Liberal Studies? 

Montana Tech prof claims he was dismissed for being an activist

When speech professor John Ray was removed from his position as department head at Montana Tech last July, he filed a grievance with the Montana Human Rights Bureau, claiming that the university discriminated against him because of his vocal environmentalism. This spring, the Human Rights Bureau supported Ray’s claim, stating that it “found reasonable cause to believe that unlawful discrimination occurred.”

Today, Tech refutes the allegations and has allowed the court-ordered 30-day conciliation period to pass without reaching any resolution. Now, John Ray’s unusual claim of anti-environmentalist bias is slated to go before a hearing examiner appointed by the Department of Labor and Industry.

Montana Tech of the University of Montana overlooks a torn landscape that reveals the mining history of Butte in the form of towering head frames, colorful old houses, and a shrinking mountain. Many of the school’s graduates will find work in towns like Butte, for mining operations or other extractive industries, throughout the world. Not surprisingly, extractive industries contribute large sums of money to the university, through the Montana Tech Foundation. According to Tech Foundation reports, between fiscal year 1998 and March 24, 2000, an average of 41 percent of private donations came from corporations. In 1999, 128 corporations donated $1,000 or more to the Tech Foundation alone. In March of this year, the Atlantic-Richfield Company (ARCO) gave the Professional and Technical Communications Department $77,000 to purchase DVD video equipment and $12,000 to have the students produce an interactive video on ARCO’s mandatory remediation efforts on the Clark Fork River.

Following his dismissal from the Department of Liberal Studies, Ray began to view these and other corporate contributions to universities with a fiercer skepticism. Today, he is vocal in his opinions about corporate influence on higher education. “Corporations give money in order to influence what goes on at colleges and universities,” he says. “[Montana Human Rights Bureau Chief Kathleen] Helland’s decision to support my case brings into relief the pernicious effect corporate contributions have on institutions of higher learning.”

Specifically, Ray contends that Tech’s financial ties to extractive industries prompted his dismissal from the department head position. Ray is president of the Montana Environmental Information Center and a board member of the Clark Fork Coalition. In 1998, Ray staunchly supported the voter initiative that opposed cyanide heap-leach mining, I-137. He also supported the Clean Water Initiative, I-122.

Ray became a speech professor at Tech in 1975, and gained tenure in 1981. Three years ago, he began the Liberal Studies option and headed the department until last summer. Enrollment in Liberal Studies increased from five students to more than 75 under his watch.

Then, on July 6, 1999, Ray received an unexpected letter. “For the welfare of the department and the larger institution,” it stated, “we have decided to seek new leadership and management for the department in order to more effectively accomplish departmental duties and the academic goals of Montana Tech.”

On behalf of Tech’s administration, David Aronofsky, legal counsel for the University of Montana, justifies Ray’s dismissal, saying it was strictly for procedural reasons, not political ones. “John Ray consistently failed to follow instructions on the academic management of his department,” he says. Aronofsky supports his claims by stating that Ray objected to holding night classes.

Although Tech faculty are not required to hold night classes, Ray says he held an average of two night classes per semester over 24 years. “I don’t know how Aronofsky could claim I was opposed to night classes,” Ray asserts.

As for Ray’s charges of discrimination, Aronofsky argues that the professor’s activism was never an issue. “Everyone knew he was an activist while he headed the department,” he explains. “His activities are well-known, and no one cares.”

As partial proof that his removal was indeed politically motivated, however, Ray has submitted to the Human Rights Bureau 20 pages of correspondence between himself, his students, and the administration, which he says suggest an anti-environmentalist bias at work.

In 1997, for example, Mary Kay Craig decided to conduct research on the levels of crystalline silica in road dust for her environmental engineering class. In response to her proposal, Craig received a carbon copy notice, addressed to the vice chancellor for research, from a member of Tech’s research committee.

The letter, sent May 13, 1998, reads: “Given Mary Kay’s academic interests, affiliations, support from John Ray, and past behavior, some members of the committee may be concerned that she has another agenda that is detrimental to the conduct of mining in Butte. … Tech is an engineering school that has many close contacts with the mining industry that result in lots of money for research and excellent job placements for our students. These professors understandably might not want to be responsible for supporting research that would jeopardize those contacts.”

Craig’s proposal was initially turned down by the research committee, but after months of protest, she gained permission to conduct her research on the grounds that it was funded with federal dollars.

According to Aronofsky, less than 5 percent of Tech’s operating funds come from corporate donations. Corporate contributions amount to “a drop in the bucket,” he says, compared to federal and state funds, and corporate donations never influence decisions at Montana Tech.

For the time being, however, the Montana Human Rights Bureau has decided that Ray’s claims carry enough merit to proceed with his case. Should the Department of Labor and Industry come to a similar conclusion at its judicial hearing in September, Aronofsky intends to appeal the decision all the way to the State Supreme Court.

“This is just the second step in a long process,” Aronofsky replies. “Tech did everything in a legal manner, and now we’re going to prove it.”

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