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At Mayville State University, complaints, concerns about President Brian Van Horn and campus culture stretch back years

Mayville State president has been cleared of wrongdoing, but campus concerns persist.

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Mayville State University photographed 6/17/21. Photo by Eric Hylden
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Last month, Mayville State University President Brian Van Horn had his performance evaluation. After three years leading the tiny Traill County university — through a pandemic, budget cuts and more — it appears he was doing well.

The review memo was written by Mark Hagerott, the chancellor of the North Dakota University System. It sang Van Horn’s praises on budgeting, distance learning, the university foundation’s assets, student body growth, high school partnerships and more.

“Overall, it was a job well done!” Hagerott wrote.

That memo was dated June 18.

On June 24 — less than one week later — Van Horn’s name showed up all over a different document. It was an internal report, laying out an NDUS investigation. It described multiple complaints that he’d acted inappropriately toward female employees.

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“The reports detail alleged behavior toward female employees that allegedly made them so uncomfortable they ultimately resigned their positions,” the report said. “One (anonymous) reporter stated that she was afraid to be in her office alone because President Van Horn ‘walks outside of it’ and comes in without giving any prior notice or warning. The complainants also stated that the incidents were reported to NDUS and to Mayville State University’s Human Resource Department, but no action was taken.”

The report was inconclusive. The investigator wrote that, since the tips were entirely anonymous, there was little that could be done.

“I am left with nothing more than anonymous hearsay, and I cannot make a finding with respect to these allegations,” the report states.

State university leaders say they’ve heard a version of this before. In responding to requests from the Herald, a spokesperson said the complaints were the latest in a string of them “stemming from one incident, involving an unnamed subject,” which had already been referred to them “a number of times” and remained unsubstantiated. State leaders now say they won’t investigate any more anonymous claims about the incident.

But the remarks near the end of that investigative report are different from the praise Van Horn earned in his evaluation. Though it doesn’t describe them, the investigative report alludes to “past similar complaints,” and suggests Van Horn seek leadership counseling.

“Given the number of complaints (and past similar complaints), there appears to be a perception gap between President Van Horn and his staff,” the investigator wrote. “As a result, I suggest that President Van Horn seek coaching or mentoring on communication and perceptions (or similar topics).”

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That same June 24 NDUS report also found no violations concerning Van Horn’s living situation in a residence hall on campus — taking up in a vacant resident hall director unit — which appears to have raised questions about appearances and his housing allowance. And when it comes to appearances, the investigator said something similar about that complaint, too: that there appeared to be a “perception gap” in how the community saw Van Horn’s living arrangement.

The Herald asked NDUS leaders for any letters of review on file from Hagerott concerning Van Horn’s contract or employment. The Herald received three documents: an “annual evaluation” from 2019, a shorter 2020 document, digitally labeled an “eval,” and the 2021 document described above.

None contained references to the complaints lodged about Van Horn’s leadership, which raised questions for the Herald — especially after NDUS documents show campus culture problems stretching back at least into 2019.

The Herald has been investigating Mayville State University — its campus climate, leadership and more — for months. In the course of that investigation, the Herald obtained a campus climate survey, administered in late 2019 in the course of a federal grant Mayville received.

It showed good job satisfaction on average, but also that more than a quarter of Mayville State University employees were “likely” or “very likely” to leave in the next year (it does not specify why, and Van Horn has previously pointed out that a small-town college like Mayville sometimes sees employees leave for other opportunities.) It also identified shortfalls in employees’ perception of campus communication and culture.

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The Herald also found a complaint of workplace harassment against Van Horn — from a nearly three-decade employee who left her position in early 2020 after reporting the matter to state leaders.

The internal report into that complaint, finalized in May, cleared Van Horn. But it found a “potential concern regarding communication and culture within (Mayville State).”

In an effort to corroborate the claims against Van Horn, the Herald spoke with seven people with close knowledge of the campus. Some say Van Horn was respectful and pleasant — or new to the office, and making tough financial decisions that will inevitably anger some of his employees. To others, he is a well-intended leader outmatched by the challenge of his role.

To others, he is simply not suited to the job, or is a toxic presence at the university.

Praised in past

Van Horn has been winning praise for his leadership for years. His 2019 evaluation notes that he brought down annual student textbook costs 56.3%. Despite faltering state funding, the university’s spring 2019 headcount was at an all-time high. In 2020, Hagerott recognized Van Horn and Mayville’s handling of a “series of cascading, high-stakes decisions … quickly and professionally while keeping the health, well-being and safety of our people at the top of your priority list.”

