GRAND FORKS -- A University of North Dakota dean who resigned after claims he created an "atmosphere of fear" said he did the best he could for his college and that he is not a racist dictator.
Robert Hill, the former dean of UND's College of Education and Human Development, resigned from his post effective Dec. 31 after an internal review uncovered allegations of sexual comments and discrimination. The investigation was the result of information that came to light during a 360-degree performance review, which is a thorough review process conducted by anonymously gathering input from people within and from outside the university.
The investigation determined Hill had engaged in unwelcoming behavior toward women, including pointing out a picture of a horse with a visible penis to those who came into his office. He also failed to comply with the school's Code of Conduct, according to the investigation.
Hill said Tuesday he hadn't seen the review, which was obtained through an open records request. Once he was provided with a copy, he responded via email and in an interview Wednesday, saying he was glad to see a variety of positive, neutral and negative feedback, as he had been led to believe it was almost entirely negative.
"I, respectfully, do not view myself as a villain, a dictator, a perpetrator of sexual harassment or a creator of hostile work environments," he said. "This is not my nature."
Hill went on to say he didn't know how to respond to accusations of being a narcissist or racist.
"If someone calls me a narcissist or a racist, I feel terrible, but I'm not a racist or a narcissist," he said. "There's nothing I can do about a comment like that."
The comments gathered during the review paint a fractured picture of confusion, miscommunication and mistrust in the college. Mostly external constituents sang the former dean praises while others -- mostly tenured faculty, department chairs and staff -- wrote several paragraphs of detailed grievances against him.
"He has good communication skills," one person wrote in the review. "(He) is friendly, however, the question is, can he be trusted?"
Provost Thomas DiLorenzo said the input was gathered with an online survey throughout the beginning of the fall semester, as it is policy for deans to have a 360 review after two years of employment and then again every five years after that.
Some called Hill warm, friendly, forward-thinking and a "proponent of education," while another commended him for paying off the college's $500,000 debt when he came into office. That debt was the result of a loan that had been taken out years earlier to buy furniture in the Education Building.
Some, on the other hand, wrote they were still frustrated because they didn't know where that money came from, but Hill said last summer he pulled unused funds from anywhere he could find them within the college's budget and also received help from UND's central office.
Hill said he found some of the statements in the review "baffling" and "hurtful."
"But I don't bear them any ill will," he said. "The college, all of those people made it very clear they were unhappy with my leadership. I don't bear them ill will and will try to go on with my life and try to continue with the rest of my career."
Hill came from Utah to UND in 2013, replacing Dennis Caine who had been serving as interim dean. Caine was also a department chair and stepped down in May 2014 because, according to documents, he didn't enjoy working under Hill.
He also submitted a memo for Hill's 360 review, wherein he reiterated his problems with Hill's "demeaning and abusive" leadership style, adding Hill should resign.
Hill said there was "a lot of building to do,"so he created positions for grants and contracts, alumni fundraising and pushed web presence.
Hill said in an email that, looking back, he did the best he could with the understanding he had at the time.
"I received little guidance or mentoring from the provost or upper UND administration, so I tried my best to piece together some mentoring from other deans when possible," he said. "I did give it my best effort, and I will consider all the feedback as I try and chart what remains of my academic career. I still stand on my belief that my conscience is clear."
Hill's 2013 performance review, signed by DiLorenzo, is positive.
In 2014, however, six faculty members from the Kinesiology and Public Health Education Department, including Caine, signed their names to a 96-page complaint against Hill, to which he responded in a memo that said he was working to address their concerns.
Hill was then lambasted about one year later in an unofficial faculty survey taken, created and released by a group of faculty. More than 350 faculty took the survey, and 84 percent of respondents said Hill was "not at all" or "not very" transparent while 82 percent said the same about openness and having no confidence in his office.
Comments in the 360 review data claim Hill made comments about the Grand Forks newspaper publishing the survey results and that he asked faculty members whether they were involved with the survey in front of others.
