Greg Gianforte became a household name last month after he was cited for misdemeanor assault for allegedly “body slamming” a reporter just days before he was elected to Congress. But his name has been well-known for months at the Stevens Institute of Technology, which is building a new state-of-the-art facility that will bear his name.
“They say they’re trying to improve diversity, but even if they are creating more programs, what does it mean if we have a building named after Gianforte?”
Mr. Gianforte and his wife, Susan, are generous donors to his alma mater, the small private college in Hoboken, N.J., giving a combined total of $20 million to the institute for the new facility — the last $10 million of which came in December.
But some alumni, students, and faculty members have expressed outrage at the school’s decision to honor Mr. Gianforte with a building name, saying it contradicts the university’s commitment to scientific inquiry and inclusivity. Tensions have only escalated in light of the body-slamming incident (for which Mr. Gianforte has apologized), prompting Stevens administrators to “seriously deliberate” over the development and its ramifications for the donation.
Mr. Gianforte ran as the Republican candidate for Montana’s single seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in the special election held last month. A wealthy technology entrepreneur, he has in the past lobbied against a local ordinance in Montana that protects people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community against discrimination in housing and employment, and his family’s foundation has donated extensively to anti-LGBT rights, anti-abortion, creationist, and climate-change skeptic organizations, several news outlets have reported.
A petition started by three recent Stevens alumni cites those gifts and actions in denouncing the decision to name the new center after Mr. Gianforte. The petition has been circulating on Change.org for about two months and has garnered more than 500 signatures.
“We try to be a university that’s diverse and inclusive and welcoming, and we try to be a university that values scientific thinking, and I just don’t think Gianforte’s values line up with ours in that regard,” said Joseph Risi, one of the alumni who started a petition. “It would be hypocritical to honor such an individual whose values are so antithetical to ours.”
A contact for Mr. Gianforte’s campaign for Congress did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Last weekend, Stevens alumni gathered at the campus for its annual Alumni Weekend. Gerry Messina, an alumnus celebrating his 30th-year reunion, went to the event with his wife, and both were wearing custom-designed T-shirts with “Stevens wants $20MM” on the front, and on the back, “Will Stevens condone violence to get it??”
Stevens announced the Gianfortes’ latest gift in December and said the new building — described as an “interdisciplinary educational and research facility dedicated to technological innovation” — would be named the Gianforte Academic Center.
The campus’s Faculty Senate discussed the donation at the time and concluded that naming the new building after Mr. Gianforte was against some core values of the university as a science institution with a primary focus on the STEM disciplines and a diversity mission, said Michael Steinmann, chairman of the Faculty Senate.
The Billings Gazette reported that from 2005 to 2013 the Gianforte Family Foundation’s contributions to Christian missions or faith-based social service organizations totaled $10.8 million. The Montana Family Foundation, an organization mentioned in the petition and to which the foundation has donated upwards of half a million, is one of the leading opponents of LGBT rights in Montana. Mr. Gianforte was also a prominent benefactor of a creationist Dinosaur and Fossil Museum in Glendive, Mont., which includes displays setting dinosaurs in biblical history, according to The Washington Post.
“It’s an embarrassment to Stevens — as engineers, as technologists,” Mr. Messina said. “There’s a lot of smoke that says maybe this guy is not someone the school should affiliate itself with.”
Soindos Abdah, a member of the student government at Stevens, said that when the naming controversy first came up, she was personally against Mr. Gianforte’s views but felt the educational advantage of a new academic facility outweighed the negatives of refusing the name. “Why not take his money and turn it into something good and beneficial to all students?”
But she and others, including the student body president, Thomas Daly, said they flipped their positions after the alleged assault.
To Kyle Gonzalez, another of the petition’s authors, the Gianfortes’ donations to the Family Research Council — which has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — transcend politics. The university’s “greatest failure,” he said, “lies in failing to acknowledge there’s a moral situation at all, rather than something that is simply political.”
Mr. Gonzalez, who graduated in 2015 and identifies as queer, said that while he was a student at Stevens, the environment wasn’t particularly welcoming or nurturing for LGBT students.
Stevens lags behind in gender diversity and racial diversity, said Lee Vinsel, an assistant professor of science and technology studies. The student body is about 70 percent male and 65 percent white, federal statistics show.
The campus has made recent strides, putting sensitivity training programs in place and adding gender neutral bathrooms, Mr. Gonzalez said. But he and others say the university’s commitment to name the new building after a person who has advocated against LGBT rights does not fit into its inclusivity efforts.
“They say they’re trying to improve diversity,” said Julia McEldoon, a Stevens student who identifies as gay, “but even if they are creating more programs, what does it mean if we have a building named after Gianforte.”
The controversy at Stevens is not the first time a donation from the Gianfortes has led to protests on a college campus. Last year, Mr. Gianforte and his wife pledged $8 million to Montana State University at Bozeman to fund a new School of Computing, to be named after the Gianforte family. Students urged the trustees to reject the name change, citing the Gianfortes’ opposition to a local nondiscrimination ordinance. Montana State went ahead with the naming last summer.
At Stevens, “The Change.org petition continues to circulate, the pressure continues to mount, and yet the school has remained silent on the issue,” said Benjamin Ogden, a teaching assistant professor in the College of Arts and Letters.
The institute’s president, Nariman Farvardin, defended the acceptance of the donation in an April 4 statement that was circulated among faculty members.
“The Gianforte Family Foundation’s gift of $20 million — the largest single gift in our 147-year history — supports a building that addresses the University’s most urgent and highest priority infrastructure need,” Farvardin wrote. Mr. Farvardin also noted that Mr. Gianforte did not attach any specific political or religious agenda to his donation, and reaffirmed the campus’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.
But while the campus’s position on the name has not changed, the administration’s resolve may have been at least somewhat shaken. Top administrators met on Monday with the student body president, the Faculty Senate chair, and other officials to discuss the naming issue. Mr. Steinmann said after the meeting that he was confident the university would re-evaluate its decision, if not immediately this summer, then certainly in the fall. “There’s no doubt that will happen,” he said.
Edward Stukane, a campus spokesman, said the university is collecting feedback from alumni. For all those who express opinions opposing Mr. Gianforte, Mr. Stukane said, there have also been alumni who express support for the newly elected congressman. “We are deliberating seriously,” he said.
Andy Waldron, who graduated from Stevens in May, said he had seen only minimal backlash to the naming decision on the campus. There are alumni who have said they refuse to donate until the campus changes its mind and students who are disappointed, he said, but the general lack of response from students “speaks to the apathetic tendencies” of Stevens culture, he added.
Stevens historically doesn’t have strong liberal political discourse. For example, when the conservative commentator Ann Coulter visited the campus in 2015, it did not provoke student protests, as controversial figures like Ms. Coulter have kindled elsewhere. “The last big student movement” at Stevens, Mr. Waldron said, “was to change a meal plan.”