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Hagerott, Morton 'strongly disagree' with NDUS discrimination claims

Don Morton (Submitted photo)1 / 2
North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark R. Hagerott visits with the Editorial Board August 24 at the Grand Forks Herald. Jesse Trelstad/ Forum News Service2 / 2

GRAND FORKS—North Dakota's top leader in higher education has rejected accusations that he engaged in gender discrimination and fostered a hostile work environment in university system offices.

"We strongly disagree with the former employee's characterization of events," stated Mark Hagerott, chancellor of the North Dakota University System, in a Monday press release. Though he didn't name her in his statement, Hagerott was referring to his former vice chancellor and chief of staff Lisa Feldner, whom he fired "without cause" earlier this fall.

Feldner has since submitted documents—including an intake questionnaire and a 17-page narrative of her time working with Hagerott in the NDUS office—to the North Dakota Department of Labor alleging that Hagerott routinely discriminated against employees on the basis of gender, health and age. She also claimed in the Nov. 17 labor filings that her September termination was an act of retaliation by the chancellor.

Hagerott dismissed Feldner's allegations in his statement as a "distraction from our real task-at-hand" of providing education to students at NDUS campuses. He said his office intends to follow the process of fielding the case as laid out by law. Feldner herself did not respond to a request for comment.

Don Morton, chair of the State Board of Higher Education, echoed the chancellor's statement denying Feldner's claims.

"We strongly disagree with her allegations and will present our case at the appropriate time and in the appropriate venue, with that being a legal setting," Moton said. "But we're not going to have debate in the newspapers or the media, a 'he-said, she-said' about it."

The SBHE is the governing body of the university system and serves as Hagerott's supervisory group. Besides the chancellor, Feldner's complaint also included allegations directed at the board—specifically at Morton and former board Chair Kathleen Neset, whom Feldner accused of turning a blind eye to discriminatory practices in the system office.

Morton said the board was not going to raise the complaint in its regular Nov. 30 meeting.

"Until the complaint gets resolved, there's nothing to bring up," he said, adding that board members will instead focus on their usual higher education topics and a recently introduced governance task force introduced by Gov. Doug Burgum.

Feds could investigate claims

Linda Donlin, a former NDUS vice chancellor for strategic engagement, is named as a witness in the labor filing. On Monday, she cited her possible status in any ensuing investigation as reason to decline comment on the allegations regarding Hagerott. Donlin left the system office in January. She has held consulting contracts with the SBHE since then, but resigned those contracts over the past weekend. In Feldner's narrative, Donlin was the possible subject of age- and health-based discrimination.

Though she didn't comment on Feldner's report, Donlin said that she has "known (Feldner) for years and have found her to be a person of integrity, who through her hard work and dedication has earned the respect of her peers, education leaders and government leaders across the state."

Richard Rothaus, NDUS vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, said he had "no comment" about the proceedings of the past week. First-term SBHE member Dr. Casey Ryan who is a medical physician and former president of Altru Health System in Grand Forks, deferred comment to Morton—though he added he is "sure this will be discussed" at the upcoming board meeting.

In the meantime, Labor Department Human Rights Director Kathy Kulesa said Feldner's filings are being drafted by investigators into an official charge of discrimination and a complaint of retaliation. Once finished, those documents will be returned for review and signature by Feldner.

Kulesa stated the charge of discrimination, if cleared by Feldner, will then be sent to the respondents in the NDUS.

"Then, depending on her specific allegations, either our agency or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) will conduct an investigation," Kulesa wrote. The EEOC is a federal agency that enforces U.S. laws against workplace discrimination.

Kulesa said her department tries to complete discrimination investigations within 180 days.

The state Labor Department doesn't have the authority to investigate complaints of retaliation under federal code, Kulesa said, meaning that a separate item would be forwarded to the NDUS to resolve through "informal advice, negotiation, or conciliation."

If the system isn't interested in going that route, Kulesa said her department would close the file for the complaint, leaving Feldner with the option of pursuing her claim in state district court.

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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