Montana Law dean and associate dean step down amid criticism

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Paul Kirgis and Sally Weaver

A student protest at the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law has forced two top administrators, including Dean Paul Kirgis, to resign. 

Students claimed that Kirgis, along with Associate Dean of Students Sally Weaver, had discouraged students from taking sexual assault allegations to the office that handles such matters. 

Both declined those accusations, but they ultimately stepped down. Students had staged an earlier walkout, calling for their resignations. More than 100 demonstrators took part. 

“The law school administration has ignored, silenced and retaliated against survivors at this school for too long,” second year-student Everett Johns and co-organizer of the walk out, told NBC Montana

Students held signs, saying “Pack it out, Paul” and “Survivors deserve accountability.”  

The school, based in Missoula in Western Montana, is the state’s only law school and one of the smallest in the nation. The 2020 entering class numbered 89 students. It is named after Alexander Blewett III, a prominent Montana personal attorney lawyer who donated $10 million to the school in 2015. That was the largest gift in the law school’s history. 

He did not respond to an email query about the school’s current situation, which has received considerable media coverage, including a report from the Daily Beast, a national outlet. 

In a statement of concern addressed to the administration, students said they felt leadership failed both them and the faculty. 

“The Administration consistently fails to clearly explain student rights and the resources available through the Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX. We are concerned that the Administration is violating students' confidentiality by sharing survivors' details freely. Reports of sexual misconduct made to the Administration have not been reported, or reported accurately, to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX.” 

The Daily Montanan newspaper ran a two-part series in September, outlining student concerns. It interviewed 13 former and current students who claimed that the school discouraged students from reporting sexual assault cases to the above office. 

One woman told the paper she did not report a rape because of the lack of support. One former female student said that students feared going through the proper channels because they were warned it might affect their chances of becoming lawyers. 

From the paper: 

“Students confided in her, she said, and after three or four students told her they couldn’t go to the Title IX office because it would impact their character and fitness application to the bar …” 

The broader university is facing criticisms as well, the paper reported. Four women have filed gender discrimination suits against the University of Montana. They describe the school as having a “good ol’ boys” mentality and created a hostile educational environment. 

When allegations first surfaced regarding the administration’s reaction to sexual abuse claims a year earlier, the school did an investigation, which did not reveal wrongdoing, the school said in a statement to NBC Montana. 

“The University addressed the allegations through mediation, investigation, and extensive education. Notably, the independent investigation determined that neither Dean Kirgis nor Associate Dean Weaver violated the University’s Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation Policy.” 

Kirgis had announced earlier that the school would change its policy concerning how such allegations would be handled. He said an outside reviewer would be involved in process. 

He wrote to the legal community on October 1: “Please know I am taking this opportunity to devise ways to better promote a healthy and inclusive learning and working environment for all; I am also working with campus partners to learn how I can better serve you all as future lawyers and legal educators.” 

Apparently, that was not enough. 

Kirgis, who was hired in 2015, wrote in his letter of resignation that he wanted the school to avoid further disruption: 

“I have come to the conclusion that the School of Law and its students would be best served by a change in leadership. Consequently, I have decided to step down as dean. My priority is to make that transition in a way that minimizes disruptions for students, faculty and staff. I will work with those groups and the provost to plan the process and timing for this transition.” 

He will continue on as a member of the faculty.

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