Embattled college presidents who step down get jobs in Minnesota State system's central office

3 March 2022

A Hennepin Technical College president who was accused of harassing and discriminating against employees.

A St. Paul College president whose leadership style was allegedly “grounded in fear and intimidation.”

A Rochester Community and Technical College president who was criticized for spending $10,000 on a ceremonial mace and chain for her inauguration when the school was facing a projected $2 million deficit.

All three embattled community college presidents stepped down while under heavy scrutiny. And all three were appointed to high-paying administrative jobs in the Minnesota State colleges and universities system’s central office immediately after. The practice has raised questions about whether the state college system takes allegations of presidential misconduct seriously.

“I think it’s a process that absolutely needs to end and end today,” said state Rep. Marion O’Neill, the Republican lead on the Minnesota House Higher Education Committee.

Former Hennepin Technical College President Merrill Irving Jr. resigned Monday following accusations that he belittled employees with disabilities and made sexually inappropriate comments toward co-workers. On the same day Irving resigned, he updated his LinkedIn profile to reflect his new job at the Minnesota State system office.

Irving will be Minnesota State’s “special assistant for workforce development projects” until his last day of employment on July 1 and retains his presidential salary of $232,000, system spokesman Doug Anderson said.

Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra has authority over presidents of the system’s 30 community colleges and seven universities. He declined an interview but said in a statement that “under the terms of contracts for presidents in the Minnesota State system, if a president’s appointment is terminated prior to the end of an employment agreement, the former president is entitled to a lump sum payment equal to four months of the president’s current salary.”

The chancellor also can choose to reassign former presidents to other duties at their same salaries, Malhotra said. A reassignment may be extended for up to a year.

Former St. Paul College President Rassoul Dastmozd retired abruptly and without explanation on June 30, 2019. An accreditation team investigating the college found employees feared reprisal from Dastmozd if they spoke candidly. Faculty staged a protest against the president two weeks before his retirement.

Dastmozd began working in the system office as a special projects assistant to Malhotra immediately after his retirement. He worked for the system from July 2019 through June 30, 2020, researching other U.S. college systems’ efforts to increase student success. His salary was $234,847.

Former Rochester Community and Technical College President Leslie McClellon resigned in January 2016 after students and employees criticized her spending and her decisions to close certain programs and replace popular administrators with her own hires. She started working as a senior system director in the Minnesota State office that same month through June 30, 2016 on a salary of $178,940.

McClellon, Dastmozd and Irving declined to comment.

The McClellon reassignment predates Malhotra’s time in office, as he became chancellor in 2017.

The Minnesota State system does not appear to be considering changes to its presidential contract language for those who step down amid accusations of wrongful behavior.

“We have a standard employment agreement that is used for all presidential appointments and it is reviewed periodically,” Malhotra said.

At the chancellor’s request, a senior consultant from the Minnesota Management and Budget office conducted a workplace climate assessment of St. Paul College in October 2019 following the leadership change.

The consultant, Barbara Tuckner, reported that St. Paul College employees felt betrayed by the system office as it “failed to provide oversight of the president” while the workplace climate deteriorated, according to a PowerPoint presentation detailing her findings. Employees were quick to label the system office’s hiring of Dastmozd as “cronyism,” and they perceived the move as “indifference” toward the distress they experienced under his leadership, Tuckner’s presentation said

In his statement, Malhotra said he takes complaints about alleged employee misconduct “very seriously.” All complaints are “thoroughly investigated and due processes are carefully followed,” he said.

“All employees, including and especially our leadership, are expected to treat each other, members of the public, and others with professionalism and respect,” Malhotra said. “Employees are encouraged to report incidents and participate fully and in good faith in both informal and formal complaint and investigative processes.”

Chancellor under scrutiny

Malhotra and other system leaders were well aware of Irving’s alleged behavior, as many Hennepin Technical College employees raised concerns over the years. Irving, who became the college’s president in 2015, was investigated once in 2017 and twice in 2021. But he continued to stay on the job.

“I do not understand why anybody in their right mind would extend someone’s contract with that kind of behavior,” said O’Neill, who called for Irving’s resignation last week after a Star Tribune report detailed his alleged conduct. “[Malhotra] is responsible for negotiating contracts with presidents and for their discipline. And I see a lack in both areas.”

An outside lawyer the system hired to investigate a harassment complaint against Irving last year found “Dr. Irving frequently belittles people about their physical characteristics, idiosyncrasies and tendencies, and frequently makes sexualized jokes, innuendo and comments.”

Several Hennepin Technical College employees told the lawyer Irving made disparaging comments about co-workers’ appearance, weight and disabilities. They also accused Irving of mimicking an employee’s foreign accent and asking colleagues about their sex lives, among other things.

Minnesota State leaders decided the lawyer’s findings did not support a violation of the system’s harassment policy because Irving’s inappropriate comments about employees were not made directly to them, but to their colleagues. They did determine Irving’s “derisive statements” violated respectful workplace procedures, and Malhotra met with him afterward to outline expectations.

Irving was investigated for similar conduct in 2017. The investigation report, which the Star Tribune obtained Tuesday via a public records request, centered on a complaint a former employee filed alleging disability discrimination and respectful workplace violations.

System investigator Paul Schnell, who is now the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, found no evidence of disability discrimination, according to his report. He did, however, find “considerable information” about Irving’s behavior.

Five witnesses told Schnell that Irving belittled employees and made inappropriate comments about people’s age, abilities and appearance. Three witnesses told Schnell that Irving made personnel changes “based on his personal vendettas.” Irving denied the accusations in a meeting with Schnell.

“Evidence obtained in this investigation indicates that disrespect characterized by behavior that a reasonable person would find to be demeaning, humiliating, or bullying is pervasive and impacted the Complainant, as well as, other current and former Hennepin Technical College administrators/employees,” Schnell concluded.

Schnell recommended that a violation of the system’s respectful workplace procedure be substantiated.

Malhotra was the decisionmaker on the 2017 case. He went against his investigator’s recommendation and decided the information of record did not support a violation of the respectful workplace policy.

“It is not the role of the investigator to decide whether a violation has occurred,” Malhotra said in a statement Tuesday. “That was my role as the decisionmaker, and I could not conclude with certainty that there was a policy violation. However, there were elements of the investigator’s report that were concerning.”

Malhotra said he met with Irving in 2017 to discuss his concerns and expectations.

Mike Dean, executive director of the community college student association LeadMN, criticized Minnesota State’s handling of the Hennepin Technical College situation.

“This is part of a larger systemic issue in the system office,” Dean wrote on Twitter this week.

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