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EERC chief fired for ‘abusive’ actions, finances: Former EERC director Groenewold, denies charges made in dismissal letter issued by president

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EERC chief fired for ‘abusive’ actions, finances: Former EERC director Groenewold, denies charges made in dismissal letter issued by president
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GRAND FORKS — University of North Dakota President Robert Kelley fired the director of the school’s Energy and Environmental Research Center for being misleading about the facility’s financial situation and for creating a hostile work environment, according to university documents.

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Gerald Groenewold was put on administrative leave May 5 and wasn’t given any explanation until Kelley sent a letter of cause on May 23 documenting the reasons for his dismissal. Groenewold responded with his own letter disputing most of the claims on May 28 and was subsequently fired May 30.

In his letter, Groenewold summarized how he felt he was wrongly being dismissed because of disagreements over financial issues and his personality.

“The things they’ve listed as justification, I disagree vehemently with every one of them,” he said.

Both Kelley and university spokesman Peter Johnson declined to comment. Thomas Erickson, the facility’s associate director for business, operations, and intellectual property, is now in charge until further notice.

‘Abusive’ behavior

In Kelley’s May 23 letter, Groenewold’s “inappropriate” behavior was listed as part of the reason he was fired. The letter said Groenewold called employees “stupid,” “lazy” or “incompetent” and that he threw papers, yelled, banged his fists on tables, slammed a phone receiver down and used obscene language.

“On any given day, employees do not know if it is safe to approach you, which makes it difficult to do their jobs,” Kelley wrote.

In his response letter and in an interview, Groenewold admitted to having an “intense” personality and that he had commented on the lack of competency of some UND employees, but none he had power over. He also admitted to slamming his phone down so hard it quit working once in the 1980s.

“I believe that my strong personality is one of the primary reasons that I was selected for the position of EERC director 27 years ago and one of the primary reasons that the EERC has been successful throughout those years,” he wrote.

Groenewold’s behavior was never mentioned in any annual reviews done by Kelley or former UND President Charles Kupchella. Kelley also recommended a 4 percent pay raise in his 2013 evaluation.

But in the dismissal letter, Kelley wrote he “cannot continue to work with someone who has created an environment that is, in the words of EERC employees, hostile, abusive and oppressive.”

The letter specifically mentions he wouldn’t work with UND Vice President for University and Public Affairs Susan Walton because of her religious beliefs, which Groenewold denied. Walton was traveling and could not be reached for comment.

Groenewold said he was unaware of any UND or EERC employees being questioned about his behavior. Johnson and Kelley declined to comment.

Kelley also based Groenewold’s dismissal on claims that he was not putting in eight-hour days, engaging in nepotism by trying to hire his niece and pay her a bloated salary and not encouraging positive working relationships between EERC and UND employees.

Groenewold denied most of the claims in his letter, writing that he had “worked especially hard in recent years to further your goal of developing a better working relationship with the UND School of Engineering.”

And Groenewold said his “niece” was actually his half-brother’s granddaughter, with whom he had contact once when she was 13 years old.

“Where that claim came from is beyond my comprehension,” he said.

Financial woes

Kelley’s letter also accused Groenewold of coercing employees to misrepresent the EERC’s financial situation to UND officials and to the public and said he had been “fiscally irresponsible.”

The center, which is an applied research, development and commercialization facility that focuses on efficient energy and environmental technologies, is part of UND and has been mostly self-sustaining.

But at an April State Board of Higher Education committee meeting, Alice Brekke, UND’s vice president for finance and operations, said the EERC had an operating deficit of about $1 million as of June 2013 and that even though a deficit reduction plan had been in place, it wasn’t working.

UND had supplemented the EERC with an annual $375,000 in both 2013 and 2014, but a memo written by Erickson and passed on to Kelley by Groenewold stated the center was in financial trouble.

“The EERC cannot continue to be successful under the existing indirect cost return formula,” Groenewold wrote in the memo’s cover letter.

Kelley has not taken any public action on the memo’s recommendation of increasing the percentage of income the EERC keeps and decreasing the amount that goes to UND, but Kelley said in the dismissal letter that he and Groenewold had several conversations concerning funding and that Groenewold had misrepresented the facility’s situation.

Options

North Dakota University System employees who have been dismissed with cause have the option to appeal to their university’s three-person Staff Personnel Board.

But that board merely makes a recommendation to the president, who still has the final say.

“The Staff Personnel Board shall hear both sides of the appeal, and after weighing all evidence presented to the Board, consider whether adequate cause the for institution’s action existed, reporting its findings of fact, conclusions, and recommendation to the president,” according to the University System website.

Groenewold said he still has time to file with the board but hasn’t yet.

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Anna Burleson
Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact Burleson with story ideas or tips by either phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. More examples of her work can be found at grandforksherald.com.
(701) 780-1114
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