I was planning to write about the bizarre decision by Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian to give Jordan Johnson a second chance, but to her credit, Keila Szpaller beat me to it today. Her story outlines what Jon Krakauer discussed in his Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a Small Town –that Commissioner Clayton Christian intervened to overturn the decision to expel Jordan Johnson, sending it back to the university. There, despite the finding of an independent investigator that Johnson was not credible, brand new Dean of Students Rhondie Voorhees overturned the original decision and let Johnson return.
Despite the wall of secrecy erected by the commissioner’s office around the Jordan Johnson case, public information released from other sources indicates that when Johnson appealed his expulsion to Commissioner Christian, David Paoli apparently persuaded Christian that the University Court incorrectly used “a preponderance of the evidence” as the burden of proof in finding Johnson guilty of raping Washburn, instead of holding to the more exacting “clear and convincing evidence” standard. Blatantly disregarding the Department of Education’s Dear Colleague Letter, which explicitly stated that “preponderance of the evidence is the appropriate standard for investigating allegations of sexual harassment or violence,” Commissioner Christian vacated the University Court’s finding of guilt and sent the case back to the University of Montana to be readjudicated, this time using “clear and convincing evidence” as the burden of proof.
The “Dear Colleague” letter refers to the 2011 letter from the Department of Education that argued the epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses demanded a stronger response from universities, contending correctly that permitting sexual violence and harassment directed at women violates their Title IX rights to equal access to education. That Commissioner Christian was more persuaded by a technical reading of the law than the rights of someone who may have been sexually assaulted suggests he was looking for an excuse to return Johnson to the school—and the all-important team, not upholding the University’s own process or the new federal guidelines.
And even then, the investigator that the University of Montana hired to investigate Johnson found that there was “clear and convincing evidence” that Johnson raped his accuser. From Krakauer again:
During its reappraisal of the Jordan Johnson case, the university hired an independent consultant to conduct an impartial reinvestigation of Cecilia Washburn’s allegation. At the conclusion of the consultant’s inquiry, the consultant determined that Johnson’s testimony wasn’t credible and that there was indeed clear and convincing evidence that Johnson raped Washburn.
New Dean Rhondie Voorhees used this scholarly approach to decide that Johnson was not likely guilty:
According to the government’s 2013 letter to President Engstrom, Dean Voorhees found both the complainant [Cecilia Washburn] and accused student [Jordan Johnson] to be credible and expressed a belief that this was “a case of differing perceptions and interpretations of the events in question.” However other parts of [the dean’s] analysis questioned [Washburn’s] credibility. For example, some of [Washburn’s] statements began with “I think” or “I don’t think,” and [Dean Voorhees] believed that the use of the word “think” denoted a “hesitant and equivocal response.” The [dean] concluded that there was not clear and convincing evidence to find that [Johnson] committed sexual misconduct.
Well, I think that the University of Montana treated this case horribly and I think that the intervention of the Commissioner of Higher Education was motivated, at least in part, by something other than seeing justice and decent treatment of a student at one of the schools he oversees.
Back in 2012, I was astonished and disappointed when I learned how the Board of Regents conducted the search to hire Mr. Christian for the position as the next commissioner. Hint: they didn’t conduct one. Instead, as I noted then, they gave a $300,000/year job to oversee Montana’s colleges to someone who lacked the educational credentials to become a principal of a Montana school. In fact, until the Regents changed the rules for Christian, the job required that the Commissioner hold a doctorate, as has every commissioner since 1972.
I’m not suggesting that Mr. Christian’s lack of education made him make a terrible decision, but it does seem that the “unique background” he brought to the position led him to a decision that prioritized something other than ensuring access to education for all students.
I know some people in Missoula just want this story to go away, but reporter Szpaller is to be commended for continuing to report it, as was Gwen Florio for breaking and doggedly reporting the story originally. Simply proclaiming that Missoula has solved its past failures on sexual violence isn’t enough. The whole ugly truth needs to be exposed first.