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John A. Fabian, Published February 15 2014

Letter: Forum’s story on NDSU librarian deeply flawed

EDITOR’S NOTE: Because The Forum values the sharing of opinions, it has agreed to publish this commentary. The newspaper stands by its Feb. 3 story, “Deposed library dean still on NDSU’s dime.”

There were factual inaccuracies contained in Cali Owings’ Feb. 3 article and her use of factually flawed documents to negatively and unfairly portray my client Michele Reid.

Reid left her position of dean of libraries voluntarily and without knowledge of Provost J. Bruce Rafert’s apparent intention to terminate her employment as North Dakota State University negotiated the settlement. She received a reasonable settlement in exchange for withdrawing her claims against NDSU, having concluded that under the current administration, she had accomplished as much as she could as dean of libraries.

Rafert’s signed positive reference of Dec. 20, 2013, states, in part, that “Dean Michele Reid was hired in June of 2008 to reorganize the NDSU Libraries, remediate longstanding staffing and culture issues, and establish in the Libraries a customer service environment. … She has performed successfully, and above expectations, with respect to each of these areas.” Rafert also states that Reid was provided with the position of University Fellow “in recognition of her time intensive achievements benefiting the entire University community, and of her desire to complete her doctorate. ...” And the settlement agreement between Reid and NDSU includes that, while a University Fellow, Reid will remain available for consulting on libraries’ personnel and technical issues.

The settlement, Rafert’s signed reference, Reid’s history of positive performance evaluations prior to Rafert becoming her supervisor and NDSU’s expressed desire that Reid remain available to consult in the libraries contradict the story line that Reid was a bully, created an atmosphere of intimidation, mistrust and fear, or had done anything to warrant termination. Despite bringing all of this information and more to Owings’ attention, she apparently determined that running a seriously flawed story outweighed the damage to Reid’s reputation and her career.

The previous NDSU administration recruited Reid to reorganize the libraries, address long-standing staffing issues and establish a customer service environment. With the previous provost’s support, and in collaboration with all relevant administration offices, Reid made considerable progress in each of these areas, among others. As was briefly mentioned in Owings’ article, Reid was repeatedly commended for changing the culture in the libraries, a process that included, where necessary, work improvement programs, disciplinary measures and, in some cases, terminations for cause.

In January 2012, a few months after the arrival of Rafert the previous August, Reid, as part of her staff professional development program, requested supervisor training provided by an external agency. The requested training did not take place. However, alternative training was provided but consisted of only two sessions, not five. Reid forwarded the written participant comments supplied by the trainer to Rafert along with a cover email. Reid’s cover email, in which she alerted the provost to her need for additional funding for staff development in order to motivate staff and achieve a less antagonistic and more productive workplace, informed the provost of a staff supervisor’s oral comment – not mentioned in Owing’s article – stating, “Staff need time to do nothing.” This comment was illustrative of the attitude among certain libraries’ staff that Reid was hired to address.

In March 2012, the provost received a packet of derogatory materials prepared by three libraries staff members with histories of disruptive behavior. Despite Reid’s open records requests for these materials, Rafert refused to share them with her until she referred him to the general counsel’s office. Shortly thereafter, during a May 4, 2012, meeting concerning staff hostility issues attended by Rafert, Reid and the HR director, Rafert informed Reid of his intention to subject her to a 360 review that would not exclude input from libraries staff members hostile to Reid.

Some of the derogatory materials came from Robert Jacobson, who had previously been the subject of a President’s Staff Personnel Board finding in 2010 because of his behavior toward Reid. The finding stated the “Board believes Mr. Jacobson’s actions were ill intentioned and used to disparage and undermine Dean Reid,” and the board upheld the then provost’s warning, including that Jacobson “refrain from interfering in matters beyond [his] position description, and undermining and harassing Dean Reid,” but this did not deter Jacobson from contributing to the packet of materials received by the provost in March 2012.

Owings’ article also fails to discuss the employment history of the other individuals who provided the derogatory materials to the provost. The article does not indicate what investigation, if any, Owings conducted to determine whether the steps Reid took in collaboration with administrative offices to improve the libraries were met with resistance and resentment by certain employees and/or former employees who may have an interest in seeing Reid tarnished.

A number of questions come to mind from this episode, including why Rafert gave credence to the packet of derogatory materials he received even after telling Reid in an April 1, 2013, meeting that he had been informed by another member of the administration that libraries staffing difficulties were not new but “dated to 1989.”

During spring semester 2013, Reid was subjected to a 360 review process governed by NDSU Policy 327, which applies to deans, directors and chairs who oversee tenure track faculty, which Reid’s former position as dean of libraries did not do. There are no tenure track faculty in the NDSU libraries, and the policy had never before been applied to a dean or director of libraries. The application of Policy 327 to Reid was retaliatory. As such, the outcome of the 360 review process was both predictable and predetermined.

The draft 360 review conducted by Rafert’s office contains a number of procedural irregularities, although this is not surprising as Policy 327 does not apply to Reid’s former position as dean of libraries, and, in a May 15, 2013, meeting, when Rafert presented Reid with a copy of the draft final report, Rafert mentioned the difficulty he had had in applying it to her case. I provided Owings with a copy of the Aug. 1, 2013, letter I submitted to the EEOC, which discusses and details several deficiencies of procedure, fact and interpretation in the draft 360 review, but none of this information is mentioned in Owings’ article.

Owings’ article refers to a document she calls the “December 20, 2013, termination letter.” Neither I nor Reid had ever seen this document nor were we aware of its existence until Owings made her open records request in January 2014. This letter, which concludes by recommending Reid be terminated, contains a number of false statements, including that the provost conducted an open forum regarding Reid on Dec. 19, 2013 – the day before the date on the letter – and that the forum “provided no positive inputs to sway the results” of the retaliatory 360 review. This statement is undeniably false because, as Owing’s article mentions, the open forum was never held.

Owings’ article also mentions a letter by Earla Croll complaining that Reid had “shut down” the libraries’ staff association. Had Owings indicated to me that her article would include this complaint, she would have learned that the former provost directed the disbandment of the staff association that had amassed more than $2,200 in two credit union accounts, and the NDSU auditor determined that the association had “no NDSU standing.”

Similarly, Owings mentions an Oct. 23, 2009, letter written by Kathryn Thomas, concerning the handling of a flooding issue in a staff office. Had Owings asked about Thomas’ letter, she would have learned it contains factually unsupportable allegations against Reid. Indeed, the copy of the letter NDSU supplied to Owings bears Reid’s handwritten note indicating that she was not informed of the existence of the letter until Dec. 9, 2009, six weeks after it was written, a lapse resulting in her being unable to address it immediately. That Owings accepted the contents of Thomas’ letter, and other staff comments, including some identified as anonymous, at face value is also another disconcerting feature of her article.

Fabian is an attorney with the Minneapolis firm Fabian May & Anderson, PLLP.