GRAND FORKS -- A former University of North Dakota employee and current state lawmaker claims UND leaders have created a “hostile” work environment at the university.
Emily O’Brien, a member of the state House of Representatives, claims in a letter to the State Board of Higher Education that UND leadership, specifically Provost Thomas DiLorenzo and President Mark Kennedy, have displayed “unprofessional leadership.” She has asked the SBHE to step in because, according to O’Brien, “bad leaders do not become good leaders.”
“His unprofessional conduct and hostility towards influencers is conduct unbecoming of a university president, and I am among many who have no confidence in his ability to lead UND forward,” O’Brien wrote.
The letter, sent June 26 to members of the SBHE, requested the board not renew Kennedy’s contract and asked the board to consider dismissing Kennedy and DiLorenzo. The board later, at a June 28 meeting, unanimously renewed Kennedy’s contract through June 2020.
The letter was obtained through an open records request.
Kennedy said Tuesday he has encouraged the state board to investigate O’Brien’s claims, adding the university plans to be fully cooperative.
Kennedy said, to his knowledge, there are no other university officials involved in the matter, and no university employees have been suspended or placed on leave.
Kennedy gave no additional comments about the ongoing investigation.
O’Brien worked at UND for seven years as a student and began her professional career in the school’s Center for Innovation. She decided to leave her post in December 2017; her last day was Jan. 31, 2018.
In a phone interview on Tuesday, she said although she wanted to share her story multiple times in the past, she feared retaliation from DiLorenzo and Kennedy.
“I thought it was important that if I could prevent other people from being treated the way that I was that it was important for me to speak my part,” O’Brien said.
Before and after election
Before she was elected to the North Dakota House of Representatives, O’Brien said she applied for and was selected for a job promotion at the Center of Innovation. O’Brien claimed after being elected to the Legislature, it took more than six months for her new job position and salary to be approved.
O’Brien claimed DiLorenzo told her he was not comfortable with the promotion and wanted to look into it more. O’Brien claims this was in “retaliation” for defeating the provost’s “favorite legislator, Rep. Kylie Oversen.”
O’Brien claims unprofessional conduct continued while she worked full-time in November and December and during the legislative session, when she says she worked 20 percent time. O’Brien claims she did not get compensated for multiple pay periods for the work she was doing.
O’Brien also felt she was a “targeted” employee after returning to her job after the session ended. O’Brien said faculty and staff would reach out to her and ask her how her job was going because DiLorenzo would allegedly make comments in meetings, such as “Do you know what the two biggest issues are with higher education? 1. Freedom of speech. 2. Republicans complaining too much about higher education.”
“One colleague stated they are Republican and felt intimidated by the provost,” O’Brien wrote. “There was fear they would be targeted, treated differently or their job would become very difficult. This is a hostile work environment.”
O’Brien also felt she was targeted after DiLorenzo requested a meeting so she could explain her job duties. O’Brien claimed the provost had asked her, in a demeaning tone, “So, what do you even do here?” She said she was alarmed to learn department chairs and associate vice presidents typically don’t have meetings alone with the provost. O’Brien attended the meeting with DiLorenzo alone, writing she had “nothing to fear” and claims her evaluations for job performance were “stellar.” She wrote that DiLorenzo questioned whether she knew what she was really doing in her job, which she felt was insulting and demeaning.
O’Brien claims the provost and interim Center Director Barry Horwitz demanded that a resource guide be completed in a very short amount of time -- first three days and then two weeks. O’Brien said both were unrealistic timelines because the guide required many interviews to complete.
She goes on to claim that Horwitz stated he had “met with the provost and President Kennedy who want this done in two weeks and if you do not want to be here, I would be more than happy to get you where you’d like to go.”
O’Brien, who serves District 42 in Grand Forks, also claims legislators do not have a “good working or constructive relationship” with Kennedy or DiLorenzo. She says legislators in the district have met with Kennedy about relationship building and community engagement, adding that “many citizens” in the district and throughout the community do not feel appreciated by the UND administration.
She also claims communication has been “nearly nonexistent” since meeting with Kennedy.
She also accuses Kennedy of only inviting male UND staff and legislators to events or he would sometimes not invite legislators at all.
“UND cannot move forward with this inexcusable, unprofessional leadership that has destroyed any working relationship. These fences cannot be mended. Bad leaders do not become good leaders,” she wrote.
DiLorenzo declined to comment as the investigation is ongoing.