BISMARCK — A higher education leader defended the North Dakota State College of Science on Thursday, May 30, in the wake of a negative state audit, but another leader says the school is in a crisis because of morale and management problems.

Kathleen Neset, a State Board of Higher Education member who chairs the entity’s audit committee, told the full board Thursday, May 30, it should instruct North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott to form a temporary oversight plan for NDSCS.

Details, including whether oversight will focus on the issues outlined in the audit or NDSCS as a whole, will be worked out by next month’s meeting of the audit committee, which will forward recommendations to the SBHE for a final decision.

The audit alleged the school tried to hide a conflict of interest and inappropriately spent state and local funds while promoting its to-be-established career academy. Though the audit doesn’t mention it, Neset said concerns of low morale and tension between administration, faculty and staff have been "made abundantly clear to me."

“There is a crisis on campus at NDSCS,” Neset said. “Lives and livelihoods are being impacted, and this is not right.”

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Neset declined to elaborate on the issues she raised, but said they concern NDSCS President John Richman and his administration.

Richman said he has not spoken with any board members about the culture at NDSCS or "what might be perceived as a crisis on our campus," but he doesn't believe there is a crisis on campus as Neset described.

"No one has brought that to my attention directly," he said.

'They did not hide anything'

The audit notes the potential legal consequences for NDSCS. For example, withholding requested information from or misleading the state auditor is a Class C felony.

The state auditor's office will present the audit to the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee, which will then decide whether the audit warrants further investigation. That could be in the form of forwarding it to the state attorney general's office.

In a phone interview Thursday, State Auditor Josh Gallion declined to comment on whether he thinks criminal charges should be filed.

During the board meeting, SBHE Chairman Don Morton defended the college, which has Wahpeton and Fargo campuses, and he disputed Gallion’s claims that NDSCS misled the auditor's office and failed to provide information.

Gallion had asked NDSCS to provide all correspondence with the Flint Group, which was hired to write a strategic plan for the career academy. NDSCS said the correspondence the auditor's office requested did not exist, according to the audit report.

However, a similar request to NDUS turned up about 700 emails, which revealed that NDSCS vice president of workforce affairs Tony Grindberg, who's also a Fargo city commissioner, was directly involved in hiring the Flint Group, which employs his wife. He also did not officially disclose the relationship on paper.

Morton called Gallion’s requests to NDSCS vague and asked whether the board members read Richman’s response, which contested Gallion’s claims. “Read John’s response. It is very clear,” Morton said. “They did not hide anything.”

Gallion disagrees.

"I don't think any of our requests were vague," he said, adding that the audit report speaks for itself.

'Tension on the campus'

Morton also pushed back on the claim that local and state funding was not approved for fundraising efforts to pay for the career academy. The board in 2017 approved fundraising efforts by NDSCS, but did not approve funding for such efforts, Neset said.

“Did we expect him to raise the $30 million without any funding? I don’t think we did,” Morton said. “It does cost money to raise money.”

It's unclear how long the temporary oversight of the college would last, but it's meant to ensure transparency, improve responsiveness to audit findings, help NDSCS with local pressures and restore confidence and public trust in the school, Neset said.

SBHE student member Ashley Thornton said she didn’t want to belittle the allegations in the audit. Students understand the relationship between administration and staff is not great, but students have said the overall climate still is “extremely positive," Thornton said, adding that they are not feeling the extremes of the tension on campus.

Board member Dan Traynor suggested appointing an NDUS administrator to help Richman with issues instead of implementing temporary oversight and avoid the perception the university system is trying to swoop in and solve everything.

During a period of oversight, Richman still would make final decisions and be in charge, Hagerott said. The oversight is not meant to slow the process of Richman adapting to changes, but to help him.

“There has been tension on the campus,” Hagerott said. “Some people are afraid for their jobs.”

Forum News Service reporter John Hageman contributed to this report.