Hennepin President Resigns Following Bullying Allegations

Employees accused Merrill Irving Jr. of harassing and mocking colleagues. An investigation by Minnesota State system leaders found that his alleged behavior did not constitute harassment.

February 28, 2022
Merrill Irving Jr.
(Courtesy of Hennepin Technical College)

(This article was updated after Irving announced his resignation on Monday morning.)

Merrill Irving Jr., the president of Hennepin Technical College, stepped down Monday morning amid pressure from employees and state lawmakers to resign.

Irving faced criticism last week after the Star Tribune reported that an investigation by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System into bullying and sexual harassment allegations against Irving found that he failed to follow respectful workplace procedures but did not violate the system’s harassment policy. Minnesota officials called for Irving’s resignation while system leaders stood firmly behind the president.

In an email to college employees and students, Irving said deciding to step down was “extremely difficult.”

“This past week I realized the longer I stay in my role as president of HTC the more of a distraction it is to our college community,” he wrote. “The driving force for the attention HTC receives should be the success of our diverse student body, our strong industry partnerships that sustain the local economy and the good people who work diligently for the institution’s continued achievement.”

Employees accused Irving of making sexually derogatory comments, mocking and belittling employees with disabilities, asking inappropriate questions and making jokes about employees’ personal lives, as well as talking disparagingly behind people’s backs about their weight, smell, appearance and physical abilities, the Star Tribune reported.

Following the investigations into Irving’s behavior, Bill Maki, vice chancellor for finance and facilities, determined that the president violated the system’s respectful workplace policy, which instructs employees to be respectful and professional in their communications and meetings with all parties.

Yet Devinder Malhotra, chancellor of the system, concluded that Irving did not violate the system’s harassment and nondiscrimination policy, which prohibits discrimination and “severe” conduct against members of a protected class. Leaders also determined that Irving did not retaliate against any employees.

“The decision maker’s conclusion was that the investigation showed that Dr. Irving made derisive statements about individuals of a protected class, not in their presence but in the presence of other college employees,” Doug Anderson, a spokesperson for the system, wrote in an email. “There was insufficient evidence that the statements were pervasive or severe such that the subjects’ work environment would be affected.”

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A college spokesperson told Inside Higher Ed that Irving was not available to comment.

The Minnesota State College Faculty, the college’s faculty union, issued a statement Friday asking the system chancellor to address Irving’s behavior.

“Everyone in the Minnesota State community deserves to learn and work in a healthy and respectful environment. For too long, many employees at Hennepin Technical College have lived with less than that because of the behavior of President Irving Jr. and others,” the union wrote. “We encourage Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra to take immediate steps to address the problem and collaborate with the faculty and staff of HTC to create the conditions in which healing can begin. The employees of the state’s largest stand-alone technical college shouldn’t have to wait.”

In an email to students and employees Wednesday, Malhotra expressed support for Irving, who served as president of the public, two-year technical college since 2015. Malhotra—not the system Board of Trustees—was Irving’s direct supervisor, according to Anderson.

“President Irving and I have spoken at length about this issue, and I expect him to recommit himself to his guiding principles of trust, integrity, and honesty,” Malhotra wrote in the email. “He also has told me he understands that leadership excellence requires more of him, to which he also has committed himself. We value a respectful, inclusive workplace, requiring everyone throughout the campus community, including leaders, to demonstrate respect, dignity, and acceptance. I have complete confidence in the great work and forward momentum happening at Hennepin Technical College regarding academic excellence, innovation, student success, and equity.”

Even if a college board or chancellor doesn’t find the president responsible for a policy violation, an investigation into behavior is still a concern, said Merrill Schwartz, senior vice president for content and program strategy at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

“Standards and expectations for the president of a college are very high and are different from a legal test about whether an incident violated a policy. The president represents the institution,” Schwartz said. “There are many tools for improving performance that aren’t necessarily the goal of an investigation.”

Malhotra’s email is what spurred Marion O’Neill, a Republican state representative in Minnesota and Republican lead on the state Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee, to call for Irving’s resignation. She said she has been unhappy with Irving’s behavior for years.

“Over the course of many months, I’ve been trying to work with the administration to deal with his conduct,” O’Neill said. “There is a long, long, long list of complaints against him.”

O’Neill, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, Deputy House Minority Leader Anne Neu Brindley and several other House GOP members of the state higher education committee co-signed a letter calling for Irving to step down Wednesday.

“This is a long time coming that I stand up for the women, men, LGBTQ, disabled and all the others that you reportedly harassed and humiliated using your power and authority to create a hostile work environment for all [your] employees, to officially demand your resignation, effective immediately,” the officials wrote in the letter.

O’Neill said she spoke several times with an employee who described Irving’s behavior toward her.

“He was inappropriate with the vast majority of people he came in contact with, saying things like, ‘Oh, you’re having a bad day because you’re menopausal,’ or saying to his assistant, who I spoke to many times, ‘You’re a terrible mother. You’re a terrible wife. You’re a terrible employee’—things that no supervisor should ever say to their employee.”

Irving also allegedly belittled people with disabilities. According to the Star Tribune report, he imitated an employee who used a cane and made fun of disabled students.

Sexual harassment and racism allegations often capture the public’s attention, but discrimination and harassment of employees and students with disabilities is undercovered, said L. Scott Lissner, the Americans With Disabilities Act coordinator at Ohio State University and policy chair for the Association on Higher Education and Disability.

“Experience tells me that poorly phrased or bad-intentioned comments about disability or disability-related things happen with more frequency than we hear about,” Lissner said.

Katherine Greenstein, president of the Disabled Student Union at American University, said she doesn’t think ableism is taken seriously enough on college campuses. Student governments, student media and institutional leaders don’t often address discrimination or harassment against disabled students.

Lissner said that the experience of students and employees with disabilities can often be missed by college leadership.

“Having a disability on campus—whether you’re an employee or a student—is a minority experience and is comparable, in many ways, to race and to gender,” Lissner said. “We tend to think about disability not as Disability with a capital D, but as employees who are blind, students who have learning disabilities, students with chronic health issues. In doing that we make the group smaller and miss the common experience across disabilities that, in many ways, is comparable to other protected class experiences.”

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Emma Whitford

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