North Dakota legislators "scramble" to avoid university system Chancellor Mark Hagerott, said Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, Tuesday.

Holmberg was speaking to allegations made more than a week earlier by Lisa Feldner, a former vice chancellor of the university system fired by Hagerott earlier this fall.

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Feldner, who also served as Hagerott's chief of staff, filed documents with the North Dakota Department of Labor on Nov. 17 alleging that Hagerott had created a hostile work environment through discriminatory practices in the North Dakota University System office. Among claims that the chancellor discriminated along the lines of gender, health, age and otherwise, Feldner also wrote that he had damaged his reputation with legislators by focusing excessively on his interests in cybersecurity and a program of his own design called NexusND, a broad technology initiative planned to include a focus on cyber, along with unmanned systems and big data.

"The Chancellor would talk to legislators on an ad hoc basis, and we soon began hearing that legislators did not want to meet with him anymore," Feldner wrote. "All he wanted to talk about was cyber security. They even coined the phrase, 'I got cybered,' meaning the chancellor had talked to them about cyber security at lunch or wherever he could find them.' "

Holmberg, who is a member of the Legislature's Higher Education Committee and is the head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that assessment is accurate-including the phrase.

"They'd kind of chuckle and laugh about it, and you'd immediately know what it was about, those who dealt with the higher education community," he said, adding that he'd never used the expression himself. As Feldner wrote, he said those conversations hadn't been endearing.

"The discussion that legislators flee, or get out of the way when he comes because they do not want to interface, I've seen that over and over again," Holmberg said.

When asked if he knew of any legislators who could speak on the chancellor's behalf, Holmberg thought before saying, "I don't know of any." He paused, and added, chuckling, "That's damning, isn't it?"

'Sometimes we expect perfection'

When reached late Tuesday, NDUS spokeswoman Billie Jo Lorius said Hagerott was unavailable for comment, as he was traveling from a listening session at Minot State University. Hagerott has previously stated that both he and SBHE leaders "strongly disagree" with Feldner's accusations, which the chancellor described as a "distraction" from the university system's ongoing work in education.

Both Feldner and Holmberg's descriptions reflect a point shared in spring 2016 between former NDUS Vice Chancellor Linda Donlin and one of Hagerott's direct supervisors at the time, former SBHE Chair Kathleen Neset. In an email of items directed to the chancellor, he was instructed that the 2017 legislative session was "crucial, and it's critical that you develop and maintain a good relationship with legislators." However, the email stated, "We are hearing that they are starting to avoid you because all you do is talk about Nexus."

Holmberg said legislators mainly interacted with Feldner or a different NDUS representative during the most recent session, after which the SBHE renewed the chancellor's employment contract through June 30, 2019. Eschewing a raise in light of budget cuts, Hagerott signed an extension of his 2015 agreement that pays an annual salary of $372,000 plus benefits.

Not all legislators felt quite the same as Holmberg about the chancellor's work.

Sen. Karen Krebsbach, R-Minot, is vice chair of the Higher Education Committee.

"I've had no problems with the chancellor," Krebsbach said. "I guess I haven't had that much experience with him, perhaps as much as others had."

Krebsbach said she could recall no legislators coming to her saying they didn't want to meet with Hagerott, though she did say there was "perhaps that concern" that he spoke too much about cybersecurity. She personally didn't believe the chancellor was "overblowing it," given the importance of data security in the modern world.

Fellow committee member Rep. Rick Holman, D-Mayville, said he met with Hagerott when the chancellor first began his role and has visited with him since. Holman characterized the chancellor as organized and interested in data, and as a man who "speaks out honestly."

Though Holman said he didn't want to challenge Holmberg's experience, crediting the senator's long history in office and dealings with past chancellors, he did say that he personally viewed Hagerott as someone who was presenting his ideas from the difficult position of managing the NDUS while being mindful of the Legislature's powers of funding.

"Sometimes we expect perfection when it's not possible," Holman said.