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Labor complaint claims degrading practices, discrimination by NDUS leader

Chancellor Mark Hagerott of the North Dakota University System. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service file photo

GRAND FORKS — A North Dakota higher education leader fired earlier this fall is now calling for an investigation of alleged discriminatory practices in the state's university system office under Chancellor Mark Hagerott.

"Someone has to stop this blatant mistreatment of employees," wrote Lisa Feldner, a former North Dakota University System vice chancellor who also served as Hagerott's chief of staff. On Friday, Feldner filed an affidavit and 17-page narrative with the North Dakota Department of Labor detailing allegations of gender discrimination and a hostile work environment that she attributed to Hagerott's poor leadership.

Feldner's allegations renew claims made in a recently surfaced 2016 internal staff study that painted an unflattering picture of Hagerott as a militaristic leader who treated male staff members better than their female counterparts. A copy of the labor filings was obtained Wednesday, a day after a newly completed NDUS office climate report was released to the system's governing board. That report outlined a healthier, more professional environment led by a chancellor who members of the State Board of Higher Education said had been the focus of a serious coaching effort. Feldner, who was fired by the chancellor "without cause" in September, alleges that nothing improved under Hagerott's leadership—and that, when issues were brought to SBHE leaders, they were written off.

Feldner states in her narrative that SBHE leaders were made aware of problems in the office early on, including in a conversation in September 2015 when then-board Chair Kathleen Neset allegedly said the SBHE couldn't have another failure in the chancellor position after the short, controversial tenure of previous leader Hamid Shirvani. With the stakes set high, Feldner wrote that she was told by Neset that the office needed to help Hagerott be successful at all costs.

By May 2017, after problems had quietly been noted a year earlier in what was then an unreleased internal climate study, Feldner wrote that the issues with Hagerott had still not been resolved. At that point, she alleges that Neset told her that staff would "just have to make it work because 'We will be renewing the chancellor's contract. I won't have this chancellor going down — not on my watch.'"

Neset, a former chair of the board and now a regular member, declined comment for this story, deferring to current board Chair Don Morton. Morton said it was too early for him to speak about the document, which he hadn't yet seen late Wednesday afternoon.

According to Feldner's narrative, the problems with the chancellor were too great to accept.

"Discrimination based on gender, political affiliation, religion, LGBT status, marital status, health, age and appearance is a daily occurrence in the workplace," Feldner wrote, adding that SBHE inaction had "allowed the discrimination to proliferate" and create a toxic office environment.

'Degrading' practices

Feldner started her retelling with the background of the SBHE selection of Hagerott for the job in 2015 and her first impressions upon meeting him. She describes the chancellor as having a habit of speaking over others, particularly women, and giving undue focus to his pet projects, which have included cybersecurity and a systemwide technology initiative known as NexusND.

From there, the narrative follows a series of allegations backed up by anecdotes from the time Feldner and Hagerott worked together in the NDUS office. Feldner wrote that Hagerott engaged in "inappropriate touching" of female employees that, while not sexual in nature, felt "denigrating or condescending, as if it's OK to pat women like children or pets."

She wrote that the touching might have gone unnoticed on its own had it not been part of what Feldner described as a pattern of disrespect. She alleges Hagerott would "award" female staff members with yellow sticky notes for favorable reports in senior staff meetings — a practice he did not follow with male employees.

"Several times, I told him I didn't want a yellow sticky, as did other staff members, but he insisted," Feldner wrote. "It was degrading, to say the least."

She also alleges that Hagerott seized on medical issues of his staff in a way that felt inappropriate. After learning that one of his employees is a cancer survivor, Feldner wrote, Hagerott would regularly "refer to (that employee's) lack of stamina and health as a negative."

Feldner stated that the employee eventually learned that Hagerott was telling others that the employee was "too ill to work very hard," which came to be believed as "an attempt to force (him) out through false claims linked to his health status."

Feldner states the employee wrote to Neset to inform her of the situation. Health issues became a sticking point for others in the office too, Feldner alleges, to the point that she herself "disguised" an annual cancer screening at a Minnesota clinic as a regular family visit to avoid "public exposure and denigration."

Besides gender and health, Feldner stated that age too was a factor that was regularly picked on in some way. Regarding an older employee that Hagerott described as having "a lot of energy for a woman of her age," Feldner alleges the chancellor would later discuss with her his "concerns about (the employee's) advanced age, and state that we should be looking to fill her position with someone younger and more vibrant."

'This becomes a legal matter now'

Allegations of discrimination made up the bulk of Feldner's narrative, but the document was also marked with stories about what she characterized as Hagerott's erratic or negligent behavior that made work more difficult for his staff. That included a singular focus on topics like cybersecurity or research in unmanned aerial systems. According to Feldner, Hagerott seemed at times "obsessed" with the progress of the NexusND initiative to the point where he irritated state legislators. That grew to the point where Feldner said legislators openly stated they would have prefered to deal with Shirvani.

When reached for comment, NDUS spokeswoman Billie Jo Lorius said the office had not seen Feldner's narrative until it was provided Wednesday afternoon by a reporter. Lorius said Hagerott had left early that morning for Thanksgiving celebrations in Maryland and was unavailable for comment.

"We will review the document as we are able along with legal counsel," Lorius wrote in an email, adding that the SBHE had not yet had a chance to read it. "We will respond in accordance to established procedures."

Board Chair Morton echoed that sentiment.

"This becomes a legal matter now, and our attorneys will handle it," Morton said. "I think the Labor Department does an investigation and sees if it's something they can pursue, but I'll be surprised if they find anything. I think it's kind of out of our hands."

Morton said the SBHE would not be discussing Feldner's filing at its upcoming November meeting and would not be "sidetracked by these kinds of distractions."

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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