Traphagen Hall

A student walks in front of Traphagen Hall, Friday, Nov. 4, 2016, on the Montana State campus.

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It was just after the July 4 holiday when a woman student first complained of sexual harassment by a Department of Earth Sciences professor at Montana State University.

By Halloween, a second woman had come forward, and MSU’s Title IX office had completed a full-blown investigation. The investigation concluded the professor had violated federal Title IX law and university policy, by creating a hostile environment for female students and abusing his “position of power.”

Yet throughout the months of investigation and for weeks after, associate professor Todd Feeley was still teaching, using his office in Traphagen Hall and walking the halls, despite a history that left some students and faculty colleagues fearful.

When veteran professors attending a geology conference ran into “yet another” former MSU woman student with harassment stories about Feeley, they fired off email messages to university administrators urging them to act “quickly!”

“I find this situation totally appalling and unacceptable,” longtime professor Dave Lageson wrote in an email to his college dean, the campus Title IX officer and MSU’s provost. “Everyone, faculty included, is wondering why this situation is taking so long to be resolved.”

“Is there any hope we can get the President and Provost to take clear and decisive action in this case,” wrote Earth Sciences department head Dave Mogk, “to send a message to the department, campus and community that this type of behavior absolutely will not be tolerated at MSU?”

The emails of Nov. 19, 2014, are among 87 pages of documents released to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle after a yearlong legal fight between the university and the newspaper.

The Chronicle first asked MSU on July 7, 2015, for documents on allegations of misconduct by two associate professors in Earth Sciences.

The newspaper said it was looking into complaints that MSU was slow to respond to accusations of unethical and inappropriate behavior. The late Todd Feeley was investigated for sexual advances on women students. In a separate case, which happened to be playing out at the same time but didn’t include sexual allegations, Michael H. Gardner was investigated for his treatment of students, according to court records filed in the case.

The Chronicle requested MSU’s documents after hearing from professors outside of Earth Sciences, administration critics who alleged that MSU was trying to cover up the problems to protect its reputation and enrollment numbers — allegations the university vigorously rejects.

“No, absolutely not,” said Tracy Ellig, MSU spokesman.

The fact that the process took months, and that the university kept it confidential, doesn’t mean MSU was trying to hide something, Ellig said.

“The idea this was some sort of cover-up to protect the university’s reputation is totally ridiculous,” Ellig said, “and flies in the face of understanding Title IX investigations, which are confidential.”

The No. 1 reason Title IX investigations are confidential is to protect the student making the complaint, he said; the other major reason is to protect the accused professor, who is innocent until proven otherwise.

Ellig criticized the Chronicle for repeating allegations from “totally anonymous” critics who “don’t have to check their facts.”

In August 2015, MSU legal counsel Kellie Peterson told a Chronicle reporter she was willing to release investigation documents. But Gardner and his attorney objected.

Citing the risk of litigation, MSU then filed a lawsuit in Gallatin County District Court against the newspaper and two professors, asking the judge to weigh the public’s right to know against individuals’ right to privacy.

One year later, District Judge John Brown issued a sealed ruling in the case. MSU then released documents on Feeley, but not on Gardner.

Rare problem

The documents released in Feeley’s case (with sections blacked out to protect students’ privacy) show many times that MSU officials acted quickly, often within hours, upon learning of students’ complaints and that they took the students seriously.

Still, the professors’ cases dragged on, unresolved after many months.

More than eight months after woman students first started coming forward with accusations against Feeley, he was still an MSU professor, still on the payroll, though on medical leave and barred from contacting women students in the case.

Despite that precaution, one woman student was worried enough in February 2015 that she asked the university to change the lock to the room where she had a desk.

The following month, on March 22, 2015, Feeley took his own life.

Ellig said that behavior so problematic that the university seeks to fire a tenured professor is a rare event.

To fire a tenured professor, Montana Board of Regents policy requires adequate cause: conviction of a felony or crime of moral turpitude; endangering the welfare of or exploiting students; failure to carry out faculty responsibilities, as determined by peers on a Committee on Service; fraud or misrepresenting accomplishments; or gross insubordination.

Ellig said that recently retired MSU attorney Leslie Taylor could recall only three times in the past 27 years that the university actually initiated termination proceedings against tenured professors.

Strongest case possible

Does the passage of eight months in Feeley’s case indicate that MSU was slow to act?

“We believe we moved as rapidly as we could based on the information we had,” Ellig said.

“We launched an investigation in short order and took steps appropriate to the circumstances to protect the (student) complainant from Feeley while the investigation was under way,” he wrote.

