Few details could be gleaned from the May 9 press conference announcing the conclusion of the Department of Justice's yearlong investigation into the University of Montana's handling of sexual assaults. The prepared statements made by U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter, UM President Royce Engstrom and DOJ Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin all seemed to reiterate the same point: What the investigation discovered is less important than the fact that the university can now move forward.
"What is noteworthy about this announcement today is not the problems our investigation found at the university," Austin said, "but a shared commitment to the equality of women students and their safety."
Austin went on to explain that issues with sexual assaults are not unique to the Missoula campus, and that by cooperating with the DOJ investigation, UM "will transform ... into a national model for Title IX compliance."
The forward-looking perspective was to be expected, and for many people in the Missoula community it provided a sense of catharsis. For more than two years UM has been tangled in the sexual assault scandal that saw one member of the football team plead guilty to rape and another player acquitted of similar charges after a lengthy and widely publicized trial. Following the bad publicity, the school is faced with plummeting enrollment and a significant budget shortfall.
Though the statements of Cotter, Engstrom and Austin avoided details about the findings, hard copy investigation summaries released at the presser revealed exactly what the men were leaving out. Among the revelations was that in 2012 UM waited a week to report two incidents of sexual assault to Missoula police, and that over a three-year period, six UM football players were implicated in sexual assaults. The documents also revealed that "unwarranted gender-based assumptions and stereotypes influence [UM's Office of Public Safety's] initial response to sexual assault."
Nothing good can come from dwelling on the past. A readiness to move on and a willingness to change will serve UM and the Missoula community well in the wake of this investigation. But there is also a danger in moving on too quickly and succumbing to the temptation to forget this period of UM's history. The scandal, more or less, is over. How it is remembered will define the university for years.