Prominent lawyer, former professor raised leadership issues at UM Law School


(Daily Montanan) A prominent Montana lawyer and long-time former faculty member of the University of Montana’s Alexander Blewett III Law School had raised concerns about his leadership in 2019 in a pointed six-page letter declining an offer to stay on board.

Maylinn Smith, then co-director of the Margery Hunter Brown Indian Law Clinic, told Dean Paul Kirgis in the February 2019 letter that she was planning to leave given her administration’s lack of support for Indian law and clinical programs, its inability to harness the strengths of the school and the lack of vision for progressive programs.

“I am… troubled by the current direction of law school,” Smith wrote. “Supporting an administration that vigorously defends and promotes diversity and excellence as part of the law school’s mission statement and strategic plan, thereby enhancing the unique educational experiences in this law school, would be an endeavor for which I could stay. “

In the letter, Smith said she left a tenure-track position at law school six years earlier after working there since 1994, but agreed to stay on to teach in the Indian law program. . As the search failed, he was again asked to stay “to maintain the quality of the Indian law program.”

“I have always enjoyed working with students, I have found working with the tribes rewarding, and I have enjoyed working with my very talented, incredibly intelligent and dedicated colleagues,” Smith wrote. “With the right leadership, this law school could be a progressive and innovative institution. “

Smith, currently chairman of the Montana District and Allocation Commission, declined to comment for this story. The Daily Montanan obtained Smith’s letter after learning that students were planning a walkout on Tuesday after hearing, among other issues, that Kirgis and associate dean of students, Sally Weaver, had ignored reports of a sexual predator and abused allegations of sexual assault.

A week ago, the Daily Montanan ran an article according to which Kirgis and Weaver both discouraged students from bringing allegations of sexual assault and harassment to the Equal Opportunities Office and Title IX, which deals with these complaints on campus. Kirgis and Weaver both denied interfering with student reports.

Ahead of the walkout, “worried students” sent a letter to administrators on Thursday asking them to take their complaints, including sexual violence, seriously. Kirgis responded in an email to the Blewett School of Law community on Friday where he said media reports made him realize shortcomings, and he apologized that the female students in particular did not think that they could safely raise issues in law school.

The Dean’s response elicited strong reactions from current and former students. Jennifer Robichaud, a third-year student who appealed a reprisal complaint against Kirgis and Weaver, said in a Facebook post that she was calling “bulls—” on the dean’s response. Kirgis started working at UM in 2015.

“Oh, the * media reports * made it clear! Wrote Robichaud. “The many women who have reported this to him over and over again over the past year and a half haven’t quite done it for him.

“It was still not clear after an 11-month Title IX investigation. The dean wants to claim he did not elevate the student at the center of the allegations to the detriment of the survivors. He wants to pretend he doesn’t know. I call bulls—. He’s caught and it’s damage control.

In the spring of 2020, Robichaud told Kirgis that a friend had been sexually assaulted by another law student; the dean told him he would take the case to Title IX, but the Director of Title IX later informed Robichaud that Kirgis never declared “sexual assault” when speaking about the incident, Robichaud said more early at the Daily Montanan. Kirgis said he conveyed the incident to the best of his “understanding and recollection”. The Head of Title IX previously declined to comment through a university spokesperson, citing that the complaint was part of an open investigation.

The complaint filed by Robichaud is part of a series of complaints that UM hired a private company to investigate in July 2020. About a month ago, students began planning a walkout in part to show their support for the students, to staff and teachers who have survived sexual assault.

Last week, the Daily Montanan ran a series of articles about the allegations and the ensuing investigation that lasted around 11 months, and since then at least two national legal publications have also published articles, including Above the Law last week and Monday, the ABA Journal of the American Bar Association.

“He could have played several times over the past year and a half,” Robichaud said of Kirgis in his post. “He didn’t. Instead, he denied the culture of silence and retaliation. Now that these issues have gained national attention, does he want to present himself as a champion of women and survivors? disgusted.

“The point is, I’ve heard those pretty words before. And yet, here we are.

Another woman who brought a sexual assault allegation to Weaver said she became “furious” upon reading Kirgis’ response to the letter of concern. She had previously told the Daily Montanan that the Associate Dean had informed her that a report to the Title IX office would not be necessary. Weaver denied ever having dissuaded a student from going to Title IX.

“I personally paid close to $ 100,000 to attend a school where I was sexually assaulted, then bullied and threatened when I attempted to report what I considered a violent threat to myself and all of my children. classmates, ”the woman said; The Daily Montanan does not identify survivors of sexual assault without their consent and has not identified the women who made allegations for these stories. “Upon reading the email, I got furious. I will end up paying over $ 100,000 including interest for a poor education and a life of trauma. Yet the school is willing to pay ANOTHER independent organization to help them clean their paths. In fact, we survivors can tell them how to improve for free.

“All law school needs are a few leaders with an average moral compass and the willingness to use some degree of common sense. Put simply, a moral compass and common sense would have led them to realize 1) that it is statistically nearly impossible, so many women have accused the same man out of sheer spite when false allegations of sexual assault are rare, and 2) It is more important to follow protocol than to blame the victims.

“Personally, I think the money would be better spent paying victims like me so as not to have the financial burden of paying for my going through hell. Yet law school is going to pay for another biased opinion to tell them that they were morally bankrupt and lacked common sense. “

The issues Smith raised in his 2019 letter declining Kirgis’ offer are separate from those students are highlighting. However, Smith, students, and alumni all raised serious questions about law school leadership, and students in particular said administrators were ruining the reputations of law school students and faculty.

In his letter, Smith noted insufficient funding for Indian law and clinical programs, ignoring the law school’s strategic plan, bypassing opportunities to contribute to “large-scale” social justice reform and a lack of willingness to collaborate meaningfully with Salish Kootenai College. in the creation of law classes.

“An administration capable of demonstrating support for faculty, students and educational programs through innovation, transparency, strong fundraising and meaningful collaborative decision-making, which values ​​the governance structure of faculty , benefits law school and the university, ”Smith wrote. . “This in turn creates a favorable working environment. Unfortunately, I have not experienced this type of leadership for several years now.

In an email, Kirgis said he discussed job retention with Smith. He said he increased the offer, which Smith lowered from $ 70,000 to $ 90,000, but received no response. He provided a PDF document with a series of emails between himself and Smith, the last email being formatted differently. In response to a question about the PDF, Kirgis sent out what he described as the “native mail chain”.

Smith declined an interview with the Daily Montanan. Her letter said Kirgis called her $ 70,000 offer “generous,” and she said in the letter that she was not asserting any confidentiality about its contents.

In the letter, Smith said she was passionate about work that benefits Indians and the Indian country, and that she wanted to address diversity, prejudice and social justice and be of service to tribes and Indians. She said she wanted to do this job at UM.

“Unfortunately, my hopes of using this passion to develop innovative clinical and Indian law programs in law school for the benefit of students, tribes and the community at large have met with a general lack of support or even interest on the part of the administration, “Smith wrote.

In addition to her work with the Montana District and Allocation Commission, Smith serves as a Civil Attorney for the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Deputy Chairman of the Montana Innocence Project Board of Trustees, and has served as a judge of a court of tribal appeal and trial judge. .


Nancy I. Romero

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