And it’s true that Van Horn has been leading Mayville State during extraordinary times. He was selected to be the next MSU president in early 2018, took office later that year, and has since led the university through both pandemic and shifting state budgets. His current contract, which lasts through June 2022, includes a nearly $207,000 base salary, plus various benefits, including $20,000 in housing “reimbursement.” Van Horn pays $500 per month to live in the dorm, according to the report.

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A sign at Mayville State University in Mayville, N.D. (Grand Forks Herald)

The NDUS investigation found no violation, and noted that all university presidents either receive a housing allowance or use of a president’s home, when available.

The coronavirus pandemic, in particular, has been a challenge. During fall 2020, case counts ticked sharply upward and Mayville officials began housing quarantined students in the campus wellness center, moving classes online.

RELATED: 'We don't have a crisis': Mayville State president says campus is dealing with uptick in coronavirus cases

And the university has shared the same struggles as other institutions around North Dakota — increasingly forced to stretch its dollars further. In a recent memo to university employees, Van Horn had to break the news in mid-June that two staff positions would be eliminated. A smattering of faculty positions would be vacant until 2022 or indefinitely; and a number of empty staff jobs, including athletic director, would go unfilled, too.

The Herald sent leaders at the North Dakota University System seven Mayville and NDUS documents it had obtained — investigative reports and notes, the campus culture survey and an employee’s complaint letter — and asked for an interview with top leaders.

Chancellor Hagerott and Casey Ryan, the head of the state’s Board of Higher Education, initially declined an interview. But they reiterated their support of Van Horn.

“We continue to support President Van Horn, as well as the students, staff and faculty at the institution,” they said in a joint emailed statement. “Everything we work toward is for the overall good of Mayville, as well as the rest of the state’s higher education institutions.”

Brian Van Horn.
Brian Van Horn.

The Herald responded with a detailed list of questions — including how often North Dakota’s university presidents have been accused of harassment, how many other times Van Horn has been the subject of those complaints and investigations and more.

A state spokesperson responded by email. The email didn’t answer many of the Herald’s questions, and described the state’s internal investigative process in detail — giving some context to the latest round of complaints against Van Horn.

“There is a pattern of anonymous complaints stemming from one incident involving an unnamed subject, which has now been reported a number of times,” that email stated. “The review of these reports was unable to substantiate them due in part to their anonymous nature. Repeated anonymous complaints regarding this incident led (state officials) to instruct the Office of Compliance and Ethics not to investigate further anonymous complaints about the same incident.”

Unanswered in that email is whether state leaders actually want Van Horn to seek leadership counseling. The state also did not respond to questions about Hagerott’s letters of review, which are notably quiet on any complaints about Van Horn’s leadership.

There’s a “campus climate survey” referenced in his 2021 review, but it’s only described long enough to say it raised “COVID-related concerns” — and that Van Horn created a communications committee and made his cabinet available to “meet with stakeholders to discuss their concerns.”

Hagerott response

Hours before this story was finalized, the Herald was able to briefly interview Hagerott about Van Horn’s leadership.

The chancellor said that Van Horn has had to deal with significant financial challenges, as well as the tumult that came with COVID-19. Hagerott said this is important context to, at the very least, the most recent investigative report, finalized in June.

"Everyone values their programs, everyone values what they're doing, but Dr. Van Horn had to be the one to make the hard choices and start cutting things. So I just wanted to be sure that that's the context," Hagerott said. "I'm not going to say that any particular person was resentful. But the context you have is programs cut, people laid off, very difficult times, and he's the accountable officer."

The Herald asked Hagerott if he believes Van Horn should take leadership coaching, as a state investigator suggested.

“Coaching is always good,” he said. “I am not going to dispute that we can't all get better. That's why we have coaches for athletic teams. … My interaction with him, he’s been among the top-performing, open, transparent, always professional, you know — it’s not something that I’ve seen. But I’m not going to dispute the findings of the (investigator).”

Asked why a multi-year history of apparent campus culture issues weren’t included in Hagerott’s years of written reviews, Hagerott seemed to speak to his most recent, June 18 review, which he said was written before the most recent investigative report came out.

According to state documents, the allegations came in May.

"We wait until the process is done,” Hagerott said. “Otherwise, people can basically do any number of things, send it out and then we're responding and stuff on that hasn't been validated or corroborated and confirmed. And again, the context is COVID, the context is budget cuts, the context is layoffs."