After MSU Title IX officer Kathleen Grimes’ report on Feeley arrived on administrators’ desks Oct. 31, “the university was weighing what would be the appropriate action,” Ellig wrote.

“Then on Nov. 19, Professor Dave Lageson provided another student complaint,” Ellig wrote.

“The university chose to investigate this complaint before acting on Grimes’ report. Why? Because the university wanted all of the relevant information before proceeding with an intent to terminate a tenured faculty member — and in the case of Dr. Feeley, the university was leaning in that direction.”

Firing a tenured professor is a lengthy process, and a committee of faculty peers, a Committee on Service, would review the administration’s case, Ellig said.

“Knowing this,” Ellig wrote, “the administration wanted to have the strongest case possible.”

The university’s response in a Title IX case depends on the specifics of each complaint, he said, which can range from “inconsiderate, ill-mannered behavior to the extreme of rape.”

Sanctions, Ellig said, can range from warnings to mandatory trainings, removing individuals from contact with certain students, expulsion of an accused student and termination of a faculty or staff member.

Poisoned reputation

While the wheels within MSU’s administration were turning toward firing, over at Traphagen Hall, Earth Sciences students and faculty kept running into Feeley, who was teaching and walking the halls where his student accusers took classes.

Lageson’s Nov. 19 email, expressing frustration to administrators, said that though the investigation was confidential, students in the department talked to each other.

“ALL the students” knew, Lageson wrote, that the university was looking into sexual advances on women students, drunkenness in summer geology camp, abandoning students during a car caravan, belligerent behavior and promoting an atmosphere among immature young male students that was hostile to female students.

“I have spent the majority of my professional career at MSU (over 34 years and counting) and have devoted myself to making this department one of the best field-based geoscience programs in the country,” Lageson wrote.

“I feel that Dr. Feeley has poisoned the reputation of our summer field course, our department, and Montana State University….

“I fully understand that diligence and care must be taken with an investigation of this type, but it is beginning to appear that the university is not taking this very seriously, despite the severe allegations,” Lageson wrote. “In the meantime, Dr. Feeley is skating along under the radar while the rest of us (senior faculty) are picking up the slack in the department….

“Montana State University needs to address this situation before more damage is done — quickly!”

Trouble in Traphagen

Todd Feeley’s troubles seemed to start the day he got angry and his colleagues got scared.

Denied promotion by an MSU committee, he stood in the entrance to Traphagen Hall at 2:30 p.m. on a January afternoon and, in front of students, laid into two colleagues, professors Lageson and Jim Schmitt, demanding answers.

“I am not a person who is intimidated by other people very easily, but I am concerned not only for my own safety but also for the safety of others,” Schmitt wrote on Jan. 29, 2014, to Earth Sciences department head Mogk.

Mogk wrote an email right away expressing concern to his boss, College of Letters and Science Dean Nicol Rae. Mogk wrote that he planned to alert campus police to “the possibility of other dangerous confrontations.”

The dean alerted the promotion committee, the human resources officer and his boss, Provost Martha Potvin.

Potvin, then the No. 2 administrator for the entire MSU campus, wrote back to the dean the same afternoon, offering, if he wished, to tell Feeley herself that his behavior was unacceptable and needed to stop immediately.

Being denied promotion probably felt unfair to Feeley. Working at MSU since 1996, Feeley had become an internationally recognized expert on volcanoes, studying in Bolivia, Chile, the Bering Sea and at Mount St. Helens in Washington.

Lots of students liked Feeley. They gave him good reviews on the Uloop website rating Montana professors, calling him hilarious, fun, quirky, caring, a cool guy, “super cute” and passionate about teaching.

Several former students praised him online after his death. One wrote that Feeley had been a “very bright and good teacher” who taught “everything from ‘Rocks for Jocks’ to volcanology, tectonics” and was “fiercely passionate about defending science against creationism.”

Five months passed after the Traphagen outburst, apparently without incident, and Mogk wrote that he thought Feeley was making progress.

Unwanted advances

Then on July 7, 2014, a female undergraduate, one of more than two dozen students returning from a summer geology field camp led by Feeley, made allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct, according to the redacted documents released by MSU.

Department head Mogk listened to her and thanked the young woman for her courage. She wrote that she wanted to keep things confidential from her family and the public. Mogk immediately emailed his dean on July 8, 2014, about unprofessional conduct by Feeley and “unwanted advances of a sexual nature.”

Students are adults and it was a long tradition to allow a beer or two at the end of the day sitting around the campfire, Mogk wrote, but Feeley was allowing excessive drinking. He also let vehicles in a caravan become “lost” or separated, leaving several students with no supervision or geology instruction during the road trip.

