UND President Andrew Armacost on Wednesday told students, faculty and staff that he supports state lawmakers' "condemnation of inappropriate behavior" that he says allegedly was, in part, aimed at a UND student serving as a legislative intern.
Armacost sent the note to the campus Wednesday morning. Although he does not mention any offenders by name in the letter, his comments presumably point toward the behavior of state Rep. Luke Simons, R-Dickinson, who has drawn criticism recently after being accused of offensive behavior while serving in Bismarck.
"It came to my attention Friday that a UND student serving as an intern in the North Dakota Legislature reported experiencing harassing behavior from a member of the House. Those allegations, and others, have been aired in recent news media reports," Armacost said in the letter.
In a subsequent telephone interview with the Herald late Wednesday afternoon, he declined to specifically identify any lawmaker by name. The Herald asked Armacost if he was referring to Simons, but he again declined to be specific.
“The University of North Dakota is serious about cases like this, and I think the members of our campus community deserve to hear the university and its president speaking about the steps we can offer to support (students, faculty, staff, etc.) when something like this happens,” Armacost told the Herald.
Simons has been accused of making lewd and inappropriate comments to a handful of female legislative staffers and lawmakers. Numerous news reports in the past week have outlined the accusations.
Armacost said he has written to House Majority Leader Rep. Chet Pollert and other senior legislative leaders expressing support “for their condemnation of inappropriate behavior and for their commitment to swift action, if these allegations are substantiated.”
“I encourage the leadership of the House — and all members of the Legislature — to make certain that interns, staff members, and legislators are always treated with respect and dignity,” he said.
Simons has denied any wrongdoing. Last week, he told the Dickinson Press that “what it has turned into is an agenda against my character. These are accusations that have come to me that simply just aren’t true. They’ve taken my words and distorted them into very, very sick concepts that just aren’t true.”
Pollert and other legislative leaders last week called on Simons to resign after the release of a 14-page document describing multiple detailed accounts from Capitol staffers alleging Simons verbally or physically harassed them.
The announcement that an intern from UND has allegedly endured inappropriate comments or behavior is not the only accusation from someone with ties to Grand Forks.
In a letter posted to her Facebook page, Grand Forks Republican Rep. Emily O’Brien said she also faced harassment from Simons in 2017. O’Brien told Forum News Service Columnist Rob Port on Saturday that during the 2017 session Simons would make remarks to her nearly every day. She told Port that Simons would allegedly comment on the outfits she was wearing.
"He would say that I must be a 'good secretary for your boss,'" O'Brien told Port. "He would say 'you're lucky your boss lets you come out here to work.'"
O’Brien said that in order to avoid being near Simons, her colleagues helped her relocate a desk in 2017. She also said she would pretend to be on the phone to avoid Simons. She reported the issues to legislative leadership, but said she was never aware if anything came of the reports.
“Mine is just one of many instances that were handled by avoiding the real issue,” she wrote.
The North Dakota House will meet Thursday, March 4, to discuss and vote on a resolution to remove Simons from office. The resolution would require 63 votes, or two-thirds support, of the 94-member House to pass.
Armacost said the “well-being” of the UND student who claims harassment, and all students supporting the legislative session, is a top priority for him and the university. Faculty members from the student’s academic programs, the Title IX office and Student Affairs have been in contact to give support to the student.
“As UND’s president, I take seriously our responsibility to ensure our students, faculty and staff are safe, and their learning environments and workplaces are free from discrimination and harassment,” he wrote.
He said his decision to send the campus letter and comment on the matter publicly was, in part, due to the case being so widely reported in and out of North Dakota.