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UND’s EERC director put on administrative leave

GRAND FORKS — The longtime director of the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center was placed on paid administrative leave Monday morning.

Hours later, Gerald Groenewold said he still didn’t know why UND took the action.

UND spokesman Peter Johnson declined to explain why UND put Groenewold on administrative leave. Thomas Erickson, the center’s associate director for business, operations and intellectual property, will be in charge of the day-to-day operations of the EERC, Johnson said.

The EERC is an applied research, development and commercialization facility that develops efficient energy and environmental technologies, according to its website. Groenewold has been director since 1987.

The EERC employs almost 250 scientists, engineers and support staff, according to its website.

‘Very confusing’

Groenewold said he was at the EERC Monday morning when UND police officers handed him a letter from President Robert Kelley notifying him he was being put on paid administrative leave “until further notice.” Once Groenewold acknowledged he received the letter by signing it, he was escorted out of the building.

“It was very simple and very short and very confusing,” he said.

Kelley’s letter does not state why Groenewold was being put on leave, but says that he is required to turn in keys and any EERC documents as well as any equipment owned by UND or EERC.

It also states that he is not to act in an official capacity representing the EERC during his leave, and cannot return to UND premises or the EERC unless Provost Tom DiLorenzo has notified him to do so or he is “granted access in advance.”

“Address any questions or concerns regarding your administrative leave to me,” Kelley’s letter states. Groenewold said he had left messages with Kelley’s office but has not talked to him as of just before 6 p.m. Monday.

Kelley was not available for comment Monday.

‘Cultural change’

The EERC had a total research portfolio of more than $196.8 million in fiscal year 2013, and 215 active contracts, according to a fact sheet on the EERC’s website. It has had more than 1,250 clients since 1987, when Groenewold became its director. That includes 3M and Lockheed Martin.

The EERC was founded in 1951 as the U.S. Bureau of Mines Robertson Lignite Research Laboratory and was defederalized in 1983. Contract awards totaled $29 million in 2005, jumping to more than $95 million just three years later, according to the fact sheet.

Since Groenewold took over as director, “the EERC has undergone a total cultural change from a former federal (research and development) facility to a practical, entrepreneurial, market-driven organization with national and international clientele, emphasizing working partnerships with private industry, government agencies, academic institutions, and the research community,” according to his biography on the EERC’s website.

Its total expenditures were $31.2 million in fiscal year 2013 and its regional economic impact was $91.2 million, according to the EERC website.

Groenewold said the EERC has been “an international model,” and noted that Montana state government officials have approached him about establishing a similar facility in their state. He said he’s not sure how his administrative leave may affect the future of the EERC.

“I thought we were doing something that people were proud of. And I don’t know now,” he said. “I’m just truly confused, and frankly I’m shocked.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers local business and North Dakota politics. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Bemidji Pioneer.  

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