After complaint, Mayville State president gets pointed reminder from North Dakota Board of Higher Education member
Neset urges Van Horn, other North Dakota university presidents to ‘maintain highest level of professionalism’
Mayville State University President Brian Van Horn on Tuesday appeared to be the focus of a State Board of Higher Education member’s pointed reminder against bad behavior, as members of the board openly discussed an anonymous "ongoing complaint" at MSU.
"We don’t know and we can’t deal with this complaint, because nobody will stand up and put their name to it and deal with the anonymous situation," SBHE member Kathleen Neset said during Tuesday’s board meeting.
Neset did not reveal the nature of the complaint, nor did she provide further information about precisely when or how the complaint was registered. But she did say the complaint has been coming “over several years now.” And while she said she hoped to “support our president,” she also reminded Van Horn of his responsibilities.
“Basically, what we would like to do as a committee is encourage President Van Horn and all of our presidents to always maintain the highest level of professionalism and, always, you are a model for our students and our communities," Neset said. "You are on the clock 24-7. You are the face of your universities, and it’s very important that you keep that utmost in your work and your lifestyle as you work within your campus and your communities. We share that with Dr. Van Horn and all of our presidents."
Van Horn has been president of Mayville State since July 2018. In a phone interview with the Herald, conducted Tuesday morning while the SBHE meeting was still ongoing, he said NDUS officials would likely be able to provide the Herald with more details on the allegations to which Neset referred.
And he pressed back on the suggestion that Neset’s comments were an admonishment.
"We understand as presidents that we live to a very high set of standards. … In doing such, you're highly scrutinized for about everything that you do,” Van Horn said. “That would be my perception. Just remember, be thoughtful and do everything for your institution … and try and move your institution forward. It's certainly not a normal workday."
"I don't see it as a warning,” Van Horn added. “I see it as a reminder, for lack of a better word."
Neset’s comment comes near the end of a months-long investigation the Herald has been conducting into the campus climate and Van Horn's performance as president. The resulting investigation has found him to be a divisive figure, with some employees sympathetic to a president that must make difficult decisions that cannot satisfy the entire campus. Others privately expressed doubts about his leadership.
It also comes weeks after the Herald briefly spoke with North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott via cell phone on May 5. Asked about any investigation into misconduct that might have happened at Mayville State University, Hagerott referred the Herald to a university system spokesperson.
In the course of its reporting, the Herald has since reached out to campus employees and obtained numerous documents — both via public records requests and through other means.
The Herald’s reporting is ongoing. But it has found a survey of the campus, administered in late 2019, that showed employee dissatisfaction with campus communication and climate.
"I will simply say it's my goal and the university's goal not to have a toxic environment,” Van Horn said. “A toxic environment is the perspective of the individual that filled out that survey at that given time.”
It also uncovered an allegation of a hostile workplace environment, levied by a three-decade employee who left her post in early 2020 (Van Horn was later cleared in a state University System investigation).
“Sometimes two different individuals can have a different perception of what's been said or interactions,” Van Horn said of that episode. “I think at different times we may have looked at different things from a different lens, which is just human nature.”
Neset’s comments represent a window into a normally quiet process that investigates and adjudicates complaints and violations within the North Dakota University System. But it also shed light on the limits of that process. Neset was emphatic that complaints can only be pursued so far if they’re filed anonymously.
“It has been heard, it has been addressed by the committee, it is now being addressed by the board, and it is time for this to be put to rest,” Neset said, adding that NDUS compliance officials had been told not to pursue any further anonymous complaints on the unnamed issue alleged at Mayville State.
“It’s time for Mayville State to move on,” Neset added. “We support all of our presidents in these types of issues. If somebody continues to do the same complaint over and over, and will not stand up and move from the anonymous to a named complaint, there is nothing we can do.”
Sam Easter is a contributing reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. He can be reached with tips, thoughts and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org .