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Fired employee: NDSU vice president 'dictatorial and overbearing'

FARGO - A veterinarian responsible for caring for the research animals at North Dakota State University argues his firing was in retaliation for a grievance he filed against a vice president whose management style was "dictatorial and overbearing...

Scott Walden is the former director of animal resources and attending veterinarian at North Dakota State University who is appealing his June firing, alleging his dismissal was in retaliation for filing a grievance against NDSU's vice president of research.David Samson / The Forum
Scott Walden is the former director of animal resources and attending veterinarian at North Dakota State University who is appealing his June firing, alleging his dismissal was in retaliation for filing a grievance against NDSU's vice president of research.David Samson / The Forum

FARGO - A veterinarian responsible for caring for the research animals at North Dakota State University argues his firing was in retaliation for a grievance he filed against a vice president whose management style was "dictatorial and overbearing."

Scott Walden was fired in June after serving nine years as director of animal resources and university attending veterinarian. He clashed with Kelly Rusch, NDSU's vice president of research and creative activities, who recommended his dismissal.

Walden accuses Rusch of using her power to demand "compliance with directives that serve no purpose other than to demonstrate her absolute control" over subordinates' "professional lives and their subservience to her authority."

The veterinarian, who is appealing his termination, said through his lawyer that he is the latest "in a steady string of NDSU employees who have been fired by Dr. Rusch, or who have resigned as a result of the hostile work environment she has created."

In interviews with The Forum, current and former NDSU faculty and staff members also said Rusch has a controlling management style and has a reputation of retaliating against those who run afoul of her directives.

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Rusch declined to comment about Walden's dismissal because his appeal is still pending. Walden is seeking a hearing from a review committee.

Starting in the spring of 2015, Rusch subjected Walden to "responsibility reviews," which listed goals and Walden's progress toward meeting the goals to improve his performance in areas Rusch deemed deficient.

Rusch wanted Walden to do a better job of documenting his activities, including his animal rounds, and accused him of failing to demonstrate proper leadership by not showing initiative to meet her expectations.

"The threat of termination, the letter of expectation, and the micro-management, the constant criticisms and threats of retaliation have created a very hostile work environment for me," Walden wrote in his grievance against Rusch, filed Feb. 29.

"Every time I attempt to comply with Dr. Rusch's expectations, she denies that I have complied with them or changes the expectations," Walden wrote. "I believe that Dr. Rusch has purposefully created this hostile work environment to force me to leave NDSU through resignation or termination."

Provost Beth Ingram and President Dean Bresciani agreed with Rusch's recommendation to fire Walden.

"Given the documents I received and the information from the conversations I had with you and Dr. Rusch, she has been upfront about her concerns, she has communicated those to you both in writing and verbally, and her concerns have been legitimately related to your job performance," Ingram wrote to Walden.

"Her language has been blunt, but respectful. She has given you opportunities to meet her job expectations, and those expectations are in line with your job responsibilities."

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In an interview, Walden said Rusch threatened on multiple occasions to fire him over two or three years, causing him to seek treatment for anxiety and depression.

"She threatened to fire me a number of times, verbally," he said. "She's never given me positive feedback. It's always been badgering, accusing."

In recommending Walden's firing, Rusch said he violated university policies when he improperly euthanized pigs, used his university privileges to prescribe medicine for a colleague's private use for a pet, and failed to keep adequate records, including logs accounting for a controlled substance, a drug for euthanizing animals.

Walden used an electrocution device to euthanize pigs, following guidelines by the American Veterinary Medicine Association, which holds that the method is acceptable if performed by a skilled practitioner using the proper equipment.

The method had long been used at NDSU, Walden said, but had been banned under a new protocol that was put in place shortly before he used it in March, when he was found in violation of university policy.

As for prescribing veterinary medications for colleagues, Walden said he had established client-patient relationships, which he said allowed him to order and prescribe drugs for NDSU employees and their animals, a service he said he provided for no charge, at no cost to the university.

The allegation that Walden failed to properly log controlled substances stemmed from an episode on June 6, when Rusch barred him from his office and opened his document safe after learning that many of the required records for controlled substances were "lacking, neglected or in disarray."

In a letter seeking Walden's reinstatement, his lawyer, Leo Wilking, acknowledged some records were missing, which he said had been misplaced by barn managers. Although Walden had trained the barn managers to properly keep records for controlled substances, Wilking wrote, "they have not always performed according to the standards Dr. Walden set for them."

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Walden has been an "exemplary employee," Wilking wrote, who received favorable reviews from Rusch's predecessor, Phil Boudjouk, and submitted testimonials with his grievance attesting to his excellent work.

When Walden was hired in 2007, NDSU faced six-figure fines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Public Health Service for violations involving its research animals. Walden said he was able to get those fines reduced and during his tenure NDSU remained in compliance.

Walden's former supervisor, Caroline Miner, quit in frustration because she tried and failed to find a way for Rusch and Walden work out their differences.

"I didn't have any concerns with Scott's performance," said Miner, who was NDSU's director for research compliance from July 2016 to November 2016. "I thought he was a good veterinarian. I thought he was doing a good job."

He was on-call 24 hours a day, she added, including early in the morning and weekends, in order to be responsive to the needs of the animals and researchers.

Rusch wanted more reports from Walden, and he chafed at the requirement, Miner said. Although she said Walden's reports could have been more complete, she was unconvinced that they were necessary.

Also, Rusch wouldn't allow Walden to take Friday afternoons off, because that's when his weekly reports were due, and also barred him from taking holidays off, Miner said.

No other employees faced such arbitrary rules, and Miner said she pressed Rusch to put them in writing, as policy, but Rusch refused.

"I would say she was more of a 'my way or the highway,' regardless of whether my way makes sense," Miner said. "She wasn't open to any discussion or debate. That's not the way to run an office that's fair and objective. She was forcing me to treat Scott differently than everyone else."

She added: "I reported all this to HR" - human resources - "and HR was very unhelpful. They were very nice, but they didn't do anything. That's why I decided to leave. To me it was just shocking. I've never seen anything like it."

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