By Skylar Rispens
MISSOULA, Montana (Missoulian) — About 150 students rallied in front of Main Hall on Friday afternoon and called for the University of Montana to fire computer science professor Rob Smith — or for him to resign.
The outrage on campus was fueled by reporting from the Montana Kaimin that brought troubling statements on Smith’s blog to light and ultimately led to the university launching an investigation into the matter. Smith is on paid leave pending the conclusion of the investigation.
Several speakers addressed the crowd at Friday’s demonstration, including a computer science student, leaders with the university’s student government, and representatives of the Student Advocacy Resource Center and the UM Women’s Resource Center.
“I can’t even express to you how much this means to me that you’re all here today,” said Esther Lyon Delsordo, a senior in the computer science program. “Before this all came out in the Kaimin I thought I was a little crazy, I was like, ‘maybe Rob isn’t that bad.’
“But now, seeing all of your reactions, it just validates my experience and that is so valuable.”
Lyon Delsordo worked for Smith in the summer of 2020 at Prime Labs, where he is CEO.
The bulk of Lyon Delsordo’s speech was focused on what students can do at this time to aid the university’s investigation into Smith. She detailed the type of behaviors or experiences that students have either witnessed or personally experienced and how to report them to the Title IX office.
Those in attendance held signs with slogans of “fire Rob Smith,” “queer and proud,” “Rob Smith robbed UM,” and “when will justice be served?” The voices of the students chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Rob Smith has got to go” at the conclusion of the rally reverberated through the Oval.
“The moment this malicious, hateful, inexcusable blog was discovered, immediate and extensive evaluations should have followed,” said Jenny Rokosch, a senior on campus studying environmental science. “The vetting system failed, and our students are suffering the consequences and at the same time are the ones who have to pick up the pieces.”
On Monday, UM President Seth Bodnar called Smith’s views “homophobic and misogynistic” and said he was personally disgusted following the reporting by the Kaimin. Bodnar was unable to attend Friday’s rally due to a “long-scheduled meeting” in Butte, but provided a message that was read aloud.
“As I mentioned in a message to campus earlier this week, I find personally abhorrent the recently discovered misogynistic and homophobic content published by a faculty member,” Bodnar said in his message. “Such views do not represent our institution’s values, and we are addressing this matter through appropriate processes. I encourage all to counter hateful speech with better speech. That is what you are doing today.”
The controversy surrounding Smith’s blog isn’t the only issue roiling the campus.
“There’s a history here of student-driven change, but I don’t want the progress of this institution to rely on student-driven change,” said Noah Durnell, the president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana. “I want our university administration to hold itself accountable and stop relying on the labor of marginalized students to tell them what’s right and wrong.”
In early August four women who have all worked at UM accused the university of sex-based discrimination in a Title IX suit and specifically called out Bodnar “of taking the reins” in UM’s unequal treatment of women. Later that same month 18 more women joined the lawsuit, requesting class certification.
By October, tensions were rising at the Alexander Blewett III School of Law after the Daily Montanan reported that women from the program were discouraged by the dean and associate dean from reporting allegations of sexual harassment and assault to the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX.
Students organized a walkout and called for Dean Paul Kirgis and Associate Dean Sally Weaver to resign, saying the administrators had failed students and created a toxic environment. Kirgis resigned as dean later that week and Weaver is expected to step down as well.
Despite the controversial start to her first semester at the university, freshman Sofia Beers does not regret her decision to attend UM, she said. She grew up touring the campus and coming to the state science fair.
“It doesn’t discourage me, it disappoints me. It doesn’t discourage me because I know, or would like to believe, that the university has my best interest at heart as a student and as long as they make an effort to keep their promise I won’t regret my decision,” Beers said.
Beers attended the rally with some friends and said it was important to attend because she wants to help hold the university accountable.
“To have a professor who is known to hold these beliefs and still keep him employed is not fair to us as students, it’s not fair to the university and it’s not fair to incoming freshmen,” Beers said.
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