Mark Hagerott
File photo of North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott. Jesse Trelstad / Grand Forks Herald

Hagerott has admitted to intentionally keeping negative comments out of public view at least once. In 2019, questions from higher education leaders arose when Hagerott’s review of the UND president didn’t include more difficult items connected to the aviation department and the law school.

Hagerott said he would discuss those issues privately with State Board of Higher Education leaders and that the public could request written records of his talks about them with the UND president.

"I did not feel inclined that it would be helpful to be recording publicly candid comments about each of the situations in a written document," Hagerott said at the time.

Hagerott has also been the subject of his own workplace investigation, when his former chief of staff brought a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming he was sexist and that he “singled out employees for matters of health, age and sexual orientation,” the Herald reported in 2018.

RELATED: Labor complaint dismissed against North Dakota university chancellor

That case was dismissed by the EEOC.

An accusation

Allison Johnson, until March 2020, was Mayville State’s executive director of institutional effectiveness — a position that had her managing grant funding and looking closely at university data to help it run better. That could mean eyeing class sizes and course loads and budgets, or even accreditation; it also meant running a climate survey created to understand how employees feel about their work.

In late 2018, she was presenting some figures to Van Horn when, she claims, he cut her off.

“Do I need to use a shock collar on you?” he allegedly asked. “Let me look at the data and ask you questions.”

Johnson was taken aback by the comment, falling quiet and letting a colleague continue until she could regain her composure.

Days later, Van Horn allegedly told Johnson he should have used different language.

But (he said) I needed to be quiet, not talk, and that he makes the decisions on how to analyze and use the data and not me,” Johnson would later write of the incident. “I did not feel he was remorseful of his actions.”

The episode is near the top of a letter that Johnson sent last year to the North Dakota University System, alleging a hostile workplace environment. Her six-page letter goes on to describe a tense relationship that remained strained for more than a year before she complained to state officials in early 2020. She left her position months later, though she has since stayed on as an adjunct grant-writing instructor, she told the Herald.

Before a meeting of state university system leaders, she said Van Horn — speaking in front of a fellow university president — appeared to forget the scope of Johnson’s duties, and suggested she go shopping or run errands in her free time before that meeting began. During a work evaluation, Johnson wrote, she was told she was “very emotional, that I monopolize cabinet meetings and discussions, and am inflexible and opinionated.”

Johnson, in an interview last month, said it was a difficult time, one where she was often unsure how to safeguard her future at Mayville State. She’d said she had been deeply affected by Van Horn’s remarks, and that his attitude made her feel her job was at risk.

“I'd been there for so long, and people knew me and they'd trusted me,” she said.

Van Horn was later cleared of a hostile workplace allegation by a state investigation finalized this year. An investigator found insufficient evidence to meet a five-point NDUS criteria for “work environment harassment.”

“Ms. Johnson [...] did not provide information sufficient to demonstrate that she was a member of a protected class related to the complaint, that she sustained harassment within the definition of a hostile work environment, or that any alleged harassment was based on her membership in a protected class,” the report states in part. Interviews with Mayville State employees, the report adds, were inconclusive as to whether other points were met — like whether “the employer was made aware of the harassment and did not act to improve the situation.”

That same investigation also cleared the university of claims it had mismanaged grants that funded some of Johnson’s work — another concern of hers.

“Sometimes two different individuals can have a different perception of what's been said or interactions,” Van Horn said in an interview last month . “I think at different times we may have looked at different things from a different lens, which is just human nature.”

But the investigation did seem to find some evidence that suggested a fraught office environment. The Herald obtained the investigator’s notes through a public records request. In them, there are some interviewees who say they are pleased with their jobs or with Van Horn. Others were concerned.

“The culture is overall leaning toward toxic,” the notes from one interview read. “The cabinet is toxic and there are constant transitions and turnover. Salaries are too low and leadership is not very supportive.”

One interviewee said Johnson’s and Van Horn’s personalities were “like oil and water.” But they added that she wasn’t the only one who had notable interactions with Van Horn.

“(Interviewee) has heard that several cabinet members had what they termed surprising or shocking comments on their performance evaluations,” the notes stated. “(Johnson) should not have been shocked by the comments on her evaluations as there had been issues in communication in the past and others had already shared that they had surprising comments.”

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Outside of Old Main at Mayville State University

According to a summary made by the state’s investigator, a third of the interviewees said the general culture at Mayville was negative or declining, the report stated; roughly the same amount either had concerns about Van Horn’s leadership, or viewed it in a negative light.

Van Horn spoke with the Herald about the university and his leadership last month.

"I will simply say it's my goal and the university's goal not to have a toxic environment,” Van Horn said then. “A toxic environment is the perspective of the individual that filled out that survey at that given time.”

