GRAND FORKS — The problems in Mark Hagerott’s office began early on, according to the official who once worked as his right-hand employee.
Hagerott is the chancellor of the North Dakota University System, an office that sits atop the 11 colleges and universities that make up the state landscape of public higher education. Until September, he oversaw that system with the help of Lisa Feldner, a longtime public sector employee hired as a vice chancellor by Hagerott’s predecessor.
When Hagerott came into office on July 1, 2015, Feldner became her chief of staff. The arrangement lasted for two years which Feldner said were marked by friction from the start. That ended abruptly in September when Hagerott fired Feldner after accusing her of bullying other employees. Feldner denied those allegations and, soon after, brought her own set of charges against her former boss to the North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights.
To hear Feldner tell it through the numerous documents that have come to embody a pair of formal labor complaints, those years working with Hagerott in the NDUS office were defined largely by an unprofessional office climate underscored with patterns of discrimination driven by Hagerott and tacitly permitted by his overseers on the State Board of Higher Education. Feldner also alleges that, in part because she reported discriminatory behaviors in the office to NDUS legal counsel and SBHE leaders, she was retaliated against by Hagerott with an untimely firing.
The case against the top leader of North Dakota higher education has been a while in the making. Here’s how we got to this point.
The narrower story of Feldner’s labor case begins when she was fired Sept. 14.
The termination caught press attention early on, particularly for its scene of conflict in the NDUS office. Hagerott accused Feldner of intimidating staff with derogatory remarks and speculations about their termination. She lodged a memo in her personnel file to reject the chancellor’s claims, later saying she was “bewildered” by the event.
About a week after the firing, a previously unreleased NDUS office climate study dated June 26, 2016, surfaced to the public eye for the first time. The results of the survey, which was carried out by the system compliance officer, did little to compliment the chancellor. While some staffers left positive remarks for Hagerott, others said his behavior presented a liability to the office, and all said he treated men better than women.
Hagerott responded to the study’s release by calling for an investigation of what he believed to be a “defamatory campaign” against him and his office. Hagerott believed that such a campaign could be a move of political retaliation by backers of former Republican gubernatorial candidate and North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. The motivation for that, Hagerott said, was his own refusal to censure former interim UND President Ed Schafer for his endorsement of Stenehjem’s rival, Gov. Doug Burgum, ahead of the 2016 gubernatorial primary election. Hagerott believed accusations of what he characterized as sexual harassment were tied to those political developments.
To address his concerns, Hagerott called for a formal investigation by a special assistant attorney general appointment and an SBHE investigation of alleged pressure applied to his office to encourage him to censure Schafer. The former governor eventually cited “chatter around the Capitol” to identify a group of men — North Dakota lawmakers Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, and Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot, as well as SBHE member Nick Hacker — as among those who might have pressured Hagerott.
All three denied doing so. The SBHE did not announce any intention to investigate Hagerott’s claims.
The chancellor’s employment contract had been approved for another year earlier in the summer before matters began to grow contentious. But Hagerott nearly saw that contract fall into renegotiation at the Sept. 28 meeting of the SBHE, when a split 4-4 vote ultimately failed to bring the matter back to life.
Hacker was among the members who voted to reconsider the contract.
About a week after the meeting, a statewide faculty group issued a letter of concern regarding how the Hagerott case had been handled by the SBHE. The Council of College Faculties was “troubled” that the apparent secrecy of the 2016 staff survey, which was viewed only by then-board Chair Kathleen Neset and Vice Chair Don Morton, may have constituted a lack of procedure when the board voted earlier to renew the chancellor’s contract.
Reservations notwithstanding, the Hagerott question remained open for much of the fall until Feldner submitted intake documents in mid-November to the state Labor Department alleging “degrading” treatment by the chancellor in the NDUS office. Within the documents was a 17-page narrative that included such claims that Hagerott had publicly disclosed a top staffer’s cancer diagnosis, publicly musing on whether the employee was too sick to work, and had routinely commented on his employees’ age, gender and health in ways they found embarrassing.
Hagerott has since “categorically denied” Feldner’s official charges of gender discrimination and retaliation and has held the support of current SBHE Chair Don Morton. Leaders at NDUS institutions have also spoken in Hagerott’s favor.
Public statements from the NDUS office and the state board have held to categorical denial and referred to any coming investigations as being an opportunity for the truth to come out. Those investigations are likely to come sooner rather than later.
In mid-December, Feldner signed off on formal charges of gender discrimination and retaliation. Both charges were contained in the intake documents submitted to and processed by the state Labor Department, which will likely be investigating the charge of retaliation. The other charge of gender discrimination has been sent up for investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal office tasked with enforcing anti-discrimination law.
The exact timelines for the investigations are not yet determined.