MAYVILLE – More than a dozen Mayville State University employees are left unsure of their financial futures as the university attempts to reclaim more than $150,000 in accidental overpayments it made in recent years.
Administrators’ efforts to reclaim the money has created tension between rank-and-file employees and university leadership, leaving some employees deeply anxious at the prospect of unexpectedly paying back four- or even five-figure sums – often delivered in amounts so small, and over enough time, that they say they never noticed.
Employees at the university say multiple overpayments are larger than $10,000. The largest, the university leaders confirmed, is $37,500, paid out over two years.
Erin Lord Kunz is an associate professor of English at the university and the chairperson of its liberal arts division. She received $4,200 in extra pay between late 2019 and early 2020. She said that money pales in comparison to some of the other overpayments she’s heard of, but she considers it a burden all the same.
“It’s not an amount of money that I keep around in case I have to pay back my employer,” Kunz said. “... If I pay it back in terms of payments, we're talking about having to re-shift how we do budgeting in my household to pay our mortgage, to pay our daycare bills, to pay all those things.”
Many of the affected employees were summoned to private meetings earlier this month with university brass and asked to sign documents related to the overpayments — documents that a number of them did not sign, including Kunz. A copy of the documents she shared with the Herald includes a form acknowledging the overpayment; another would allow the university to seek Medicare and Social Security tax reimbursement, discounting her debt by about 8%.
Kunz added that a group of the affected employees are now speaking with officials from North Dakota United, the statewide educators’ union. But multiple Mayville State employees told the Herald they are unsure of what next steps should be taken; for now, they’re still trying to grapple with the sudden demand for repayments.
“I don’t think they’re treating us very nicely, and they’re not understanding the psychological impact of what this is doing. That families, this close to the holidays, are trying to re-figure their lives,” said one university employee who was overpaid by $10,000 over the course of more than two years and requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal.
University President Brian Van Horn confirmed the news to the Herald through a spokesperson this week, noting that nearly 20 “current and former faculty and staff” had been either over- or underpaid.
Van Horn said the overpayment issue was the result of a “technical processing error” that has since been fixed.
In a separate email through a spokesperson, Vice President for Business Affairs Steve Bensen said that 15 employees have been overpaid a collective total of $152,511.99.
The result of payroll errors has left a number of employees now grappling with sudden, significant debts that often accrued in small amounts over months or years. It’s the source of profound anxiety for some, who now face the prospect of wage garnishment they worry could significantly affect their everyday lives.
Kunz shared an early 2019 email from Mayville State’s human resources department to help illustrate irregular pay that created at least some of the overpayments. A university official says that, “due to unfortunate timing,” payments for extra class loads would begin two weeks later than expected. The odd and unpredictable payment schedules, Kunz said, is the well-known butt of common campus jokes.
“I actually asked Steve Bensen this. … How could I possibly have known that I was getting overpaid this amount when I’m already getting (irregular, extra-class pay)?” Kunz said. “And he said ‘You probably couldn’t have known, but it is still your responsibility to pay it back.’”
Bensen said that the comment “cannot be verified” but acknowledged the complexity of many employees’ pay.
Van Horn also sketched out the legal framework Mayville State is relying upon to reclaim the money.
“According to State of North Dakota policy … employees are to be notified and are responsible to reimburse the overpayments,” he said. “The policy was shared with the employees and they have been given flexibility in determining how they might best repay the overpayment, whether it be in a lump sum payment or payments over time.”
“We are openly communicating with all Mayville State faculty and staff and addressing their concerns through various avenues,” Van Horn added. “That communication will continue going forward.”
Nick Archuleta, the president of North Dakota United, said the group is hoping to negotiate “as soft a landing as we can possibly make it,” reaching terms that minimally affect the financial well-being of the affected employees.
“What they’re looking for, though, is they would really like a third-party audit to make sure there’s somebody else involved in all of this,” he said. “Because it was Mayville (State) that made this error, you can imagine that those parties affected are a little bit skeptical that they got it right the second time. We think it is only reasonable to bring in a third party to audit these payment amounts.”
Billie Jo Lorius, a spokesperson for the North Dakota University system, said NDUS officials are aware of the payroll issue.
“President Van Horn let our office know immediately and we remain in close communication with him as Mayville works to resolve the situation,” she wrote in an email this week. “We know that every alternative and option is being explored in consultation with legal authorities to be in compliance with state statute and lawful guidance.”
The news of the payroll errors follows on a Herald investigation into Van Horn that published earlier this summer. In that investigation, the Herald found evidence of campus culture concerns in a 2019 survey of employees, and reported on two investigations into his conduct — one of which concerned allegations of inappropriate behavior toward female employees. NDUS officials cleared him in both investigations.
It also follows a May 2020 state auditor’s report indicating lackluster accounting at the school. The auditor’s review, the Herald reported at the time, noted that “the university was not consistently following procurement rules, not retaining proper documentation or approval of student scholarships and room waivers, and inconsistent with accounting practices, possibly due to high turnover in the business office.”
"Mayville State University has an opportunity to improve their accounting practices,” Auditor Josh Gallion said in 2020. “I encourage the university to address the issues we identified and make the necessary corrections to ensure compliance with the Governmental Accounting Standards Board standards.”
In the meantime, employees at Mayville State continue to seek a clearer understanding of what happens next. The overpaid employee who requested anonymity pointed out that the more than $10,000 they were told they owe continues to hang over them — making it that much harder to focus on doing their job.
“It’s a burden,“ the employee said. “It’s a hardship.”