A spokesperson for the university system said the NDUS doesn’t discuss individuals’ employment, but did acknowledge that Johnson “made a public, non-anonymous complaint in early 2020.”

“It was promptly investigated and a preliminary report was released in March of 2020; the final report was released in May 2021,” the spokesperson said. “The report was available to the public upon request. Based on the information in NDUS's possession, Ms. Johnson's complaint and the current anonymous complaints (from the recent, June investigative report) are unrelated.”

The future

Van Horn appears to have the full support of the state’s top high education leaders. But it’s unknown if he will actually seek any leadership training, as a state investigator suggested.

When the Herald asked Van Horn for an interview this month, a university spokesperson declined the interview and referred the Herald back to its interview served last month — a brief conversation for a related, less thorough article. Van Horn did not respond to a detailed list of questions sent to that same spokesperson.

During its investigation, the Herald gathered a number of comments about Van Horn, some positive and some negative. Some Mayville employees don’t seem to have any problem with him.

“I never had any negative relationship (with Van Horn). I never had any issues with Dr. Van Horn. Any time that I needed to speak to him and let him know anything that was going on, he would always answer the phone and talk to me or talk with me in person if needed,” said Lindsey Hall, Mayville State’s COVID liaison from August 2020 to April 2021.

Several people interviewed by the Herald would only do so on the condition of anonymity.

“I think that Dr. Van Horn has unchecked power at this point, and the (university system) is not doing anything to look into that, even though they're aware of some of those issues,” said one. “And that he is going to continue, essentially, poisoning the university until some of his actions are brought to light, or he's held accountable for what he's done."

In late 2019, Mayville State leaders surveyed the entire university, asking about employee experience and satisfaction as they worked through a federal grant the university received in 2018.

It found that, in late 2019, employees were divided. Many employees were happy with their job — rating their satisfaction, on average, at 3.67 on a five-point scale. But more than a quarter of respondents said they were at least “likely” to leave Mayville within the next year.

“The fact that so many respondents would consider leaving the institution in the next year suggests a need for decisive action,” a summary report said.

Untangling precisely why so many Mayville employees wanted to leave is difficult. It’s true that the university is small, and for some, a bigger opportunity might beckon. Van Horn offered a similar reason.

The survey also found gaps in employees’ satisfaction with “lines of communication” between departments and with the administration. On a five-point scale, the survey found employees put the importance of “good communication” between top leaders and staff at 4.44. But employees rated their satisfaction at 2.89. A similar but slightly smaller gap was found for the university’s “spirit of teamwork and cooperation.”

The survey also included a long list of written comments from respondents. Some were positive; others were not, with complaints about pay and workload and more.

“This campus is starting to feel toxic,” one response said. “Employees are on edge and it appears [the] administration is ‘aware’ and ‘talking’ about it, yet we are not seeing anything being done about it.”

Van Horn said he has worked hard to improve campus communication, working with faculty and staff and his cabinet regularly to make sure everyone is kept in the loop about where the university is headed.

"Bottom line is we take it really seriously,” Van Horn told the Herald last month. “We've been really transparent with our budget challenges. We've asked groups to come together, and we've worked with our cabinet to work with our organizational charts to find solutions. It's been very much a shared governance experience.”

It’s hard to tell how employees feel now — but another survey is expected to be completed again soon, in accordance with a grant the university received several years ago. It will help the public understand the trajectory that Mayville State is on. And though Van Horn did not answer other questions posed by the Herald, he did answer one about the forthcoming survey through a spokesperson.

“The exact timing is yet to be determined,” Van Horn said. “We may consider refining areas that we want more feedback on based on implemented changes at the institution … We take opportunities to understand where we can improve as well as recognize the areas where we are exceeding expectations. Any opportunity to learn is an opportunity to grow and be better than we were the day before.”

In the course of reporting this story, few leaders were willing to sit for an interview with the Herald. One of the most recent comments on Van Horn came from Kathleen Neset, a former member of the state’s Board of Higher Education, whose term ended several weeks ago.

Kathy Neset
Kathy Neset

Speaking in late June during a state board meeting, she was talking specifically about the most recent spate of complaints about Van Horn — that he had acted inappropriately toward female employees. It’s the same set of complaints that state leaders say dates back years, and couldn’t be substantiated.

Neset said it was time for Mayville to move on, and that without a named complaint, there wasn’t anything the board could do.

And, in what she has insisted is a message of “support,” she reminded Van Horn of his responsibilities.

“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.”

Learn about how this story was produced.

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