Three days later, the Title IX officer interviewed the first woman student. The Title IX officer is in charge of investigating allegations of sexual harassment, which would violate the federal law that prohibits discrimination by sex in education.

The student said she had been extremely uncomfortable around Feeley, avoided him and was “very concerned about pissing off” the professor because she was worried about her grade.

Administrators from MSU’s human resources and the dean’s office interviewed additional students from the summer field camp, who said they had an “outstanding” learning experience. But the students also said that Feeley had outbursts in public, encouraged loud behavior and wolf calls, disturbed other campers, yelled at students, was rude to tourists, had drinking in camp every night and drank excessively. Students said he had a reputation for “partying hard” on all his field camps and seemed to blatantly ignore rules “to be one of the group.”

On July 18, interim director Corky Bush sent Feeley notice that the Title IX office was going to start a formal investigation of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. She told him to have no contract with any student, staff or faculty member, except Mogk.

A month later, on Aug. 22, Bush told Feeley that the investigation wasn’t complete but he could resume teaching, research and service duties when fall classes started, on the condition he not contact specific students and not lead any trips.

New allegations

However on the same day, Aug. 22, a second woman student came forward with a new, apparently more serious allegation of sexual misconduct by Feeley during a professional trip.

This was one of our strongest students, Mogk wrote in an email to the Title IX office. But, he said, after “verbal abuse” by Feeley, student No. 2 was in fear of even being near him in class and offices. The Title IX office interviewed her four days later.

Before the second woman came forward, Mogk wrote that he’d thought Feeley had been correcting his ways and could continue to teach geology classes and lead hikes, where he earned good reviews from students. Mogk apologized for not forbidding all field trips by Feeley, as Dean Rae had originally recommended.

Mogk wrote that over the years at least two other female grad students had left the graduate program rather than work with Feeley. Against one woman, he had made “ad hominem attacks on her as a person and scholar.”

“Neither of these involve sexual misconduct allegations,” Mogk wrote, “but show a pattern of emotional abuse toward students.”

Students weren’t the only ones to feel the professor’s anger.

On Oct. 16, MSU registrar Bonnie Ashley wrote to Mogk complaining about Feeley’s “belligerent,” “rude and unprofessional behavior.” She said Feeley had launched into a “lengthy tirade” on the phone against one of her employees. And despite having a student advisee sitting in his office, Feeley had complained on the phone about how many students he had to advise and how valuable his time was.

The real victim

Grimes, then MSU’s Title IX officer, issued her “final report” on the Feeley investigation on Oct. 31 — nearly four months after student No. 1’s complaint of sexual advances at summer field camp and two months after student No. 2’s complaint from an out-of-town trip.

Grimes had interviewed several students and witnesses, former students who had left MSU after being verbally abused, and Feeley himself.

Interviewed on Sept. 15, Feeley denied everything alleged by student No. 2. But the next day he returned and told Grimes that he had apologized to the student for making a sexual advance and apologized again as they returned to Bozeman. He said he and the woman student had “agreed they would not tell anyone.”

“He stated on several occasions,” Grimes wrote, “that he felt as though he was actually the victim.”

Grimes’ report concluded that the students were credible and that by the preponderance of evidence, the allegations against Feeley were substantiated. The professor had created a hostile environment for female students and abused his “position of power.”

Final decision

Despite the damning Oct. 31 investigative report, nothing apparently changed for Feeley for weeks.

“I hope the administration will take immediate and definitive action,” Mogk emailed Nov. 3. Mogk told the dean and human resources officer he needed to know soon if Feeley would be barred from teaching classes in spring semester because the department would have to make alternate plans on short notice.

Ellig said Feeley was allowed to write a rebuttal to the Title IX report, and he did so. It wasn’t among the documents released to the newspaper.

Three weeks after the Title IX report, Nicol Rae, dean of the College of Letters and Science, sent notice to Feeley on Nov. 25. The dean said that due to the ongoing investigation, Feeley should not work with any students during the spring 2015 semester, but work 100 percent on research, until the investigation was resolved. He told Feeley not to retaliate or communicate with anyone who filed a report against him.

Ironically, the new information from Lageson on Nov. 19 caused another delay. Grimes did more interviews and wrote an addendum to her final report. The addendum was completed Dec. 8.

Provost Potvin emailed copies of the reports to her boss, President Waded Cruzado, on the morning of Dec. 17. It was six weeks after the Oct. 31 Title IX report and one week after the Dec. 8 addendum was completed.

Sixteen minutes after Potvin’s email, Cruzado replied by email from her iPhone.

“Thank you, Martha, I am sure we will notify the department head with plenty of advance notice. I would also recommend for you and the Dean to meet with him to discuss the case, including confidentiality requirements. Thanks, Waded.”

