Either he’d go or his assistant would. That’s the situation Russ Karlgaard, former coordinator of the Related Studies Program at North Dakota State College of Science, said he was placed in.
NDSCS President Dr. John Richman and Vice President of Workforce Affairs Tony Grindberg, according to Karlgaard, placed him in that untenable situation. Karlgaard took early retirement.
“That’s the way he (Grindberg, a Fargo City Commissioner and former North Dakota state senator) operates,” Karlgaard said. “They’re just bullies. Richman and Grindberg, in my opinion, manage like a football coach – It’s ‘My way or the highway.’”
Words have weight. Some of the ones the NDSCS Whistleblowers use are “bully, intimidation, challenging and revenge factor.” Current and former staff offer documentation of what could be called a hostile working environment at NDSCS. President Dr. John Richman denies these allegations as both sides await an independent audit on the inner workings of the college.
The Whistleblowers bring attention to a recent NDSCS faculty counsel meeting that included a near 50-50 split in offering a vote of “No Confidence” in Richman’s leadership. Whistleblowers reached out to Daily News Media. A state-level audit concerning NDSCS management is approaching and these Whistleblowers wanted their voices heard.
Daily News Media previously reported budget concerns were responsible for the elimination of one position in NDSCS’ TrainND division. The position elimination resulted in one layoff, 12 employees remaining in the division and reassignment of duties for six TrainND employees and two additional NDSCS employees. NDSCS administration said the elimination was a response to TrainND’s financial problems, including expenses exceeding revenues.
Comments collected through a faculty survey also indicate some dissatisfaction with NDSCS’ current working environment.
“I feel sick and stressed most of the time,” one faculty member wrote. “I have lost faith and trust in the decision making of our leaders. I have been devalued as a faculty member and feel like my needs are ignored. I can’t keep doing my job to the level I have before.”
Another faculty member said they are self-destructing.
“I am at my wits end. I’m actively looking for something else to do,” the faculty member continued.
The faculty survey also included positive comments. One employee said there hadn’t been any major effects since NDSCS began budget cuts, layoffs and faculty re-adjustments in April 2016. Those changes came in the wake of a state funding decrease from more than $45 million to slightly over $35 million for the 2017-19 biennium.
“I have had to work more efficiently and thoughtfully but I can still complete my work,” another faculty member wrote as part of the survey.
NDSCS has always had a culture of continuous improvement, Richman said. However, it has always been willing to listen to the full discussion and value input from all sources, pleasant or not.
“I’m willing to listen to it and I’m willing to learn from it,” Richman continued.
Serious concerns raised against NDSCS management
Whistleblowers shared documents with the Daily News Media, describing a “hostile” workforce environment to some staff, while others say nothing has changed. An audit of the college will be performed sometime in the near future to look into charges concerning finances, space utilization and TrainND.
With a 3-0 vote Friday, May 4, the State Board of Higher Education’s audit committee approved hiring an independent firm to review complaints made against NDSCS. The state board sets policy for all 11 schools in the North Dakota University System.
Richman said NDSCS anticipates the results of the audit.
“We’ve always taken the approach and we will continue to take the approach: ‘Come in and look at the way we do things. Tell us how we can improve. We will adjust, in a proactive way, the best we can,’” he continued.
The Whistleblowers, who claim to include faculty, staff and administration, also anticipate results of this important audit. They provided accounts of alleged:
• Fraud – Richman and NDSCS’ vice presidents have been accused of ordering staff to alter classroom utilization records; for example, the code for a classroom was allegedly changed to the code for a storage or meeting room; the Whistleblowers say changes were made to show a need for additional buildings
• Mismanagement –Grindberg is accused of focusing on fundraising for the proposed Fargo Career Academy (which Richman is a supporter of) above his hired position; Grindberg’s salary and benefits total approximately $176,000 a year, and according to the Whistleblowers, TrainND faces a budget shortfall and reduction in force
• Conflicts of interest – Grindberg’s wife, Karen, is chief financial officer of Flint Group, hired to consult and be lead organization for the Fargo Career Academy
• Misuse of state funds – according to Whistleblowers, state funds have been used against their earmark, to pay for events and meetings for the Fargo Career Academy
• Workplace conflict – the terms “intimidation,” “bullying tactics,” “revenge factor” and “reprimanded for asking questions and challenging decisions” were all used.
• Gender-related workplace conflict – female department chairs were the ones allegedly reprimanded
• Declining morale – “I want to cry when I think about work,” one employee wrote; another employee repeatedly asked Richman and Grindberg how they slept at night
Richman declined responding in detail to any specific allegation. He did say NDSCS is confident it has acted within the parameters of its authority.
“Any one of those (concerns) I would disagree with,” Richman said. “I go back to understanding the policies and codes we have to follow as a state agency. I believe we’ve done that. I believe we are doing that. Some of these (concerns) may be addressed in the upcoming audit.”
An NDSCS graduate, Richman has been involved with the campus since 1971.
“It has evolved. It has modified itself. It has remained very focused on its mission and it has remained very focused on supporting students,” he said.
Several area people indicated they’d be willing to speak on record, but declined to do so. Karlgaard admits he uses harsh words to describe his feelings for Richman and Grindberg. Some people will hear what he says and think he’s dead wrong. His facts are filtered through his opinion, Karlgaard continued. But he’s also able to share his opinion.
“I’m in a position where I don’t think they can hurt me,” he said. “A lot of people can’t say anything because they need their job. That’s what they’ve been thriving on, that ability to bulldoze people.”
On Friday, May 11, 690 students are expected to graduate from NDSCS’ online education program and North Dakota campuses. NDSCS is located at 1305 19th Ave. N. in Fargo and 800 Sixth St. N. in Wahpeton.