The University of Montana, Campus Rape, and the Penn State Disease

The Justice Department is investigating this issue, so I am hardly going to get to the bottom of it in a blog post. But there is obviously a rape and sexual assault problem at the University of Montana, and to conclude that the administration is a large part of the problem doesn’t take much of investigation. This certainly appears to be a school suffering from the Penn State disease, in which the values of the institution place public relations, spin and, once again, football above the welfare of past, present and future victims.

Let us just begin with this salient fact:  and President Royce Engstrom still has his job. In February, a student who was a Saudi national was accused in two campus incidents, one involving a rape, and another involving sexual assault. Records show that the first action taken by the administration, in the person of now-retired UM Dean of Students Charles Couture, was to alert the accused, advise him, and suggest that he get out of Dodge before he could be arrested—which he did, fleeing to Saudi Arabia. The police didn’t learn about the complaints for a week, and by then the alleged student rapist was long gone. Then Engstrom had the jaw-dropping gall to tell the press that this was a good thing, and that his staff had acted in a “timely” and “appropriate” fashion. “We can let people know we have dealt with these (alleged assaults) and that particular perpetrator is gone,” Engstrom said.

In a word, unbelievable.

Yes, the University dealt with the assaults—by making sure that the perpetrator was never arrested or tried. It was timely, all right—perfectly timed to let the assailant get way with multiple sexual assaults. And yes, the “perp” is usually “gone” when he is allowed to escape.

With an attitude like this, is there any question that the Montana campus is increasingly regarded as a playground for rapists? It tells us a lot about the culture at UM that Couture had been in the administration for 44 years, and this was how he felt a rape accusation should be handled: tell the accused before the police.

One would think this school would be expert at handling rape scenarios. Last December, for example, it hired an investigator to look into two alleged gang rapes on campus, one of which involved members of the football team. When one of the victims spoke publicly about UM’s sluggish handling of her case,  University of Montana Vice President Jim Foley suggested to Couture that the school should punish…her.  “Is it not a violation of the student code of conduct for the woman to be publicly talking about the process and providing details about the conclusion?” Foley emailed Couture in March. “Help me understand please.”

This and other e-mails were obtained by the local paper, the Missoulian, through the Freedom of Information Act. They show administrators desperately trying to exercise damage control over the rape allegations, spinning, ducking, and showing more concern for the school’s reputation than the safety of students. For example,  President Engstrom suggested that UM’s original announcement that it was investigating allegations of “date rape” on campus open with a report by that UM’s Missoula campus was rated “the safest in the state,” though nationally, it ranked in the bottom half of the 450 campuses studied. In another exchange, the UM brass decided to delay releasing the school’s final report on the assault allegations so that it wouldn’t coincide with a scheduled restraining order hearing involving sexual assault charges filed against UM’s starting quarterback. “I would prefer to not send this out on that day for the same news cycle the following day,” Foley wrote. You’re right of course, Mr. Foley. Heck, people might begin to think your school has a sexual assault problem or something!

The Missoulian also reports that the leadership of the university didn’t regard an American Council on Education Sexual Assault webinar  held in January as a high priority.  “Sexual Assault and Crime on Campus: What Higher Education Leaders Need to Know,” was sponsored by the National Association of College and University Attorneys, and UM Legal Counsel David Aronofsky urged a number of UM administrators to attend. Engstrom, however—you know, the President who thinks the appropriate way to handle an on-campus rapist is to make sure he escapes?—couldn’t spare the time, and designated his assistant to attend. She missed it too, however, telling Aronofsky that “The day was too crazy.”

Here is what is crazy. It is crazy that universities, all of which have the cultural spores to grow a Sandusky-level scandal, look at the Penn State catastrophe and reason, “It can’t happen here.” All universities, like all institutions of any kind, are prone to tunnel vision, loss of perspective, and ethics rot, as the welfare of the institution itself becomes such an all-engulfing mission that ethical imperatives are warped, forgotten or ignored. The University of Montana has an escalating case of the Penn State disease, and doesn’t even recognize the symptoms.


