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OUR OPINION: ‘You’re fine.’ ‘You’re fine.’ ‘You’re fired’ at UND

Better late than never for UND to tell Gerald Groenewold, director of the Energy and Environmental Research Center, why he was being put on administrative leave and later fired.

UND took action against Groenewold on May 5, but apparently kept him in the dark until May 23 about the reasons behind the action. That’s 18 days, which was 18 days too long, as previous editorials have noted.

But better late than never, as mentioned; and on May 23, UND President Robert Kelley sent a “letter of cause” to Groenewold listing the reasons.

Kudos to Kelley for filling Groenewold in, even if belatedly.

Moreover, Kelley’s letter is persuasive. The actions he ascribes to Groenewold, which include giving misleading information to Kelley as well as creating “an environment that is, in the words of EERC employees, hostile, abusive and oppressive,” strike any manager as being firing offenses — that is, if the president’s claims are true.

But Groenewold has declared that they’re not.

In other words, now that the reasons are on record, they’re in dispute. The dispute seems likely to end up in hearings or even in court.

Which brings up another key issue:

Now that Kelley has spelled out his complaints against Groenewold, can the president document them?

A few days after the news broke about Groenewold being put on leave, this story by Herald Staff Writers John Hageman and Anna Burleson appeared:

“Presidents gave EERC director good reviews,” the headline read.

“UND President Robert Kelley has given mostly positive reviews throughout his tenure of Gerald Groenewold. … (L)etters on file at UND’s human resources office indicate Kelley was generally happy with Groenewold’s performance. The most recent performance evaluation available, dated June 28, 2013, refers to a recent conversation regarding ‘past and future goals.’

“‘As I indicated during that discussion, you are meeting expectations at every level of your performance,’” Kelley wrote. He ended the evaluation by recommending a 4 percent pay raise.

The contrast between last year’s praising and this year’s firing can mean one of only two things:

Either Groenewold’s performance plummeted over the course of the past 12 months, or UND’s evaluation system is flawed.

Our money is on the latter, given that Groenewold’s hyper-intense management style has been part of UND and Grand Forks lore for years. Maybe Kelley had a problem with his subordinate’s hard-charging style. But if he did, why didn’t he document it? Why don’t the reviews instruct Groenewold to tone down his approach, avoid raising his voice, strive for a friendlier workplace and so on?

That would have served two purposes: First, it would have given Groenewold the guidance he needed to stay in his boss’ good graces.

Second, it would have documented Kelley’s concerns in case Groenewold failed to comply.

UND’s performance-review system is complicated by the fact that the reviews are public. But if that means managers never give bad reviews, then the system has been rendered ineffective, North Dakotans are being poorly served, and the Legislature should be approached to make reforms.

Meanwhile, Kelley’s complaints about Groenewold’s management are weakened by the history of positive reviews. Again, either Groenewold’s performance dramatically declined over the past 12 months — or UND’s review system itself needs a steely eyed review.