Hill said he felt the real problems began when it came to light in May that Lori Ann Pesch, a secretary from within his college, had been charged with stealing thousands of dollars from UND by falsifying overtime and travel vouchers. That, paired with changes he made to the Bureau of Educational Services and Applied Research program when its director stepped down, created animosity within several departments.
"There was a minority of people that were very much unhappy with my leadership and they made it known at a singular point in time --that evaluation--and it resulted in my decision to step down as dean," Hill said.
The 360 review survey also asked what areas the dean could improve in, which is where allegations were made about Hill making sexual comments, pointing out a horse's visible penis in a photo on the wall of his office and making degrading comments about transgender people.
Hill said those allegations caught him completely by surprise because, like with other criticisms expressed in the review, he hadn't heard any complaints before.
"For two years, (the picture of the horse) was in (my office)," he said. "I was almost oblivious to it."
An overarching theme throughout that section of the survey was that Hill needed to communicate more and not solely through department chairs.
"Dean Hill has, through his lack of communication, inspired an atmosphere of fear," one person wrote.
Others wrote that they found him arrogant, unpredictable and were frustrated when he would take credit for work done by others.
In his email, Hill outlined many of the ways he tried communicating, including a biannual collegewide meeting, publishing his speeches online, an informational letter for faculty and alumni, open office hours and meetings with department chairs.
Also included in the review was a self-study from Hill, dated Oct. 2. In it, he pointed out that from 2011 to 2015 the average GPA of students admitted to his college had increased from 3.37 to 3.53, and the percentage of undergraduate students who graduated increased from 90.3 to 97.8 percent.
Hill also wrote that the CEHD Grants and Contracts Office was functioning more efficiently and communicating through meetings with himself, department chairs and faculty. A table included in the 360 review shows the college's external awards increased by about $1 million from fiscal year 2014 to 2015.
Hill said he had pushed science, technology, engineering initiatives--commonly known as STEM--by partnering with the Grand Forks School District, College of Arts and Sciences and the North Dakota STEM Network, among other things.
He also began a lecture series, established a shared governance approach and said he had been a visible part of the community.
But responses in the review said Hill made top-down decisions, didn't follow through or appear to remember commitments and was awkward during public events and presentations.
"The reality is that (Hill) has a local reputation as almost completely lacking in social and emotional intelligence," one person wrote.
But two people did write they didn't see any need for improvements, one said Hill had just started getting faculty buy-in and another wrote "keep doing what you're doing."
Those who responded to the 360 survey said they had seen some progress but wanted Hill to communicate more, be transparent, slow down and "quit talking and start doing."
One person also recommended multicultural and competency training.
"It would be wonderful if Dean Hill could trust the talented faculty and staff within the college and empower them to do their jobs," they said.
Others wrote they felt the damage done by Hill's managerial style was beyond repair, with one person writing a new dean was a necessity, which came to fruition through his resignation.
Hill, who made $190,962 annually as dean excluding benefits, was placed on paid administrative leave Nov. 3 pending the results of the internal investigation. His resignation was subsequently announced in early December, but he will continue to work off-campus teaching an online class.
Johnson said the review itself was put on hold when the investigation began. Due to the result of the investigation, the review won't be concluded.
Associate Dean for Teacher Education Anne Walker has been serving as acting dean throughout the controversy and will continue to do so as a search for a long-term replacement commences at the beginning of the spring semester.
Hill is barred from campus and contact with students but said he still wants to work with UND's STEM initiatives. Despite refuting some of the claims in his review and investigation, Hill said he decided to resign rather than pursue a hearing or legal case because it would damage not only him but the college.
"It would stay in the public domain, in the media, when they're trying to hire a new president," he said. "I want UND to be successful, ... and it would have been a 'he said, she said' hearing because there's no evidence other than verbal evidence, and that's not good for anybody. Not for myself and not for UND."