Pointer: Arthur Davison (Thanks!)


Graphic: University of Montana

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

17 thoughts on “The University of Montana, Campus Rape, and the Penn State Disease

  1. This is creepy scary. I suspect I’ll try to write this up later in a longer piece than would be an appropriate comment (I’ll link it here if and when I finish it), but a couple of initial thoughts:

    There are two issues here–the first is the “Penn State culture” of protecting athletic programs at all costs. This has, as you know, already infected high schools as well: I just wrote about a recent case in Pennsylvania, and we both wrote about the Texas case last year. The problem is especially pronounced if the jock in question happens to be a star (or a coach) in a sport where the school has a legacy of winning: Penn State and Montana football, Syracuse basketball, etc.

    But accompanying this is the de-valuing of rape and sexual assault as an issue–this is suggested by your last post, as well. The usual excuses (“she was asking for it,” “boys will be boys,” and variations on the theme) get trotted out. The same “blame the victim” mentality comes into play. More problematically (because seemingly more innocently), public relations concerns trump safety. We don’t want to make it seem as if an incident is anything but an isolated event, an aberration, an anomaly. There is prudence in this thinking. There is also denial.

    I was talking with one of my students a couple days ago about the “training” she has to go through to be able to be a counselor for our high school camp. This “training” consists of watching a stupid video and answering a couple of questions that anyone with a brain could answer without the video, in part because the answer is always the one that most suggests that there’s a problem. Such exercises are met with contempt by students because they deserve to be.

    I contrasted this with the training I received 20 years or so ago on rape crisis intervention. This was a 4-day event that contained real information, real strategies, real approaches. Was it worth it? Well, I’ve only used that training three times in 20 years… but I’ve used it three times. That’s me: a middle-aged male whose persona is hardly that of the traditional nurturer. Imagine how many more young women are more comfortable with a female confidante… or, worse yet, don’t talk to anyone. There’s still a stigma attached to being a rape victim, and if the rapist happens to be popular, then accusing him brings incalculable social risks to the accuser… and there’s certainly no guarantee of justice.

    This is not how it should be, but it is how it is. Jackasses like the administrators at Montana don’t help.

    • There’s still a stigma attached to being a rape victim, and if the rapist happens to be popular, then accusing him brings incalculable social risks to the accuser… and there’s certainly no guarantee of justice.

      I wonder if this applies more generally to misconduct where the accused has a lot of social and political capital (like athletes in these kind of cases).

      Bill Clinton and Gary Hart experienced different consequences for their conduct, and it should be obvious why that was.

  2. I really feel part of the issue is the involvement of campus police or security as the first responders, rather than 911 and the “real” police. I know of no campus that doesn’t have an alternate number that students call in lieu of 911. While I am sure a large percentage of campus police take their jobs very seriously they have an inherent conflict of interest AND a scarcity of resources relative to the local PD. For violent crimes, why are they the first responders?

    • Part of the problem is the legitimate desire to let students make mistakes in a protected environment where the consequences are not so great. I was involved in college gags and pranks that could have justified police response in the real world–for example, I engineered an elaborate theft of a friend’s sofa. Alcohol and drug use is another example (though not in my case.) But clearly, there have to be some kinds of crimes that must be reported to the real police immediately.

  3. Catherine nailed it! However, speaking from experience, most cities that have colleges or universities within the city limits would be happy to see the campus police expunged. For every “real crime” that occurs there are many lightweight ones that would bog down the city coppes, and the taxpayers would scream like mashed cats at the cost of the larger police staff.

    That said, anyone close to a college knows that many serious offenses are swept under the carpet by the campus administrations in order to maintain the appearance of that magical place of learning. This story made me wonder just why, since this is not an isolated incident, it is so important that all our kids go to college… we run the risk that a certain number of them will come away thinking that the behavior of the administration in situations like this is correct. It appears to have already taken hold in Pennsylvania; don’t know what the man-on-the-street in Missoula thinks about this one. Yet.

