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Estimated Cost of Suppressing Free Speech at University of Montana: $1-3 Million

Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

The University of Montana (UMT) is facing an 8.6 million dollar deficit, although the cause is a subject of debate. Some faculty blame administrative mismanagement; others say it's a drop in enrollment due to the bad economy. The university president suggested that the problem may be caused in part by the perception that the campus is unsafe because of the mishandled cases of sexual assault, which led to the investigation by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department of Justice that have been so much in the news. 

Whatever the cause, the financial effects are painful: The university is not just deferring maintenance but is also contemplating curtailing services, such as no longer keeping the health clinic open 24/7. With regard to instruction, adjunct faculty will be let go, and tenured faculty are also in danger, resulting in larger classes and fewer course offerings. 

But a bad situation is about to get worse — by my estimate, one to three million dollars worse. That' the price tag of the blueprint that the federal government has imposed on the University of Montana to improve the University's Title IX compliance. 

Of course no one knows for sure how much it's going to cost UMT to comply. But here are some real — and, for UMT, scary — numbers. According to its website, the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management (NCHERM), a prominent consulting firm, charges $3,500 to help a college or university revise one of its policies. UMT must revise six. 

NCHERM charges up to $12,500 to consult on revising a student conduct code, which is another item on UMT's to-do list. But that's small change compared to the mandate that all students and faculty receive meaningful tailored sexual harassment awareness training. At UMT, that would include 16,551 people. Online prices are hard to find, but one service provider we called priced a two-hour session for up to 14 people at $1,850. 

Do the math and that comes out to 1,115 training sessions for $2,187,096 (although presumably UMT could get a bulk discount). While it would probably be seen as optimal, it's probably not feasible, either financially or logistically, to train 16,000 people in small groups in the timeframe that OCR has mandated. 

So what's the answer? Train in groups of 100? That's a big money saver (down to $281,984), assuming the provider is willing to train 100 people for the same price as 14. But OCR has to approve every aspect of implementation. Will the Washington bureaucrats allow mass training? 

If 100 participants per session is not acceptable, can the University train in groups of 50? And of course, the University hasn't begun to compensate its equity consultant (at an expected rate of $250 — 300/hour), provide the required mandated training for UMT's 15 Title IX administrators ($30,000), or implement multiple focus groups at about $5,000 a session. It also must submit at least seven separate reports annually, in addition to providing copies of the sign-in sheets for the university-wide Title IX training. (Yes, the federal government is taking attendance.) 

Finally, the administrators are going to have to find $300,000-$500,000 to cover recurring costs, such as training for new students and ongoing monitoring expenses, for the final two years of the agreement. And this is potentially not just a conundrum for the University of Montana. OCR has announced that the settlement agreement is a "blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country," signaling it will impose similar requirements on other schools that come under its scrutiny. 

In tough economic times, it's fair to ask if the federal government should be commandeering hundreds of thousands of dollars from a college's budget to hire consultants and conduct focus groups, particularly on campuses that, unlike UMT, might not have a history of mishandling sexual assault claims. 

Sympathy for UMT may reasonably be limited thanks to the university's bad record in handling sexual assault. But the principle OCR and the Department of Justice are trying to establish is a dangerous one: that in order to combat sexual assault, First Amendment rights must be compromised. Violating free speech is not going to prevent sexual assault, and every dime spent on unlawfully regulating student and faculty speech is a dime that would be much better spent going towards programs that might actually prevent the real crime of sexual assault.

College and university administrators need to declare independence from the blueprint. They should commit themselves publicly to providing safe learning environments for students and faculty while also respecting free expression and expending tuition and tax dollars in a targeted, responsible way.

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