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Cali Owings, Published February 02 2014

Deposed library dean still on NDSU's dime

FARGO - North Dakota State University wanted to fire its library dean. Instead, on the same day it prepared to fire her, it agreed to pay her nearly $300,000 over two years, though she is no longer the dean.

In her five-year tenure as dean of the NDSU Libraries, Michele Reid created an “atmosphere of intimidation, mistrust and fear,” Provost Bruce Rafert wrote in a Dec. 20 draft termination letter. More than 30 of her employees left from a department that currently has 63 people. In exit interviews, several workers cited her leadership as the reason.

But Reid lodged a discrimination complaint against the school, alleging she was treated differently than other male deans and unfairly subjected to an extensive performance review as retaliation.

In exchange for withdrawing her complaint, Reid is no longer the head of the NDSU Libraries, but she’ll earn more than $290,000 over the next two years to finish her doctorate degree.

She also received a $20,000 research and travel fund, a single-occupancy office outfitted with basic needs and a “mutually acceptable positive reference,” according to an agreement with the school dated Dec. 20 – the same day the draft termination letter was dated.

If the provost felt justified in terminating Reid, why will she earn a dean’s salary while finishing her degree?

In response to questions from The Forum, NDSU would only say, “This was an employment matter concluded after extensive negotiation.”

Leading up to the settlement, documents obtained via open records requests by The Forum reveal years of discontent in the library system with Reid’s leadership. NDSU documents also show the dean clashed with her boss as she tried to learn more about her employees’ complaints.

An employment law expert said it’s not uncommon for employers to settle discrimination complaints to avoid the distraction of an open case, racking up attorney’s fees or a worse outcome at a trial.

In the last five years, the school has settled with a dozen other employees to the tune of $415,200 for salaries and paid leave hours, according to settlement agreements obtained by The Forum in an open records request. But Reid is the only employee whose settlement agreement outlines continued employment with the school.

‘A ticking time bomb’

Michele Reid came to the NDSU Libraries as its dean in 2008 as a self-described “change agent.” She was tasked with reorganizing the libraries, improving the culture and resolving personnel issues.

Complaints against Reid date back to October 2009, more than year into her tenure.

Kathryn Thomas, a documents librarian, claimed the dean was “rude, belligerent and extremely unprofessional” toward her after two library employees helped clean up a leak in a library office.

According to Thomas’ description of the incident in Reid’s file, the two staffers followed procedure for water emergencies, but Reid said “they had no business” helping clean up the water. Reid said they “should stick to their job descriptions, and if they want to do that type of work, then they should apply … for custodial job openings,” according to Thomas’ complaint.

The dean repeatedly butted heads with Robert Jacobson, an associate on the documents team.

In 2010, he reported unauthorized building access by a man who library staff believed to be the dean’s husband. The access was after hours while Reid was in California, and Jacobson accused her of providing her husband with a key.

A letter from Earla Croll, another library staffer, said the dean effectively shut down the staff association that collected money for holidays, birthdays and retirement by saying it had “no NDSU standing” and required an audit.

In January 2012, library staff had five training sessions to help address communication and conflict within the department.

In feedback after a presentation on conflict resolution and respect in the workplace, staff described an atmosphere of mistrust and fear.

“The library staff are a ticking time bomb,” one participant wrote.

In an email to Provost Bruce Rafert after the sessions, Reid addressed her staffing challenges:

“The staff were beyond dysfunctional when I arrived, and, I have learned, were deemed by many students a reason to avoid the Libraries. This environment was decades in the making.”

In comments provided to the presenter, library staff said administration was the problem.

“Unfortunately in our organization it is mostly ‘you’ that has the problem. This used to be a much happier place at NDSU as a whole, but the climate has changed in the last few years.”

Reid claimed she wasn’t the first administrator to draw the staff’s ire. The staff’s allegations of mistrust and lack of respect were “leveled against each successive Libraries administration,” she wrote to the provost.

Still, several employees cited Reid’s management as their reason for leaving the library system in anonymous exit interviews.

“Fire the Dean of Libraries and her assistant. They have ruined the place and will continue to bring it down as long as they are in charge,” one former employee wrote in 2012.

In successive annual reviews between 2009 and 2011, Reid’s former supervisor praised her for handling personnel issues in the department. In her 2011 review, former Provost Craig Schnell wrote that Reid had removed several underperforming and disrespectful employees.

“By your persistence, several employees were rightfully terminated. This is only a start in changing the culture of the Libraries,” he wrote.

Out of line?

While the dean continued to have issues with library personnel, tension also grew between Reid and NDSU administrators.

In June 2012, Reid filed a complaint with NDSU’s General Counsel’s office alleging the administration was hostile, retaliatory and discriminatory after she made an open records request of her supervisor.

In March of that year, the provost received a package of materials regarding the dean from three employees.

The employees detailed how they were affected by the dean’s reorganizing of the library system and that her “bullying” dated back to the water leak in 2009.

