Lawmakers call on President Hennepin to resign over harassment

An investigation by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System into allegations of bullying and sexual harassment against Merrill Irving Jr., president of Hennepin Technical College, found that Irving failed to follow respectful procedures at the workplace. work but had not violated the system’s harassment policy.

Recent allegations and subsequent investigations, first reported by the Tribune of the Starsprompted Minnesota officials to call for Irving’s resignation, despite system leaders strongly supporting the president.

Employees accused Irving of making sexually derogatory comments, mocking and belittling employees with disabilities, asking inappropriate questions and making jokes about employees’ personal lives, and speaking derogatoryly behind employees’ backs. people about their weight, smell, appearance and physical abilities, Tribune of the Stars reported.

Following investigations into Irving’s behavior, Bill Maki, vice chancellor of finance and facilities, determined that the president violated the system’s Respectful Workplace Policy, which asks employees to be respectful and professional in their communications and meetings with all parties.

Yet Devinder Malhotra, the system’s chancellor, concluded that Irving did not violate the system’s harassment and non-discrimination policy, which prohibits discrimination and “harsh” conduct against members of a class. protected. Executives also determined that Irving did not retaliate against any employee.

“The decision-maker’s conclusion was that the investigation showed that Dr. Irving made derisory statements about individuals of a protected class, not in their presence but in the presence of other university employees,” wrote Doug Anderson, spokesperson for the system. E-mail. “There was insufficient evidence that the statements were pervasive or serious such that the subjects’ work environment would be affected.”

A college spokesperson said Inside Higher Education that Irving was unavailable for comment.

The faculty at Minnesota State College, the college’s faculty union, called on the system’s chancellor to address Irving’s behavior in a statement Friday.

“Everyone in the Minnesota State community deserves to learn and work in a healthy and respectful environment. For too long, many Hennepin Technical College employees have lived on less than that because of the President’s behavior Irving Jr. and others,” the union said. wrote. “We encourage Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra to take immediate action to address the issue and to work with HTC faculty and staff to create the conditions in which healing can begin. largest autonomous technical college in the state should not have to wait.”

In an email to students and employees on Wednesday, Malhotra voiced support for Irving, who has served as president of the two-year public tech college since 2015. Malhotra — not the system’s board — is the supervisor direct from Irving, according to Anderson.

“President Irving and I have spoken at length on this issue, and I expect him to recommit to his guiding principles of Trust, Integrity and Honesty,” Malhotra wrote in the email. . “He also told me that he understands that excellence in leadership requires more of him, which he also committed to. We value a respectful and inclusive workplace, requiring everyone in the community of the campus, including the leaders, show respect, dignity and acceptance. I have complete confidence in the excellent work and the dynamics underway at Hennepin Technical College with regard to academic excellence, l innovation, student success and equity.

Even if a board or chancellor doesn’t find the president responsible for a policy violation, a behavioral investigation is still a concern, said Merrill Schwartz, senior vice president for content and communications strategy. program at the Association of University and College Boards of Trustees. .

“The standards and expectations of a college president are very high and are different from a legal test of whether an incident violated policy. The president represents the institution,” Schwartz said. “There are many tools to improve performance that are not necessarily the goal of a survey.”

Malhotra’s email is what prompted Marion O’Neill, Republican State Representative from Minnesota and Republican chair of the state’s Finance and Higher Education Policy Committee, to seek the resignation. of Irving. She said she had been unhappy with Irving’s behavior for years.

“Over several months I tried to work with the administration to deal with his conduct,” O’Neill said. “There is a long, long, long list of complaints against him.”

O’Neill, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, Deputy House Minority Leader Anne Neu Brindley and several other House GOP members of the state’s Higher Education Committee co-signed a letter calling for Irving’s resignation on Wednesday.

“I have long stood up for women, men, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities and anyone else you would have harassed and humiliated by using your power and authority to create a hostile work environment for all [your] employees, to formally demand your resignation, effective immediately,” the officials wrote in the letter.

O’Neill said he spoke with an employee several times who described Irving’s behavior towards him.

“He was inappropriate with the vast majority of people he came into contact with, saying things like, ‘Oh, you’re having a bad day because you’re menopausal’ or telling his assistant, who I spoke to several times, ‘You are a terrible mother. You are a terrible woman. You’re a terrible employee,” things no supervisor should ever say to their employee. »

Irving is also said to have belittled people with disabilities. According to Tribune of the Stars report, he impersonated an employee who used a cane and mocked students with disabilities.

Allegations of sexual harassment and racism often attract public attention, but discrimination and harassment of employees and students with disabilities are undercovered, said L. Scott Lissner, coordinator of the Americans With Disabilities Act at the Ohio State University and Policy Chair of the Association on Higher Education and Disability.

“Experience tells me that poorly worded or ill-intentioned comments about disability or disability-related things happen with more frequency than we hear about,” Lissner said.

Katherine Greenstein, president of the Disabled Student Union at American University, said she doesn’t think ableism is taken seriously enough on college campuses. Student governments, student media, and institutional leaders do not often address discrimination or harassment against students with disabilities.

Lissner said the experience of students and employees with disabilities can often be missed by college management.

“Having a disability on campus, whether you’re an employee or a student, is a minority experience and is, in many ways, comparable to race and gender,” Lissner said. “We tend to think of disability not as disability with a capital D, but as blind employees, students with learning disabilities, students with chronic health conditions. In doing so, we shrink the group and miss the common experience across disabilities that in many ways is comparable to other sheltered class experiences.

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