes for the semester.

The Many Ways to Twist “Free Speech”

When Jackson Sledge, a reporter for the university’s student newspaper the Exponent, wrote a comprehensive story on the death threat received by the QSA as well as student reactions to it, he found himself in a battle for messaging with university communications director and vice president Tracy Ellig. Sledge, an Asian American student, says that Ellig’s quotations in the article were “corrected” in an irregular process. According to Sledge, Ellig said that the university had not responded officially to the email or warned students about it because “the university speaks through its action” and pointed to the university’s creation of several offices and positions dedicated to diversity and inclusion. (Ellig gave Truthout the same answer.) Ellig has also said that the administration was afraid of inadvertently platforming the message.

According to Sledge, in their interview, Ellig also compared the death threats to other forms of speech on campus and said that the First Amendment limited the ability of the administration to intervene. Many people Truthout spoke with had heard this same messaging from upper administration. After Sledge’s story came out, however, the paper was contacted to remove the quote. Soon after, Sledge resigned as a reporter when he was confronted with a contract from the editor-in-chief limiting his ability to cover controversial stories.

The story fits the pattern shown in other statements and evidence provided to Truthout demonstrating multiple attempts by Cruzado and Ellig to firmly control the narrative, and avoid the university receiving any negative attention from the state legislature or other political forces. Sledge says the intimidation from university officials has been as unsettling as the other threats. “I’m scared of the bigots but I’m more scared of the institution,” he said.

According to Paul Lachapelle, a professor of political science at the university, the attempt by the upper administration to avoid external controversy — demonstrated in its lack of public response to the threats — is par for the course. Lachapelle presented multiple meeting records showing that over the last several years, Cruzado has been pushing senior officials and other faculty to reduce public-facing work that could potentially garner negative attention from the state’s politicians. Lachapelle cites the lack of action and slowed progress around the university’s climate action plan. He also cites his own removal from a public-facing role on community climate resiliency as evidence that this authoritarian attitude is being transmitted into action at MSU.

The university applied a similar “free speech” argument to the presence of pride flags. That is, they advised faculty not to fly them.

After the email in February, students approached deans around the university and asked them to hang MSU-affiliated pride flags in order to affirm support for trans and queer students on campus. After the heads of some colleges agreed, they were then told by university administration that they could not hang pride flags. The reasoning? MSU’s free speech policy would require the departments to agree to hang any flag, including a Nazi flag, if they agreed to the pride flag.

When contacted by Truthout for comment, the university administration responded, “University policy doesn’t allow expressive materials to be hung in or on university buildings. It doesn’t matter the content or the reason.”

This extreme commitment to a particular understanding of free speech contrasts with the many government and public buildings that hang pride flags regularly. After this incident, even the university bookstore took down its existing pride flag.

The American Association of University Professors, a historic national organization that advocates for academic freedom and the rights of university faculty, has stated that “academic freedom cannot be understood to support misgendering … or otherwise serve as an excuse for transphobia or the diminishment of trans, intersex, gender-nonconforming, and nonbinary persons and their lives.”

Curiously, this commitment to “avoiding the appearance of impropriety” when it comes to bias and free speech does not seem to apply to the university’s own relationship with Montana Governor Gianforte. In 2022, the university made an exception to its own policy and named a new building after Gianforte in thanks for a $50 million donation from his family foundation.

Betrayal of Diversity Initiatives — and Students

The people on campus that spoke with Truthout emphasized again and again that what they wanted was for the university administration to affirm and live up to its own stated values. Administrators’ refusal to do this is a reflection of a changing political environment in Montana, but it is also part of a national trend of administrative responses to attacks on higher education and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts.

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education story on the silence of college leaders in response to direct attacks on DEI initiatives ends with the following quote from Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education: “As the recent spate of legislative attacks has shown, … their efforts are having their intended chilling effect — silencing the voices of leaders who, just three years ago, were acknowledging the necessity of higher-education institutions to address racial inequities during the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.”

Students and faculty have called for the university to more strongly affirm its own stated commitments to diversity and inclusion, in addition to creating offices on campus (the actions that Ellig points to). They point out that not stating these values strongly also sends a message.

Students and faculty highlighted that the administration should be focused on the harm that was caused (including taking accountability for its own role), rather than focusing on their own challenges and defending their actions. One faculty member who wanted to remain anonymous said that when Cruzado did have meetings with faculty, it felt as though “they were justifying their actions … they were looking for strategies that would be palatable.”

Many of the people that Truthout spoke to seemed to be experiencing what psychologists have called “institutional betrayal.” According to Carly Parnitzke Smith and Jennifer J. Freyd, institutional betrayal “occurs when an institution causes harm to an individual who trusts or depends upon that institution.” It is a result of harm done to any member of an institution, and can be caused by both action and inaction. In other words, “institutions (e.g., workplaces, schools, religious organizations) have the potential to either worsen posttraumatic outcomes or become sources of justice, support, and healing.” Over and over, students and faculty have asked the MSU administration to validate the experiences of students, especially those who were targeted and those who regularly experience racism on campus, and to take steps to protect them. They have been consistently rebuffed.

The effects of institutional betrayal can be quite serious, as demonstrated on the Montana State University campus, where students targeted by death threats have dropped out of classes and say they have trouble going to sleep at night. Lin said, “I had to get a friend to walk me to and from each class and I had to wait for them to come. Because I was scared to be alone.”

The actions and inactions of the administration at MSU have serious consequences. By focusing exclusively on avoiding controversy, the university seems to have emboldened white supremacist and fascist attacks. They have endangered the core work of the university. Lachapelle said he wishes that everyone at MSU was able to “start doing our jobs instead of focusing on keeping our jobs.”

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