An independent investigation has found that a Republican legislator's claim that she was discriminated against at the UND Center for Innovation because of her political affiliation is unsubstantiated.
State Rep. Emily O'Brien of Grand Forks claimed in June in a letter to the State Board of Higher Education that UND leadership, specifically Provost Thomas DiLorenzo and President Mark Kennedy, had displayed "unprofessional leadership" and had created a "hostile" work environment. O'Brien asked the board not to renew Kennedy's contract.
In the letter, O'Brien also claimed she was a "targeted" employee after defeating former Democratic Rep. Kylie Oversen for a seat in the North Dakota House in 2016. O'Brien claimed that continued after she returned from session in May 2017, among other complaints.
The report, which was conducted by law firm Kutak Rock and dated Monday, states the investigation "did not discover any evidence or encounter any testimony" that supports O'Brien's "claims that she was discriminated against based on her political affiliation."
Instead, the report says, institutional changes that were made at the center that sought to "instill a culture of accountability and transparency caused confusion and resentment among certain center employees, including Ms. O'Brien." The changes were not made in O'Brien's case specifically, but affected the center as a whole.
"Although perceived as unpleasant by some, the changes and the manner in which they were implemented do not support a claim of harassment or a hostile work environment," the report read.
The report continues, noting that "many of the instances Ms. O'Brien complains of could likely have been mitigated with better and more direct communication with her."
"The lack of clear communication appears to have left Ms. O'Brien to ascribe improper motives to actions and words of university officials," the report stated.
Following the release of O'Brien's letter to the state board, UND asked for the complaints to be investigated.
"We are pleased with the report findings and remain vigilant in our efforts to have a fair and productive work environment for all," Meloney Linder, vice president for marketing and communications, said in a statement Tuesday.
Kennedy was not available for comment on Tuesday. O'Brien had not received a copy of the document as of Tuesday afternoon and was unable to comment on the topic.
As a part of the investigation Kutak Rock interviewed a dozen people, including O'Brien, Kennedy and DiLorenzo.
According to the report, O'Brien claimed that she was "subjected to harassment and a hostile work environment based on her status as a Republican."
The State Board of Higher Education has policies regarding discrimination and harassment, however a person's political affiliation is not recognized as a legally protected class by federal or state law or SBHE policies. Therefore O'Brien's claim would not have legal standing, the report stated.
"Despite this, we have thoroughly investigated the circumstances that give rise to Ms. O'Brien's claims because her claims, while not meeting the applicable legal standard, are troubling due to the nature of her allegations," the report stated.
In the letter to the state board, O'Brien laid out a number of allegations, including that DiLorenzo created a "hostile work environment" and that legislators do not have a "good working or constructive relationship with Kennedy or DiLorenzo.
She also claimed DiLorenzo displayed "unprofessional conduct" through her promotion process and that she was not compensated for multiple pay periods for the work she was doing during session.
The report outlines each of O'Brien's allegations in detail and concluded that none of her claims was substantiated.
"The investigation did not find support for Ms. O'Brien's allegations of harassment or a hostile work environment," the report stated. "In sum, the investigation did not discover any harassment of Ms. O'Brien based on her political affiliation and, further, it did not reveal any evidence of a hostile work environment as alleged by Ms. O'Brien."