BISMARCK - Lisa Feldner, a vice chancellor of the North Dakota University System, was fired after Chancellor Mark Hagerott accused her of making derogatory comments about staff members and speculating that some of them would be terminated.
Feldner, the university system's vice president of information technology and institutional research, was notified that she had been fired in an email Sept. 14 and, more formally, in a letter by Hagerott on Sept. 15. In the letter, Hagerott informed Feldner that she was being fired "without cause," which is allowed by university system policy for high-level staff without civil service protections.
But records in Feldner's personnel file, obtained by The Forum through open records requests, document a confrontation between Hagerott and Feldner several weeks earlier that apparently led to her firing last week.
Hagerott declined to be interviewed for this story, and efforts to reach Feldner were unsuccessful.
In a letter to Feldner dated Aug. 23, Hagerott said it had come to his attention that on several occasions she made "derogatory references pertaining to other staff members, past staff members, or speculated as to the likely performance failure of members" of the larger North Dakota University System, "even to include speculation of the possible termination of employees."
Hagerott added: "Given your senior status as a Vice Chancellor, such speculations are disruptive and contrary to our core values. You must desist from such conversations."
The chancellor told Feldner that she would have to seek his clearance before "any discussions or decisions pertaining to the employment status of any employee" involving the university system.
Six days later, on Aug. 29, Feldner wrote a memo "To Whom It May Concern," for placement in her personnel file, to deny the allegations and defend herself. Feldner had met the day before with Hagerott, whose executive assistant, Terry Meyer, also attended.
According to Feldner's account, Hagerott presented her with the Aug. 23 letter and asked her to sign it, but Feldner refused.
"He accused me of meeting with junior members of the system office and telling them they would be losing their jobs," Feldner wrote, referring to Hagerott. "I had no such meeting. I asked him for specifics and he refused to answer."
Hagerott also said Feldner was intimidating, according to her memo, but would not provide specifics.
"He claimed I am a powerful person and that presidents are afraid of me," Feldner wrote. "I told him I didn't believe him and I asked for specific names and examples of what the presidents had said. He refused to answer."
Similarly, Feldner wrote that Hagerott told her provosts were afraid of her, but again refused to provide specifics.
Despite the contentious exchanges, Feldner wrote that Hagerott was pleased that she had decided not to resign, although he would not allow her to write a rebuttal for her personnel file.
"He got up from his desk and said, 'I'm so glad you are not resigning,' " Feldner wrote in her memo.
Before the allegations of her derogatory remarks and her firing, Feldner got high marks in her three annual performance reviews with the university system.
"Your capacity for work, your attention to detail across myriad issue areas, and your creativity in problem solving all combine to produce a performance record that reflects many strong qualities," Hagerott wrote in an evaluation letter July 23, a month before the dispute. "Thank you for your dedication to the North Dakota University System. Well done."
Don Morton, chairman of the State Board of Higher Education, said the policy enabling the firing of high-level employees without cause is beneficial because it allows a top administrator to make changes when an employee is not good for the organization.
"We do want to recognize the good work she has done over the years," Morton said. "At a certain level, you serve at the will of the chancellor. In the private sector, that's very typical."