Hennepin Technical College President Merrill Irving Jr. faced accusations last year of belittling employees with disabilities and making sexually derogatory comments about coworkers, according to investigation reports obtained by the Star Tribune.

But Irving remains on the job after leaders of the Minnesota State colleges and universities system determined that his "derisive statements about individuals of a protected class" violated respectful workplace procedures but not its harassment policy, system spokesman Doug Anderson said.

"There was insufficient evidence that the statements were pervasive or severe such that the subjects' work environment would be affected," Anderson said in a statement describing the decision by Bill Maki, Minnesota State's vice chancellor for finance and facilities.

A former Hennepin Technical College employee, who said Irving harassed her, said the system did not appropriately address the situation and has since asked the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to investigate.

The Minnesota State system investigated Irving's behavior twice in 2021, once with the help of an outside lawyer.

"A general consensus among the people whom I met with in connection with this investigation is that Dr. Irving frequently belittles people about their physical characteristics, idiosyncrasies and tendencies, and frequently makes sexualized jokes, innuendo and comments," the outside lawyer who conducted the college system's harassment investigation concluded in June.

"This conduct often occurs during formal work settings such as cabinet meetings, as well as in informal work settings, including but not limited to semi-compelled happy hours."

Irving declined an interview request but said in a written statement to the Star Tribune that he was "distressed to hear how my comments were perceived, as it doesn't reflect my values."

"I've made it clear to the chancellor that I understand that leadership excellence requires more to be successful. I am dedicated to ensuring that my communication is perceived as positive and respectful," Irving said.

The outside investigator interviewed the two employees who filed the harassment complaint and 10 other witnesses. Irving denied all allegations in a meeting with the investigator and "expressed frustration that no one discussed their perceptions with him informally," according to the investigative report.

One witness, whom the investigator found "truthful and credible," recalled a direct conversation with Irving in which the president asked about the witness' sex life and openly speculated that two other employees were at home having sex with multiple men.

Several employees said they heard Irving speak badly about other coworkers, making disparaging comments about their weight, smell, appearance and physical abilities, according to the report. During a Zoom call with all Hennepin Technical College employees last March, Irving typed an off-color joke about a specific disability in the meeting's chat section, screenshots of the message confirm.

Irving, who is gay, questioned whether another employee was really a member of the LGBTQ community and belittled their appearance, a witness told the investigator.

Among other allegations detailed in the report: Irving allegedly imitated an employee who walked with a cane, mimicked another person's Indian accent, publicly humiliated an employee who criticized his leadership style, speculated during a cabinet meeting that a female employee was "behaving erratically because she is menopausal" and made fun of students with disabilities.

Two witnesses described a "culture of fear" in which employees were afraid Irving would retaliate against them if they questioned his conduct.

Maki decided the investigation's findings did not support a violation of the Minnesota State system's harassment policy because Irving's inappropriate comments about certain employees were not made directly to them, but to their colleagues, according to Anderson.

Those who filed the initial complaint appealed Maki's decision, but their appeal was rejected by Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra. Malhotra later met with Irving "to underscore his expectation that fostering and sustaining a safe and respectful campus climate is an imperative and ought to be his highest priority for the coming year," Anderson said.

Irving has led Hennepin Technical College since 2015. About 4,000 students were enrolled last fall at the school's campuses in Brooklyn Park and Eden Prairie.

Shortly after the harassment investigation concluded, four retaliation reports were filed by college employees, including one who participated in the initial complaint. Desiree' Clark, Minnesota State's interim civil rights and Title IX compliance officer, investigated the reports, interviewing those who filed them, Irving and five other witnesses.

Some of the employees alleged Irving was asking around to find out who participated in the harassment investigation, according to Clark's report. A few employees told Clark they heard Irving state he would sue the Minnesota State system if its leaders found him responsible and fired him. Irving again denied the allegations, and Maki concluded the reports did not prove retaliation.

The state Department of Human Rights is investigating Irving's conduct. His former executive assistant said she filed a complaint against him in January alleging discrimination based on her family status and employment.

The former assistant, who requested anonymity for privacy reasons and out of fear of retaliation, started working with Irving in August 2020.

In a January 2021 text message exchange reviewed by the Star Tribune, Irving joked to the assistant that he treated her "like a puppet" and made fun of another employee's appearance.

After speaking up about Irving's comments, the assistant said he insulted her personally and professionally several times over the phone and demoted her soon after. She said she later sought two internal promotions but was denied. She eventually left her job at Hennepin Technical College.

College spokewoman Lisa Kiava said Irving would not comment on the human rights investigation, citing state privacy laws.

Minnesota State leaders also declined to comment on the active investigation for the same reason, Anderson said.