Recently, Stevens has accepted over $20M in donations from alumnus and RightNow Technologies founder Greg Gianforte, primarily from two $10M donations. The first one occurred 3-5 years ago, while the second donation was announced this past December. In return, Stevens agreed to name the proposed Gateway Complex after the Gianforte family and have an acknowledgment to his parents in the building once it replaces the Lieb Building in 2019.
On Monday, April 3, 2017, alumni Joseph Risi, Kyle Gonzalez, Michael Abramavo, Matthew Mildeau, and current senior student Andy Waldron started a petition on activism website, change.org, to ask President Nariman Favardin to “publicly explain their reasoning behind accepting the donation and honoring Greg Gianforte in light of what he stands for, condemn the discriminatory rhetoric of the groups who received donations from Greg Gianforte, and reaffirm their commitment, in actions and not just words, to be an inclusive campus regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.” The petition notes Gianforte’s opposition to LGBTQ protections ordinance in Bozeman, MT, as well as over $1.5M in donations to the Montana Family Foundation, Focus on the Family, Alliance Defending Freedom, the NJ Family Policy Council, the Family Research Council, and the American Center for Law & Justice.
Four of the aforementioned organizations have public stances against legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. Both The Family Research Council and American Center for Law & Justice have opposed efforts to legalize homosexuality in Uganda and Zimbabwe – the former classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBTQ hate group. The American Center for Law & Justice supported an effort in Kenya to remove an exception to the country’s abortion laws that allows abortions to take place if the mother’s life is at risk. The petition also mentions Gianforte’s donations to a creationist museum and the Heritage Foundation.
The creators of the petition organized information over spring break, gathering insight from Montana State University students like Haley Cox, who protested Gianforte’s donation to its Computer Science Department in 2016, citing “an institutional level of acceptance of discrimination and hatred”. Waldron presented their findings at the following Student Government Association meeting. At the meeting, he proposed ideas of starting a petition, releasing an SGA statement on the matter, and working with the College of Arts and Letters and Samuel C. Williams Library for names that “represent diversity in Stevens and STEM history.” This was met with responses from SGA senators including concerns about the administration’s transparency, a drive for the student government to be neutral, and a notion that “nothing can be done about it and we [can] work on this for the future.” Waldron countered this with the idea that “there’s no real precedent for this, so we can be leaders in ensuring students don’t feel discriminated by the kind of rhetoric this donor is supporting.”
The group reported receiving a “great image of what our community felt” following the release of the petition. In faculty email correspondence, there was support (“Talks regarding the implications of Gianforte’s donation were sporadic since the December announcement”) and more critical feedback (professors cited disparate concerns of political correctness.) Many commenters on Facebook were concerned about the implications of accepting Gianforte’s donations, while many criticized the wording of the posts disseminating the petition. Conversely, the 335 signees and 85 comments on the petition (as of writing) conveyed support from current students, professors, and alumni – including former SGA cabinet members.
In a meeting with SGA President Thomas Daly and Cat Oesterle on the issue, Farvardin reaffirmed Stevens’s openness to all sexual orientations, gender identities, and political views. He also stated that by accepting Gianforte’s donation to improve the institution, neither Farvardin nor the university is accepting or endorsing Gianforte’s views, and the university would never accept a donation with “strings attached” that would violate Stevens’s core values or the law. He also stated that the naming of the building is binding. In a call with President Farvardin, Gianforte stated that he does not want any students or staff to feel uncomfortable in the Gateway Complex and wants the space to be inclusive. As of writing, President Farvardin nor the SGA have released public statements on the matter.
The Torch Alliance, Stevens’s LGBTQ organization stated “We find it disappointing that donors who are so generous to the future of students pursuing higher education have such outdated views. However, The Stevens Torch Alliance remains true to its mission statement to be an educational and community tool for this campus. Individuals who feel marginalized by recent events are more than welcome to visit our meetings or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Gianforte ran for Governor of Montana as a Republican in 2016 but was defeated by incumbent Steve Bullock (D). Due to Ryan Zinke’s (R-MT) Senate confirmation as Secretary of the Interior, Montana’s at-large congressional district is holding a special election. Gianforte and Rob Quist (D) are the two major candidates campaigning in the election.