      • The local police may not want to deal with the campus problems, but the campus police have too large a conflict of interest to deal with anything other than the most minor of incidents. It isn’t just rape, its anything that goes on the University statistics. I have experienced this at two major state universities. At one, a visiting scientist shoved a needle through his hand at night. The syringe contained a rather toxic chemical. The grad students naively called the campus emergency number ( the campus phones didn’t allow direct dialing of 911). They were told help was on the way. The “help” was two campus security guards and an attorney. They blocked the doorway and told the foreign scientist that he couldn’t get medical attention until he signed a liability release and confidentiality agreement. An argument ensued, and the guards were ‘persuaded’ to allow him to go to the hospital by graduate students with 15″ crescent wrenches. The department head backed the grad students and told everyone to handle any medical emergencies internally. In the other, a student in a night lab class panicked and said she was having an allergic reaction after spilling a chemical on herself. When the grad student couldn’t find anyone to help him, he called 911. It turns out, she was fine. She just panicked and hyperventilated. The university was mad because it goes on their statistics and in the news. They brought all the grad students (300+) and told them to never call 911, call the internal emergency number only. When the university “brass” left, the department head apologized. He then told them that calling 911 was the right call and to do it again if they felt it was necessary. Remember, department heads at major Universities have nothing to lose. They want to be relieved of their administrative post and get back to their research.

        University police forces need to go. They need to go back to being security guards and let dealing with real crimes to the unfettered police. Let security handle anything that the Dean of Students should deal with. Rape, assault, etc should not be left in university hands. Universities do not gave courts and prisons. University “police” still end up answering to the university and the crimes get dealt with by the university. They are just security guards with guns and the protections of police status.

  4. It is not just sex abuse that is being covered up.

    Race riots are also being covered up .

    Where the violence is too widespread and too widely known locally to be ignored, both the local media and public officials often describe what happened as unspecified “young people” attacking unspecified victims for unspecified reasons. But videos of the attacks often reveal both the racial nature of these attacks and the racial hostility expressed by the attackers.

    Are race riots not news?

    Ignoring racial violence only guarantees that it will get worse. The Chicago Tribune has publicly rationalized its filtering out of any racial identification of attackers and their victims, even though the media do not hesitate to mention race when decrying statistical disparities in arrest or imprisonment rates….
    The dangers to the nation as a whole are an even bigger problem. The truth has a way of eventually coming out, in spite of media silence and politicians’ spin. If the truth becomes widely known, and a white backlash follows, turning one-way race riots into two-way race riots, then a cycle of revenge and counter-revenge can spiral out of control, as has already happened in too many other countries around the world.

  5. God, this hurts. I love UM and Missoula; I’m an alumnus; my Dad got his law degree at UM in 1923; my grandfather, a non-alum, was elected to UM’s law honorary, Iota Nu, etc., etc. It goes way back and way deep. I see not only Penn State’s Joe Pa disease, but the Vatican and its bishops scrambling madly, trying to protect their church’s “image”, at the expense of the innocent and vulnerable.Would love to tell you some of the wonderful things about my UM but later — for now, just know there’s more to the place than football and cowardly administrators.

  6. UM is 17th in USA and 5th among public U’s in producing Rhodes Scholars; its law school is often 1st place in National Moot Court contest, beating powerhouses like Yale, Harvard; UM ; it’s not just full of predators and “jock itch”; and I love it.has ballet, symphony, nationally-touring MT Rep Theatre (yes, Jack, an Equity company); Carroll O’Connor (“Archie Bunker”) got his theatre MA at UM; Prof. (later Sen.) Mike Mansfield made his home at UM; Missoula sponsors annual Intrntnl. Choral Festival; and “a river runs through it;

      • It doesn’t…I feel the cover-up artists should be dismissed without honor forthwith. I just wanted the non-thinkers and crackers to know that there’s more to the place than just scoundrels. As is undoubtedly true of Pennsylvnia State University, too. Hate to see all the good and worthy tarred with the same dirty brush.

  7. UM treasures a photo of Carroll O’Connor playing title rolde in “Othello”. You can imagine those blue eyes and Irish mug in Moorish make-up !

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.