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Discrimination complaint against ND university chancellor moves forward

BISMARCK—A labor complaint made against North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott is set to be investigated by a federal agency.

Lisa Feldner, a former vice chancellor who served as chief of staff to the North Dakota higher education chancellor filed preliminary documents Nov. 17 with the North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights accusing the head of the state university system of gender discrimination. Feldner, who was fired by Hagerott without cause in September, also included a 17-page narrative containing a variety of allegations painting Hagerott as a sexist manager who singled out employees for matters of health, age and sexual orientation.

In keeping with its practices, the Labor Department processed Feldner's claims and produced a formal charge of discrimination for her to sign off on, which she did Wednesday. On Dec. 20, the department sent notice to Feldner that her discrimination claim had been transferred to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal office that investigates workplace civil rights claims. The notice stated the Minneapolis office of the EEOC would be contacting Feldner in the near future to begin an investigation and resolution of her charge.

Feldner didn't comment on the impending investigation but said the Labor Department is also finalizing a separate claim of retaliation. The charge she signed earlier this week names the North Dakota University System as the employer that she believes discriminated against her and others between Sept. 1, 2015 and Sept. 14, 2017.

An abbreviated narrative attached to the charge contains elements Feldner included in her initial report. That includes claims that leaders of the State Board of Higher Education, the NDUS governing body to which Hagerott answers, turned a blind eye to alleged discriminatory practices in the system office, which include denigrating practices directed specifically toward female employees such as attaching sticky notes to their arms as an "award" during senior staff meetings.

NDUS spokesperson Billie Jo Lorius didn't comment on the development of the case but referred to earlier statements that the system will "continue to follow due process" and heed the investigation as it plays out.

Joseph Olivares, an EEOC public affairs specialist, said in an email he was prevented by confidentiality provisions from confirming the agency's role in handling Feldner's case.

"Information on specific charges become public only when the EEOC files a lawsuit, which is typically a last resort," Olivares said.

Generally speaking, he said the EEOC investigates charges if parties can't come to an agreement in mediation. Even after an inquiry is started, Olivares said the agency still leaves the door open for both parties to come to an agreement. Investigation timelines are varied and could include such measures as conducting interviews or checking hiring and application records.

Once investigators finish their inquiry, the EEOC makes a determination whether it believes discrimination occurred, as well as whether it wants to file a lawsuit against the employer in question. Members of the agency may decide not to bring forward a lawsuit themselves, in which case they provide the charging party a "notice of right to sue" that can be used to pursue an independent lawsuit.

"Our agency does not impose penalties upon employers," Olivares said. "If parties agree during mediation, it's mutually agreed upon by both parties how the aggrieved party will be relieved. If the case is litigated, the decision on what penalties will be imposed is dictated by the court."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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