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Higher ed leaders mostly quiet on chancellor

State Board of Higher Education Chair Don Morton, left, board member Greg Stemen and North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott listen during a meeting of the SBHE in Bismarck Thursday. (Photo by Andrew Haffner/Grand Forks Herald)

The State Board of Higher Education publicly covered a range of topics in its Thursday meeting but spoke only briefly on allegations recently leveled against Mark Hagerott, chancellor of the North Dakota University System.

SBHE Chair Don Morton said Monday that board members weren't planning to raise the issue at all. But after an agenda addition announced Wednesday, the board indirectly touched on the accusations before moving into a closed executive session to discuss the legal implications of claims made by Lisa Feldner, a system vice chancellor fired by Hagerott earlier this fall. Feldner, who also served as Hagerott's chief of staff, alleged Nov. 17 to the state Department of Labor and Human Rights that the chancellor had fostered a hostile work environment through discriminatory practices and unprofessional behaviors. When Morton and former board Chair Kathleen Neset were made aware of issues in the system office, Feldner claimed, they responded inadequately and allowed discrimination to continue.

Morton and Hagerott have previously stated they "strongly disagree" with Feldner's characterization of events, which are captured in a 17-page narrative. Hagerott went further Thursday to say he categorically denied the claims of his previous second-in-command.

"I hope people can be patient" for the results of a formal investigation, he said.

What little the board did say publicly about Feldner was in discussion of a recent university system office climate report published earlier this month that showed a mostly positive mood among NDUS office staff. Feldner was not actually identified by name in the discussion and was referred to throughout the meeting as an unnamed vice chancellor.

Before the executive session began, board members Nick Hacker and Mike Ness briefly questioned how comparable the new study was to its unofficial predecessor, a set of interviews compiled by NDUS compliance officer Carol Riedman in 2016 in response to an event in which the chancellor allegedly overreacted to an open records request. That earlier study yielded a largely unflattering view of Hagerott's leadership.

Before Riedman outlined the ways in which the latest study differed in method from the old one, Morton described the context of how that first review came about.

According to Morton, the first climate study was prompted by Feldner, who approached board leadership because she believed there were "some things going on in the office that that person thought was creating a hostile work environment."

Morton said Feldner recommended that he and Neset speak with two specific employees. Upon doing so, Morton continued, he came to the conclusion that Feldner "kind of exaggerated and it wasn't an issue."

Even still, the two board leaders decided the matter called for further study—which led to the 2016 document in which some staff members described Hagerott as a "bull in a china shop" or an "absent minded professor" who treated men better than women and focused on his pet projects to the detriment of his work on the system as a whole.

The results of the study were not made public at that time, nor were they released to the board outside of Neset and Morton. The final document surfaced in media reports earlier this fall after Feldner was terminated.

Both Morton and Riedman emphasized on Thursday the informal nature of the earlier study, with Riedman referring to the information-gathering process as "not scientific."

But the results of that study matched some conclusions that board leadership appears to have already made. In the spring before the summer open records incident that sparked Riedman's inquiry, Neset had apparently engaged in at least one "mentorship" session with Hagerott. An email containing points from a mentorship meeting stated the chancellor needed to "treat staff with respect," which included such "basic leadership skills" as "not referring to their age, gender, marital status, health, weight, political affiliation or personal life in your conversations with them."

The study itself also led to real action, according to Morton, who said Thursday that he and Neset both had "numerous meetings individually" with system staff, including the chancellor, after seeing the study's results—all while "trying to work through some of the issues" in the office.

The extent of that does not seem to have been relayed to the rest of the board, who renewed Hagerott's contract earlier this summer. A performance review of the chancellor written by Neset a few months after the 2016 office study was completed did not mention the inquiry nor the scope of the issues it had sought to define.

Morton said after the meeting the board is attempting to switch to a more thorough "360 review" method that makes use of input from all levels of an office hierarchy. He described that style as common to the corporate world and said the board has been interested in using it for several years. He said the main hurdle to its implementation has been the board's wish to exempt the review from the public record, a move that requires legislative approval. Board members believe a private review would encourage more honest feedback from all parties.

Morton said the Thursday executive session was intended to update the board as to the status of the legal process of addressing Feldner's allegations. He also repeated previous statements that he had no intention to "debate this publicly" in the media while acknowledging that "(public relations) is a part of our life."

Morton said the board's approach was rooted in due process, which "can take time, but ... can also get to the truth, the real facts."

"In this day and age, with the blogs, and the opinions, it just seems like there's a lot of people who don't want to be confused by the facts," Morton said.

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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