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Commentary: SBHE should take former Vice Chancellor's complaints seriously

MINOT, N.D. — Lisa Feldner paints a picture of North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott that is unflattering in the extreme.

The former Vice Chancellor, at one point Hagerott's chief of staff, portrays him as a paranoiac prone to erratic and bizarre behavior including seemingly wild ideas about surveillance at the state capitol by Russian drones and open records requests filed by Chinese spies.

She recounts examples of gender bias and treatment of of university system staff that, if accurate, seems downright abusive.

Feldner was terminated by Hagerott earlier this year for no reason at all.

That's what Hagerott told me when I asked him about it. "She was let go without cause," he told me in September.

So it might be easy to believe that Feldner's grievances against Hagerott, included in a complaint she has filed with the state Department of Labor accusing the Chancellor of discrimination, are so many sour grapes.

Except at least some of the behavior Feldner describes has been substantiated by others.

In a 2016 survey conducted by NDUS officials, which wasn't given public airing until I discovered and published it earlier this year, Hagerott's staff described him as autocratic and tyrannical. They accused him of cursing at them and slamming books and doors when angry.

Where Feldner describes Hagerott seeing Chinese conspiracies in an open records request pertaining to the terms "cyber" and "nexus" in his emails, the 2016 survey describes the Chancellor as reacting with "anger" and "agitation" to a request for emails pertaining to that year's gubernatorial election.

Feldner says Hagerott refused to ride in cars with what he described as the "single moms" on his staff. The 2016 staff survey says Hagerott had a tendency to treat the men and women on his staff differently.

It seems to this observer that there is too much overlap between the real concerns brought up in the 2016 staff survey and Feldner's account to ignore.

Yet that seems to be exactly what the State Board of Higher Education would like us to do.

"Board leadership strongly disagrees with Dr. Feldner's characterization of events and will respond when necessary in the appropriate venue," Don Morton, chair of the SBHE, has said.

Are all of Feldner's claims accurate?

Certainly her motivations, given that she was fired by Hagerott, are worth considering.

Yet Feldner also has decades of service to the State of North Dakota to her credit, not to mention the respect of no small number of state officials. What she's saying jibes, to one degree or another, with what has been said of Hagerott by others.

The SBHE's reaction to Feldner's complaint seems motivated by a political desire to avoid yet more embarrassing turnover at the Chancellor position.

At a time when leadership of the university system is very much in question — remember that Governor Doug Burgum has convened a task force to consider changes to the system's governance — the last thing we need is obstinance in the face of what seem to be substantive complaints.

Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort

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