Back when we were young and innocent, journalist Jon Krakauer sued the Montana University System for records related to Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian’s decision to overrule the expulsion of a UM student. We don’t know who that UM student was, but he was expelled and reinstated the same year as former Grizzlies quarterback Jordan Johnson, and he was accused of doing the same things that Johnson was later acquitted of doing.
The first time Christian refused the records request, he cited that student’s right to privacy. After district court judge Mike Menahan ruled that Christian had to give Krakauer what he asked for, attorneys representing the Montana University System appealed the decision to the state supreme court. In March, the Supremes kicked the case back down to Judge Menahan, instructing him to review the records and determine what could be handed over. Menahan decided that the redactions Christian’s office had already performed were enough to protect the student’s privacy and ordered them released. Last week, Christian’s lawyers appealed that decision again.
It’s too bad, because the public is dying to know who this anonymous student was. In addition to being expelled and reinstated the same year as Johnson, he also happens to be represented by Johnson’s attorney, David Paoli. It’s like the plot of The Prestige. Who is this charmed person who has lived a life eerily parallel to Johnson’s and also seems to have received special treatment from the commissioner of higher ed? I guess we’ll never know.
Sometimes it also seems like we will never know the other part of this story, which is why Christian overruled the expulsion in the first place. In his commitment to student privacy, the commissioner seems to have inadvertently hidden his own conduct as a state official, too. I’m sure that’s an accident, because doing it on purpose would be phenomenally dumb.
I admit that if a prominent journalist published a book with “rape” in the title that implied I had used my position as higher education commissioner to protect a star quarterback, my first instinct would be to not cooperate. That’s the kind of investigation that makes a state official look bad. But Christian’s ongoing refusal to accept Judge Menahan’s ruling has made him look worse.
The privacy argument is a farce. If the student in question is not Johnson, then Christian’s insistence on secrecy has damaged the former quarterback’s reputation by encouraging everyone to assume it’s him. That’s what people do when they’re denied information: They fill in the gaps. By the same principle, Christian’s stubborn withholding of the motives for his decision has encouraged people to assume the worst.
“By dragging out this process with a series of appeals, the commissioner has done nothing to protect his own reputation.”
If he overturned the expulsion because he believed that then-president Royce Engstrom and other UM administrators conducted their investigation improperly, he can say it now. To say so before might have exposed UM to a lawsuit, but in 2016 Johnson took a $245,000 settlement in exchange for relinquishing the right to future claims against the state or its employees. Now that they’re indemnified, Christian could just say he overturned the expulsion because he believed Johnson never got a fair hearing — but then he would have to acknowledge that we had been talking about the quarterback all along.
That would blow the argument on which Christian’s recalcitrance has rested. Whenever he invokes the privacy argument, he asks us to believe that two different students were accused of rape, expelled from UM and reinstated in the same year. Christian is digging in his heels to protect the second student from the same ignominy that Johnson suffered, even as he tries to protect the university system from subsequent lawsuits with that mysterious doppelganger as plaintiff. That’s possible. It’s also possible that Christian overturned Johnson’s expulsion because he was the quarterback of UM’s football team.
The problem with the commissioner’s strategy thus far is that it encourages people toward assumption No. 2. By withholding information from the public, he deprives himself of the only tool he could use to correct our wrong assumptions.
He says he wants to protect the identity of a student everyone thinks is Johnson. Christian could change their minds by revealing who it really is, but he won’t. Similarly, he refuses to reveal the motivations behind his decision after everyone has already assumed the worst. He could change our minds, but only if he says what his motivations really were.
If the records show that Christian acted appropriately, why not release them? By dragging out this process with a series of appeals, the commissioner has done nothing to protect his own reputation. All he has done is keep a story from 2013 in the news for five years.
I’m prepared to believe that there’s a perfectly good explanation for Christian’s choice, but I am not prepared to believe that there’s a perfectly good explanation and Christian has literally made a Supreme Court case out of trying to hide it. I hope we will finally see these records released. They will either save us from our commissioner of higher education or save the commissioner from himself.
Dan Brooks is on Twitter at @DangerBrooks.