GRAND FORKS -- An investigative compliance report completed late last month regarding multiple anonymous complaints against Mayville State President Brian Van Horn could not be corroborated to move forward.
The North Dakota University System compliance office received four direct reports of alleged policy violations by Van Horn, according to a summary report. Three reports alleged inappropriate behavior toward female employees, and further alleged that other female employees are uncomfortable in his presence, the document provided to the Herald said.
Another complaint was aimed at Van Horn’s housing situation, claiming he was living in a student apartment and violating his housing allowance agreement and also paying less than market rent.
The complaints, all made in May, were anonymous.
“Our report this week was meant to indicate that the anonymous reports could not be corroborated with testimony or evidence,” Billie Jo Lorius, spokeswoman for the North Dakota University System, said in an email. “Moreover, repeated anonymous reports of the same issue did not change the report findings because they did not provide additional information that could corroborate or prove the allegations.”
Lorius said the audit committee instructed the compliance officer to “not investigate any additional anonymous reports of the same allegation.”
Lorius said the system has an obligation to investigate each report to determine the facts, whether from a named source or an anonymous source.
She added that with anonymous reports, the system can do some investigation and did so with the claims in question. But if a claim cannot be corroborated then the system cannot validate whether the claim is factual.
“The goal of compliance investigations is to find the facts. We always look into anonymous reports,” Lorius said. “Some move forward when there is adequate information or evidence to determine the relevant facts of the case. But, some hit a dead end when there are no corroborating items. Without facts to establish or corroborate a claim, it would allow people to say anything that could be slanderous or destructive.”
The report details alleged behavior toward female employees that allegedly made them so uncomfortable they ultimately resigned their positions, the summary report said.
“One (anonymous) reporter stated that she was afraid to be in her office alone because President Van Horn ‘walks outside of it’ and comes in without giving any prior notice or warning,” the summary report said. The report also said the complainants reported the incidents to NDUS and to Mayville State’s human resources department, but no action was taken.
Karol Riedman, investigator, said she was unable to identify those who filed the complaints, nor was she able to identify the individuals who were allegedly the target of the alleged behavior.
In its conclusion, the four-page report noted that anonymous complaints “of this nature are extremely difficult to investigate, especially when there is no identified victim who wishes to file a formal grievance or Title IX report that could trigger a full and appropriate investigation.” The report says that without a victim or a formal process, any findings based on the allegations would have been based on “anonymous hearsay.”
Still, the report concludes that “given the number of complaints (and past similar complaints), there appears to be a perception gap between President Van Horn and his staff.”
The report goes on to suggest that the president seek coaching or mentoring on communication and perceptions.
In regard to the concerns around housing, Riedman said the investigation did not reveal any violations of state law, SBHE policy or campus policy resulting from Van Horn living in Agassiz Hall.
Outgoing SBHE Chair Nick Hacker, who remains on the board but has concluded his time as its leader, said complaints can come in two forms: a hotline or directly to Riedman. The hotline calls go to an independent, third party but when calls come in anonymously it makes it difficult for the claims to be investigated.
He noted there are also HR policies that people can use to file a grievance under policy or under Title IX, adding there are whistleblower protections in North Dakota if people fear retaliation.
Hacker said he felt board member Kathleen Neset’s words during Tuesday’s State Board of Higher Education meeting were “clear,” adding the board supports Van Horn and that the investigated claims were unsupported.
During the meeting, Neset said leaders couldn’t deal with the complaint because nobody put their name to it.
Neset also said at the meeting that she wants to “support our president” and added: “Basically, what we would like to do as a committee is encourage President Van Horn and all of our presidents to always maintain the highest level of professionalism and, always, you are a model for our students and our communities.”