Bozeman billionaire Greg Gianforte, whose scheduled commencement speech at Montana Tech in Butte has prompted some students and teachers there to organize a boycott of the event, is also scheduled to speak at Rocky Mountain College’s commencement this spring.
Rocky President Robert Wilmouth, who invited Gianforte to speak at the RMC commencement on May 3, said he had no inkling that some of Gianforte’s political and religious views were considered by some to be so controversial.
He said he invited Gianforte to Rocky because “we want to hear about business and computer science.”
The Montana Standard reported Wednesday that some Tech professors plan to skip the commencement, and that a student group is thinking of conducting its own graduation ceremony with a different speaker.
According to the Standard, Gianforte, a computer scientist who founded RightNow Technologies in Bozeman and sold it in 2012 for $1.5 billion, is involved with an affiliate of Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group, and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.
Gianforte and his wife, Susan, are both scheduled to speak at the commencement in Butte, but only Greg Gianforte is on the bill at Rocky.
In February, Susan Gianforte spoke against a possible non-discrimination ordinance before the Bozeman City Commission. Though no such ordinance has been proposed in Bozeman, there has been talk, as there has in Billings, of creating an ordinance that would protect gays, lesbians and transgender people from discrimination.
KBZK-TV reported that Gianforte told the commission she would “willingly go to jail if I had to break an ordinance to continue to conform to my faith.”
The Standard reported that some professors at Tech also objected to the Gianfortes on the grounds that they promote unscientific beliefs, as evidenced by their contributions to the faith-based Glendive Dinosaur Fossil Museum, which teaches that humans co-existed with dinosaurs.
Wilmouth, who took over as president at Rocky last April, said Thursday evening that this was all news to him.
“We thought we had vetted him pretty thoroughly,” he said of Gianforte.
Wilmouth said he and a selection committee worked through a list of potential speakers and that Gianforte did not ask to be the commencement speaker. Wilmouth said he ultimately invited Gianforte to speak because of his success as an entrepreneur and technology expert and because he “seemed so passionate and energetic.”
Wilmouth said the business program is the biggest one on the Rocky campus, and the computer science program is also expanding rapidly, and yet the college has rarely invited someone from the business world to speak at commencement.
“To me, commencement isn’t really about any agenda or political beliefs,” he said.
A few hours before he was contacted by a reporter, Wilmouth said, a “very nice lady” called him and asked whether it was true that Gianforte was the commencement speaker.
When he confirmed that, Wilmouth said, the caller told him that Rocky, by inviting Gianforte, would be “throwing gays under the bus.”
Wilmouth said he had not heard anything about the Gianfortes’ views on gay rights issues. He did say he has been working with former Mayor Chuck Tooley to host a 20th-anniversary conference of Not In Our Town this summer in Billings.
The Billings community sparked the Not In Our Town movement by rallying to support Jewish, black, Native American and gay people who were singled out for harassment by white supremacist groups late in 1993.
Last week, when the local chapter of Not In Our Town went before the Billings City Council to seek financial support for the conference, more than a dozen people urged the council not to support the group, saying it was supporting a proposed non-discrimination ordinance and other aspects of the “homosexual agenda.”