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UND dean resigns after claims of unwelcoming behavior, sexual references

Robert Hill

GRAND FORKS – A University of North Dakota dean has resigned from his position after an investigation found he engaged in unwelcome behavior toward women and failed to comply with the school's Code of Conduct.

The university on Thursday released its report from an internal investigation regarding Robert Hill, dean of the College of Education and Human Development. According to the report, 15 individuals were interviewed in November concerning Hill's conduct. Those interviewed said Hill made sexual references and went so far as to show employees a photo in his office of a horse with a visible penis.

Hill refuted the claims in a memo, denying he had discriminated against anyone and that his comments were taken out of context.

"There are so many attacks on my character and from so many different directions that it is impossible to respond to all of them," he wrote in the memo.

Hill was placed on paid administrative leave Nov. 3 because of information that came to light during a 360 review, which is a comprehensive review process conducted through interviews. After an internal investigation on the matter came to a close, Provost Thomas DiLorenzo announced to faculty Wednesday that Hill would not be returning to serve as dean. His resignation is effective Dec. 31.

The report stated the investigation was initiated because of anonymous complaints that Hill made inappropriate remarks, commented about his death and that of other employees, and had angry outbursts.

Investigators also found there was a general fear of being fired if anyone spoke out against Hill, though the dean told investigators he hasn't done anything to create a hostile work environment.

"I have put tremendous effort into fulfilling my role as dean," Hill wrote in his response. "I have made errors and mistakes while learning the role, but I have never acted in a malicious or discriminatory manner, nor have I knowingly engaged in systematic sexual harassment or made attempts to create a culture that engenders workplace hostility."

Hill left a message in response to a request for an interview regarding this story, but he was later unable to be reached.

Report details

Hill admitted to knowing a photo on the wall of his office featured a horse with an extended penis and also to bringing it to the attention of at least two employees.

Hill told interviewers that the phrase "Have you seen a five-legged horse?" may have been used, but he said his intentions weren't sexual and he would have taken it down if he knew it bothered people.

Three anonymous women interviewed during the investigation said they were uncomfortable.

"Dean Hill's conduct with the horse photograph demonstrates a pattern of behavior over an extended period of time directed toward women that made the women uncomfortable and reluctant to meet with Dean Hill alone," according to the report.

In his rebuttal, Hill wrote he had asked for photos of North Dakota scenery to be hung in his office when he was first hired in 2013. Steve LeMire, who, according to UND's website, is an associate professor at the College of Education and Human Development, showed Hill some photos he had chosen.

"He mentioned to me that the horse looks like it has five legs, but actually one of the legs is the horse's sheath," Hill said. "It was a curious observation, but I didn't think much of it. It was a natural North Dakota horse and rider scene.

Hill also wrote no one had previously expressed having a problem with the photo or asked him to take it down.

The investigation report also alleged Hill commented about having sex with his wife, which was then communicated throughout the college, making some people uncomfortable.

"Another discussion involved Dean Hill having hernia surgery and telling others that he was recovered and able to have sexual intercourse but wasn't sure if he was ready yet," the report stated.

Hill wrote in his response he recalled discussing the struggles of marriage but didn't bring up sex.

One person interviewed for the investigation said Hill once talked about a lesbian therapist he knew in Utah, where he lived before coming to UND. Hill allegedly said Mormons "don't believe in that," but Hill said in his response that he had only brought up whether same-sex partners were recognized in UND policy.

The investigation found Hill allegedly focused his attention on one female employee, and while she was not uncomfortable, they did discuss matters not related to work. Some interviewed didn't like the tone with which Hill complimented people, as he told one he liked what they were wearing and another they had a nice haircut.

"While some of the accusations are of a serious nature, I do question whether telling a male or female that he or she has 'a nice haircut' is evidence of discrimination," Hill responded in his memo.

Hill's behavior also raised workplace concerns, as those interviewed said he yelled, slammed doors, refered to death multiple times and made comments about people remembering him once he had died. Hill's wrote in response that he was using a figure of speech.

Some employees also took issue with Hill physically touching and hugging others. Hill responded on several occasions he had made a point not to engage in hugs after being warned about it shortly after taking the position.

Hill also allegedly had a gender bias and favored men, but Hill pointed out in his response that he has three chairwomen at his college and there are few male faculty members.

"I have had no meetings with just men, nor do I have an 'inner circle,' of men," he said in his rebuttal.

Hill received poor feedback in an unofficial faculty survey conducted last summer with 359 respondents, 84 percent of which thought he was "not at all" or "not very" transparent.

A 96-page complaint filed against him in 2014 by a group of faculty members was also mentioned in the investigation.

When Hill was interviewed in June, he pointed out grants and fundraising dollars for his college have increased by about $1 million in his time there and that he planned to be more communicative with his employees.

A supplemental rebuttal provided by Hill stated the findings of the investigation didn't follow policy, interviews had not been conducted on a wide enough scope and there was no evidence proving he had ever retaliated against a faculty member.

What's next

UND spokesman Peter Johnson said in an email Hill made $190,962 annually as dean and his continued salary will be paid at a pro-rate portion for a nine month salary of $112,595, plus benefits.

According to Hill's resignation letter signed Thursday, he will continue to serve as a special appointment faculty member in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Community Services for the upcoming spring semester off-campus. Hill holds degrees in psychology and counseling psychology.

He must also attend sexual harassment training and is "not allowed" on UND's campus unless given prior approval from the provost or a designee.

Associate Dean for Teacher Education Anne Walker has served as acting dean since Hill was placed on leave and will continue doing so. A search for Hill's replacement will commence in the spring of 2016.

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