Reid said the employees had a “history of disruptive behavior” and held a grudge against her for reorganizing the libraries.

Rafert indicated the claims needed to be discussed, and he would become directly involved in the library system, according to Reid’s complaint.

In a meeting with the provost, Reid repeatedly requested to review the materials. She reiterated her request later that day in an email. Rafert initially refused, claiming they were not subject to open records law, according to the complaint.

Though she was provided the documents the next day, Reid claimed her open records request was not well-received by NDSU administrators.

Eveadean Myers, vice president for equity and diversity, expressed concern that Reid had made the request, according to her complaint, asking, “You requested open records from your boss?”

Rafert brought up the records request during a May meeting with Human Resources in which he also informed Reid that she would be subject to a “360 review”– an extensive performance evaluation that involves a large cross-section of those who interact with the dean.

Reid requested a meeting with President Dean Bresciani to discuss Rafert’s reaction to the request and the review. According to Reid’s complaint, Bresciani repeatedly said her request was “out of line” and asked her, “Wouldn’t you consider it unprofessional?”

After more than four years in the Libraries, Reid officially filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in October 2012.

She claimed the pending 360 review was retaliation for making the request and that she was “treated less favorably than the male deans by not being accorded the deference typically given to them in managing their departments.”

In its response to her charge, NDSU said the 360 review was consistent with school policy, which requires all academic deans that report to the provost to be formally evaluated every three years and her evaluation was overdue.

All of the other deans who started before 2011, including another female dean, had been evaluated within the past three years, according to documents provided by NDSU.

A 360-degree look

Though Reid fought against the review, it started in early 2013.

Nearly 100 people – including chairs, department heads, fellow deans, staff, students, donors and area library peers – evaluated the dean based on a lengthy questionnaire assessing her leadership, management, communication skills, capability and overall effectiveness.

Reid also prepared her own self-evaluation and participated in an interview with the evaluation committee.

“There seems to be some disconnect … in Dean Reid’s own perception of her leadership and management of the Libraries, and the results of the survey,” according to the committee’s draft report.

In several instances, library staff responses are at odds with Reid’s self-evaluation.

Nearly 80 percent of staff responses indicated she does not “create and facilitate an environment of trust.” Eighty percent of staff also disagreed that the dean was “effective in promoting and building consensus among her staff.”

The evaluation committee noted that one comment summarized these differences well:

“I feel the dean excels at providing vision, and for the most part she provides a strong and quality vision for the future of the library. However, the environment that is resultant from her style of leadership facilitate fear and not trust. This does not allow room for public disagreement and discussion. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to implement the types of changes at the base of the dean’s vision … There is very little communication from the dean about how the employees can aid in the development of the libraries. It often seems that she wants control of all change.”

In a draft letter dated Dec. 20, 2013 – the same day of the settlement agreement – Rafert wrote that the committee’s evaluation was not positive and recommended Reid be fired.

Why settle?

On Dec. 19, an open forum to discuss the dean’s review was canceled.

The next day, NDSU and Reid reached a settlement agreement that allowed for her continued employment as a University Fellow. She continued in her role as dean through the end of the year.

As part of the agreement, NDSU agreed to withdraw the 360 review and not include it in Reid’s personnel file. Instead, the provost wrote a glowing letter of reference for prospective employers.

Lisa Edison-Smith, who practices employment and labor law at Vogel Law Firm, said it’s not uncommon for employers to settle discrimination charges – even if they don’t think they’re in the wrong.

“They’re thinking what’s it going to cost to fight it versus can we resolve it now?” Edison-Smith said.

In her experience, an investigation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can take up to two and a half years. Add another 18 months if the case goes to trial.

Employers are motivated to settle by “the time and the distraction of a pending investigation or lawsuit,” she said. “They don’t want to spend attorney fees and don’t want the risk that they are going to have a worse result at a trial.”

Through her attorney, Reid said she agreed to settle because she “believes she has accomplished all she was able to do as Dean of Libraries,” given the current climate and treatment she has received.

Reid will continue working toward her doctorate in higher education administration. She will investigate social entrepreneurship in academic institutions and other research and consulting activities, according to her attorney.

NDSU settlements

For the next calendar year, Reid will earn $166,954.32 in her fellowship position. In 2015, her salary will drop slightly to $125,000. She’ll be considered a full-time NDSU employee through Dec. 31, 2015, according to the settlement.

Since 2009, a dozen others negotiated settlements with the school for separation pay, benefits, leave hours and reimbursements for health insurance and retirement contributions – a total of $415,200, not including reimbursement payouts for health benefits or retirement contributions, which are private.

Reid’s negotiated salary of $290,000 is more than any employee who settled with the school in the last five years, including former President Joseph Chapman.

On the way out in 2009, Chapman accepted nearly $85,000 in salary and leave hours.

Reid is the only employee to settle with the school and continue employment.

While employers want to salvage their relationships with employees who have filed discrimination complaints, Edison-Smith said it’s “not the norm” for employees to continue working.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Cali Owings at (701) 241-5599