Herald editorial board

A statement comes our way from the leaders of the State Board of Higher Education. Board Chairman Don Morton and Vice Chairman Greg Stemen wrote the piece. Although it never mentions Mark Hagerott, their op-ed obviously is aimed at quelling rampant controversy about Hagerott, the chancellor of the North Dakota University System.

Their piece includes 11 instances of the word “truth” and urges readers to “get both sides of the story.”

We absolutely, unequivocally agree.

Hagerott’s tenure as chancellor has hit turbulent waters. He is accused by a former vice chancellor of all sorts of failures in leadership and incompetence. Perhaps not all of it is true. And it appears at least one of the accusations was overblown or simply taken out of context.

For example: Hagerott was accused of making a possibly discriminatory and certainly odd comment in a public setting to Valley City State University President Tisa Mason. When the Herald called to ask her about it, she shrugged it off. We soon thereafter published a story that said so.

Again, Morton, Stemen and the Herald all agree on one thing: We want the truth.

But inconsistencies abound, and that no doubt has whetted the investigative appetite of the state’s media.

Morton and Hagerott have said they “strongly disagree” with the accusations laid out in a 17-page report filed by former Vice Chancellor Lisa Feldner, who was suddenly fired by Hagerott. And Hagerott also told a Herald reporter he categorically denies Feldner’s claim of sexual discrimination.

Through an open-records request, the Herald obtained emails that appear to corroborate a claim that Hagerott was openly – and we feel inappropriately – discussing an employee’s cancer diagnosis. And through on-the-record interviews with state lawmakers, the Herald corroborated reports that Hagerott isn’t well-liked by some members of the Legislature, as claimed by Feldner.

So to strongly disagree with Feldner’s claims en masse – only to see some of those claims easily corroborated by the media – adds more than a little public mistrust to this growing controversy.

Morton and Stemen say the truth will emerge regarding Feldner’s claims against Hagerott. Maybe so. The Herald will do its part.

But our chief concern still lies with the leaders of the board itself.

Did former board Chairwoman Kathleen Neset twice wave off state employees who told her of potential discriminatory issues in the NDUS office? Why were these issues not mentioned in Hagerott’s annual review? And did Neset and Morton withhold critical information about Hagerott from other board members prior to renewing Hagerott’s contract?

The Board of Higher Education famously doesn’t answer to a higher power. And since neither the governor nor the Legislature can do much with the board, it generally leaves only the public – powered by an inquisitive media – to provide governance.

The Herald, for instance, is actively seeking corroboration on many of Feldner’s claims, while still asking Neset to respond to our questions. We are making headway on the former, but not so much on the latter.

And here is a real “truth:” The Herald will be happy to publish stories that show Hagerott in a better light, if all of these claims turn out to be false.

But if Hagerott and the board leaders say there is no truth to the claims and the media finds out otherwise, we’ll vigorously pursue it and publish those stories, too.

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