Hostile workplace: Interviewed EERC employees describe bullying, abuse by director
GRAND FORKS — Working at the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center meant dealing with former Director Gerald Groenewold’s fits of rage, bullying and animosity toward UND, according to more than a dozen employees interviewed by a law firm hired by the university.
Groenewold ran the center for more than two decades but was put on leave and subsequently fired last month after an out-of-state law firm interviewed 14 of the center’s 235 workers and found that all of them considered Groenewold a “bully,” according to documents obtained by the Grand Forks Herald.
“Without exception, every one of them portrayed a workplace that is volatile, unpredictable and often very demeaning, due solely to the conduct of Dr. Groenewold,” the report said.
The report, which doesn’t name any of the 14 interviewees, paints a picture of a hostile and abusive work environment, including incidents of Groenewold badmouthing employees and even once making a comment about the North Dakota State Geologist and “where he would like to stick a white hot poker.”
Groenewold was put on administrative leave May 5 and wasn’t given any explanation until UND President Robert Kelley sent a letter of cause on May 23 that said he had been let go due to his “strong” personality and disagreements over the EERC’s finances, among other things.
Kelley has declined to elaborate on the matter to the Herald, but the dismissal letter he penned included quotations from the law firm’s report. Groenewold responded with his own letter disputing most of the claims May 28 but was officially fired May 30.
In past interviews, Groenewold admitted to having an “intense personality” and said the whole ordeal is a power struggle between Kelley and him for control of the EERC, but he declined to comment further in light of the law firm’s report.
The EERC is an applied research, development and commercialization facility that develops efficient energy and environmental technology and contributes $91.2 million in local economic impact.
Last summer, Kelley received an anonymous letter from a “very unhappy EERC employee” after Groenewold got a pay raise that year.
“He is a disgrace for taking the raise knowing he didn’t give half of his staff a raise,” the letter said. “They actually work, and work harder than he does.”
Four more notes came in the mail the following spring, all signed in some way or another by employees who wanted to remain anonymous, accusing Groenewold of mismanaging the EERC.
“The real March Madness is trying to work at the EERC and stay positive about the future when you know there is no future as long as the crackpot is running things,” one person wrote.
UND spokesman Peter Johnson said these notes prompted Kelley to ask UND’s general counsel to look into Groenewold’s behavior.
“I think that, probably, when you start to get a few you start wondering if there’s some legitimacy to what’s being communicated,” Johnson said.
Mary Dobbins of the Landrum Dobbins law firm in Edina, Minn., was chosen to do the study because of her expertise in the field and distance from UND, so that she would not be biased.
What resulted was a report that outlined in greater detail the reasons for Groenewold’s dismissal, which include alleged discrimination, verbal abuse and lying.
The report says that in August 2013, two associate directors had an “after-hours” discussion regarding Groenewold’s behavior that he overheard and confronted them about. According to the report, one of the associate directors offered to resign during the “extended and quite ugly” confrontation, but Groenewold told them it was unnecessary.
But shortly after, one of the associate directors involved in the incident went on vacation. While they were away, Groenewold met with the associate director’s subordinates in individual meetings where he said he planned to fire the associate director and went as far as to have human resources staff draw up an organizational chart without the associate director on it. When the associate director returned from vacation, Groenewold reportedly denied everything but continued to criticize the director to others.
‘A living hell’
The documents also say Groenewold has demanded to know who employees are talking to on the phone, has been seen with his ear pressed to doors and has peeked around corners to see who was partaking in certain conversations.
He would also routinely suggest a specific employee should be fired to other employees and called people “stupid,” “lazy” and “incompetent.”
“According to employees, Dr. Groenewold tends to focus his ire on one person at a time,” the report said. “He is described as making the target person’s life ‘a living hell.’”
Groenewold also said he wouldn’t work with Vice President for University and Public Affairs Susan Walton because she is a Mormon, the report said, and referred to another employees’ Christian faith as a “weakness.”
When the Herald asked Walton for comment, she said she had no prior knowledge of the discriminatory comments and had always felt welcomed by the Grand Forks community.
Groenewold also reportedly disparaged the EERC’s relationship with UND frequently and described his interactions with the university as “combat.” The report cites an example of when the College of Engineering and Mines submitted a proposal for funding to Oil and Gas Research Council in 2013 that was rejected due to concern that it was similar to research funding already appropriated to the EERC.
Groenewold then ignored the council’s suggestion that UND and the EERC work together on the project.
He also would refer to UND professors as “air suckers” and “regularly” said “this town is nothing but a bunch of (explicative) whores to hockey” in reference to Grand Forks.
According to the report, Groenewold’s management style had been a problem for many years but escalated with the EERC’s financial problems in recent years.
Attached to Dobbins’ report was a memo to Kelley from the University System Director of Internal Auditing Tim Rerick citing several incidents of Groenewold lying about his whereabouts on company time and paying for employee administrative leave with a fund that was operating in a deficit and without checking with UND first.
Groenewold reportedly would “grossly exaggerate” the EERC’s financial situation to make it sound more successful than it really was to both clients and members of the public and take credit for work he hadn’t done himself.
The EERC has been mostly self-sustaining, but as far back as 2008, the center listed an annual deficit of more than $1 million on UND’s financial reports. Kelley even kicked in $375,000 annually in 2013 and 2014 to help get the center back on track.
In January, a report written by now Acting Director Tom Erickson said the deficit was a result of an uneven distribution of income that comes from research contracts with the EERC. That income is split between UND and the EERC because of indirect costs incurred for research activities.
“The current method of distributing F&A income is for the university to receive a specific percentage, and then the remainder of the income is distributed to the EERC,” Erickson wrote. “This is a huge disadvantage to the EERC as it requires a specific percentage to cover its costs.”
Then on March 27, Brekke wrote Kelley a memo voicing concerns about the EERC’s budget deficit and said that if nothing changes, UND will carry a total projected deficit for the EERC of about $3.75 million by the end of fiscal year 2015.
Brekke reiterated her concerns to a State Board of Higher Education committee in April and, according to university memos, commissioned Huron Consulting to analyze the structure and finances of the EERC in May.
Johnson said the report will be finalized soon.
Groenewold has filed an appeal with the university per NDUS policy. A hearing date has yet to be set, but Kelley will still have the final say on Groenewold’s termination after taking a university council’s recommendation into consideration.