The Grand Forks Herald last week published an extensive report about happenings at Mayville State University, outlining campus surveys and reports of a toxic work environment there.
The report focused on Mayville State President Brian Van Horn.
There were plenty of documents referenced in that report, stretching back years. One was a state investigation into recent harassment claims. The investigation concluded that since the accusations were anonymous, there is little left to do. However, the investigator on that report suggested Van Horn seek training to help him improve his communication skills and the perception of him and his decisions.
The Herald also reported that Van Horn’s work evaluations – performed annually by North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott – scarcely mention any of these issues.
It’s questionable whether anonymous complaints should be included in a work evaluation. But shouldn’t the results of campus surveys be included?
And why wasn’t Hagerott able to see what a state investigator reported only days later: that a string of complaints against Van Horn’s probably merited leadership training?
Not including this information in a university president’s annual review is contrary not only to good management, but it’s just a poor business practice when doing work on behalf of the people, who truly own and operate the state’s university system. Hagerott has been accused of avoiding controversial issues on reviews in the past, too.
Forget all of the anonymous complaints that showed up during campus surveys or through months of interviews the Herald conducted with Mayville State employees who only spoke on condition of anonymity. There is still plenty to note in a review.
● A 2019 internal survey of the entire university showed that more than a quarter of respondents were at least “likely” to leave Mayville State within the next year.
● In 2018, Van Horn allegedly interrupted Allison Johnson, at the time Mayville State’s executive director of institutional effectiveness, and said “do I need to use a shock collar on you?”
● A state investigator found, in 2020, that a third of the interviewees said the general culture at Mayville was negative or declining. Roughly the same number either had concerns about Van Horn’s leadership, or viewed it in a negative light.
Van Horn has been praised, too, and his evaluations certainly show that. He reduced annual student textbook costs by more than 50%, and enrollment has been at all-time highs. One evaluation noted that Van Horn has tackled 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.”
Van Horn also, at least by appearances and according to Hagerott, rose to the challenges of COVID-19.
It’s possible Van Horn is simply misunderstood, or facing criticism after making difficult decisions. All leaders deal with that from time to time.
If it is a misunderstanding, it’s unfortunate. But if it’s a trend, the people deserve to know. A state campus – an entire town – is depending on the best possible leadership during a time when most universities are struggling with enrollment, employee retention and revenue.
Not including this kind of critical information in an annual review hints at an attempt to cover tracks. It’s certainly not a healthy approach when doing the people’s work.