by CHRIS ROGERS
Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (Minnesota State) recently reprimanded Minnesota State College Southeast President (MSC Southeast) Marsha Danielson and ordered her to repay over $5,000 after investigations found she made disrespectful race- and gender-based comments at work and misused government resources. Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra said Danielson took responsibility for her actions and that he believes the MSC Southeast community wants to move forward from these incidents.
Last fall, Minnesota State’s auditing and human resources departments conducted investigations into complaints against Danielson made by several employees. Investigators found she violated Minnesota State’s travel policy by collecting an $833 per month travel stipend while also using a company vehicle for her commute and accepted a Minnesota Wild ticket package valued at $225 in violation of state rules that prohibit government employees from accepting gifts. An outside law firm hired by the human resources department also found she allegedly referred to employees as “hon,” “girlie,” and “babe” in a way multiple witnesses described as demeaning, imitated another college president’s foreign accent, said all Asian people look alike, and complained to a coworker about Malhotra being reluctant to pay for a lunch meeting, suggesting it was due to his Indian culture.
Danielson said she used “hon” and “babe” as terms of endearment. She denied the alleged race-based remarks. Investigators concluded the complaints were likely true.
Danielson has declined interview requests, including for this article. In a February 10 email to her staff, she wrote, “I sincerely apologize for the harm I have caused; I am committed to making the necessary changes and work with you to advance the college and promote student success.” She detailed Minnesota State’s conclusions — which did not include any reference to race-based comments — and pledged to reimburse the school and change the way she speaks with staff.
Those investigations were concluded on December 22, 2022. On February 15, the Star Tribune broke a story about the investigations’ findings. That week, Malhotra released a statement saying that he took the issue seriously, was currently reviewing the reports, and would soon issue a disciplinary decision. In an interview, Malhotra explained that other Minnesota State administrators needed to weigh in on the investigations’ findings and determine which policies Danielson violated before he could make his decision.
“When these transgressions occur, we take them very, very seriously, and we hold all our individuals — all our employees, including our presidents — accountable and that is happening in this case, too,” Malhotra said in an interview. “And in that regard, I am also encouraged by the fact that President Danielson, when presented with the facts and conclusions of the investigations and after our own self-reflection, took full responsibility for her actions. I give her credit that she directly engaged with the campus community and shared with them herself what the conclusions of the investigation were, committed to them that — … including her own commitment to change her own behavior going forward — at all levels of the college she would work hard to create an inclusive and safe environment for all employees.”
The disciplinary action Malhotra decided on was a verbal reprimand, among other steps. “These are serious transgressions of policy and conduct, and they are clearly unacceptable,” Malhtora said. He added that he met with Danielson and told her, “… This needs to stop, and going forward the expectation is that all through the college we will work to maintain a respectful workplace that is safe and inclusive for all employees.”
Minnesota State also required Danielson to pay Xcel Energy for the gifted tickets and reimburse the state university system $4,921.62 for her misuse of a company car. The Star Tribune reported that Minnesota State officials said that figure was based on Danielson using a state vehicle for 86 round trips. Minnesota State’s investigation found Danielson started using a company vehicle for her commute shortly after she became president in July 2021, over a year before the complaints were reported.
Finally, Malhotra said Danielson will be required to conduct a series of “360 reviews,” in which she and other Minnesota State administrators would seek feedback from Danielson’s staff on her performance. “This doesn’t end with just the conversation. This doesn’t end with just laying the expectations. This doesn’t end with just the reimbursement. There is a continual monitoring frame and continual discussions with President Danielson to ensure the college community is not subjected to this behavior again and that we position MSC Southeast to continue to deliver an excellent education experience for its students, create a respectful and empowering workplace for its employee, and fulfill its vital role for the community,” Malhotra said.
Asked if he thought more serious disciplinary action was warranted, Malhotra said, “I’m sure some people may have a difference of opinion. What I am conveying to you is, I think in this situation where an individual has publicly engaged the college community and has publicly apologized to the college community and committed to better conduct. And what I’m hearing from the college community and others in the broader Winona community is that they were not pleased by what happened, but they appreciated her taking accountability and responsibility for her actions, and they recognized also that working together and moving the college forward should be the major focus. And that may not be a unanimous view, but a few folks who have reached out to me have expressed that. So I am confident that this discipline will move the college forward and ensure that we will continue to monitor this situation.”
Minn State: Disrespectful, not discriminatory
Minnesota State administrators, and ultimately Malhotra, determined Danielson’s alleged race- and gender-based comments violated the university system’s Respectful Workplace Policy but did not violate its anti-discrimination policy.
The outside law firm hired to investigate reached the same conclusion for most of those comments, writing “there was insufficient evidence to indicate that the comments had a negative effect on the complainants, the workplace or the education environment.” However, the investigators said that her use of “girlie” and “babe” did meet the definition of discriminatory harassment in Minnesota State’s anti-discrimination policy.
Minnesota State and Malhotra have said that inclusion and equity are one of the top values and goals for the system. Its anti-discrimination policy defines discriminatory harassment as, “Unwelcome conduct or communication that is based on actual or perceived membership in a protected class, including stereotypes of protected classes, that has a negative effect or is likely to have a negative effect on the complainant or the workplace or educational environment.” A protected class refers to gender, race, religious beliefs, age, disability, and sexual orientation, among other features.
“[Redacted] reported that Danielson called [redacted] “girlie” more than once in a disparaging manner, as in 'just do what I tell you to girlie,’” investigators wrote. Minnesota redacted private information, including witnesses’ names. Investigators went on, “[Redacted] said Danielson also called [redacted] “girlie” and it seemed condescending, as in, “listen here girlie.” [Redacted] stated it bothered [redacted], which [redacted] confirmed. [Redacted] said [redacted verb] in part because Danielson called [redacted] “girlie” one too many times. There is a preponderance of evidence that this was an unwelcome comment based on gender that had a negative effect on [redacted].”
Minnesota State administrators reviewed this evidence before presenting a recommendation to Malhotra on whether Danielson violated the anti-discrimination policy, also known as 1B.1. Malhotra said that both he and those administrators determined she did not. “I don’t think it rises to the level of 1B.1, but it definitely is unacceptable behavior and violates respectful workplace,” the chancellor said. Asked about why it didn’t rise to that level, Malhotra said the full context of the situation had to be considered.
A witness in the investigation said that Danielson calling staff members “hon” in that tone and her misuse of a college vehicle affected morale. “There was a constant sense that she was a little better than the rest of us,” the witness said. This person spoke on condition of anonymity, citing concerns about their career.
Out of seven top administrators listed as college leaders in 2021, three left the school in the second half of 2022. A fourth announced her resignation on Monday. A college spokesperson said that was to take a new job opportunity and was unrelated to Dr. Danielson.
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