About 40 minutes later, Cruzado emailed Potvin to indicate she didn’t want to wait to act, though it was a week before Christmas.

“Martha, after reading this report, I agree with your proposed course of action. I would not delay notice until after the holiday, but prefer notification this week,” Cruzado wrote.

The next day Potvin wrote an email saying she agreed with the approach suggested by MSU legal counsel Taylor. The next week, Feeley requested medical leave.

Medical leave put administrative action against Feeley on hold, Ellig said.

During the spring 2015 semester, Feeley was on medical leave, ordered to stay away from female students who filed complaints against him. Despite the order, on Feb. 10, 2015, a female student reported a violation and apparently fearing for her safety, asked MSU to change a lock.

A month later, on March 22, Feeley took his own life.

The next day Cruzado sent an email to all faculty and students, saying that it was with great sadness she shared the news of Feeley’s passing. Cruzado recounted his accomplishments and wrote that Feeley would be remembered for his passion for geology and promoting scientific thinking and evolution, and leading volcanology field trips around the West.

In the following days, Potvin, who has since left MSU for another college, wrote to several staff members, offering to talk if they wished about “last weekend’s tragedy.”

Eight months after the initial complaint, MSU hadn’t completely resolved how to handle the difficult and, to some, frightening professor.

It was Feeley himself who had made the final decision.

Differing perspectives

MSU’s released documents show several factors contributed to delay in resolving Feeley’s case.

— At least five departments within the MSU bureaucracy were involved in decisions. Information had to go up the ladder from the Earth Sciences department head, to the dean’s office, human resources department, Title IX office and finally the Montana Hall offices of MSU’s top administrators.

— Final decisions were in the hands of the provost and president. Provost Potvin had been informed of Feeley’s troubled behavior since January 2014. Cruzado’s name doesn’t appear in the documents until she received Potvin’s email on Dec. 17. On that day, the provost and president agreed on the action MSU needed to take.

— Ellig said he doesn’t know when the president became aware of the Feeley case, but a Title IX investigation of a professor “is the responsibility of the academic provost. The president may have been aware but not intimately involved.”

— Feeley’s medical leave put any action toward termination on hold until his leave expired, which would have occurred around April. MSU doesn’t proceed with firing while an employee is on leave, Ellig said, because it means a doctor has said there is a serious health issue, the person is too ill to work and presumably too ill to defend themselves.

“The university planned to begin termination proceedings against Feeley” after his medical leave expired, Ellig wrote.

Though it’s not in the released documents, Ellig said that Feeley notified the university on Dec. 3 that he intended to seek medical leave.

“For our perspective, once he gave that intent to file, it stopped the clock” on the termination process, Ellig said.

— The case took longer to resolve than the six months it took to settle the case of Shuichi Komiyama, one of the few cases of MSU trying to fire a tenured professor that have become public in recent years.

In that case, on April 1, 2011, a female undergraduate told the music department head that Komiyama had raped her. After receiving her accusation in writing on April 9, MSU immediately banned Komiyama from campus. MSU launched a Title IX investigation, which took three months — roughly the same time taken for Feeley’s investigation. Komiyama resigned Sept. 30, dropping his fight against MSU, roughly six months after the initial rape report.

Ellig said that MSU acted immediately to put Komiyama on leave because a student alleged she was raped and there were concerns that other students were at risk. By contrast, Ellig said, there was no allegation of rape in the Feeley case and no evidence of ongoing sexual harassment after the July field camp.

Whether MSU acted in a timely way or was too slow may depend on who is answering the question.

The students and faculty members who felt unsafe, stressed or afraid had to live with it for eight months, but were powerless to resolve it. They wanted MSU to act “quickly!”

Administrators, who didn’t live with the problems every day, had the power to act. Yet they had to act within MSU rules and state and federal laws, uphold faculty tenure policies, protect the confidentiality of students and faculty, and avoid lawsuits. They felt MSU acted “as rapidly as we could.”

Why did President Cruzado’s Dec. 17 email urge the provost and dean to remind the department head about “confidentiality requirements”? Ellig said it was “to simply remind people these are confidential investigations. To assume that is a signal the university is trying to cover something up is a gigantic leap. It’s a reminder these investigations are confidential to protect the complainant and for the protection of the accused.”

Concern for MSU’s reputation played absolutely no role, Ellig said.

“I and members of the executive team have had many conversations about this issue — We are not going to be afraid of reporting of sexual assaults on campus or sexual harassment,” he said. “It’s clear that one thing that has led to the culture of sexual assault is lack of discussion, lack of visibility. We also have to operate within the bounds of confidentiality.”

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

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