Who does George Dennison think he’s fooling? Last Wednesday, UM’s president admitted he had made public the very same fund-raising rejection letter he’d already scolded journalism school Dean Jerry Brown for disclosing. Dennison apologized and said he hadn’t intended to release the letter—perhaps realizing such a flagrant 180 would reflect poorly on both his integrity and his competence. But his apology looks to be equal parts bullshit and lies. At this point, the only thing that’s clear in these muddied waters is that Dennison has poisoned his credibility and compounded doubts about his tenure.
A bit of background: In late May, Brown gave the Associated Press a letter from the Cox Foundation saying that until Montanans learn to better appreciate out-of-state landowners and resolve stream access issues, there’d be no Cox money for the University. This unsubtle hint from media mogul James C. Kennedy, Brown thought, raised an important public issue, particularly since Kennedy is personally embroiled in a public-access battle involving 3,500 acres he owns along Montana’s Ruby River. Nevertheless, Dennison ordered Brown to apologize, which he did. News organizations around the state—the Washington Post, Newsday and the Guardian also picked it up—pilloried Dennison and backed Brown on their editorial pages. And just as the issue was fading, a letter to the Missoulian from UM journalism emeritus professor Bob McGiffert repeated an Associated Press report that Dennison himself had sent the letter to Gov. Schweitzer. Dennison responded with an indignant Missoulian guest column denying the deed and huffing, “Anyone who purports to deal with news has an obligation to get the facts correct.”
On June 8, after the governor’s office produced the mailing, Dennison was forced to admit he had in fact sent the letter, along with a note drawing Schweitzer’s attention to Kennedy’s special interest. He still insisted, though, that he didn’t intend to send it. (Dennison was out of town this week and unavailable to speak with the Independent, whose reporters hardly ever mail anything to the governor by accident.) His June 10 apology letter in the Missoulian said he realized his error only after looking “carefully at the record.”
Just how stupid does Dennison think the Montana press—never mind the public—is? He clearly meant to send the letter along with his note, a cryptic scrawled statement saying, “I thought you might find this letter of interest. The comments reveal a rising level of concern from outside the state about comments made without much thought.” How could Schweitzer possibly have interpreted Dennison’s note if “this letter” wasn’t included? While we are amazed Dennison didn’t trace his own deceptive logic to its conclusion, we’re additionally baffled by his bad bet that everyone, or anyone for that matter, would accept his reasoning.
We aren’t buying it. And we’re also troubled that Dennison continues to assert that the letter should have been kept secret, and that he found it appropriate to carry Kennedy’s water to the governor’s office in the first place. In the wake of the golf course proposal debacle and the Grizzly athletics scandal, it’s clear to us that Dennison’s stumbling leadership just took a fatal step. In light of recent events, we think he should consider taking another one—down.