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ND legislators, higher education board member deny pressuring Hagerott

North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott at the Capitol in Bismarck. (Photo by Will Kincaid for Forum News Service)1 / 3
Roscoe Streyle2 / 3
In this file photo, Ed Schafer takes a phone interview on his first day at the University of North Dakota as interim president. Jesse Trelstad / Forum News Service3 / 3

BISMARCK—Two state lawmakers and a member of the North Dakota Board of Higher Education denied Wednesday, Sept. 27, that they pressured the head of the university system over Ed Schafer's endorsement of Gov. Doug Burgum in last year's primary race.

In a radio interview last week, Schafer pointed to Sen. Ray Holmberg and Rep. Roscoe Streyle, Republicans from Grand Forks and Minot, respectively, as well as higher education board member Nick Hacker. Schafer, North Dakota's governor in the 1990s, was the interim president of the University of North Dakota when he endorsed Burgum.

Schafer said Wednesday that "chatter around the Capitol" indicated Holmberg, Streyle and Hacker put pressure on North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott over the endorsement. In an interview last week, Hagerott said there were threats that "if I didn't do something to Schafer, there would be damage to campuses and students and it would be on me," but he declined to say where those threats came from.

Schafer acknowledged that he didn't have direct knowledge that Holmberg, Streyle and Hacker were involved, calling the hallways of the state Capitol an "echo chamber" that produces a lot of rumors. He said the three supported him during his time at the helm of UND.

NDUS spokeswoman Billie Jo Lorius said Wednesday she didn't "have any names."

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, Burgum's opponent in last year's primary race, said last week he was unaware of anyone pressuring Hagerott.

Hagerott this week asked for a formal investigation of what he said were political attempts to influence his office during last year's gubernatorial race. He said his decision against reprimanding Schafer sparked a "defamatory campaign" against him, including accusations of sexual harassment that were later rejected by a staff survey.

That June 2016 survey report, which surfaced publicly last week, said Hagerott had a "militaristic" leadership style and favored men over women. He denied the latter charge, but said he has made changes in response to the report.

Holmberg, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and Legislative Management, said the claim that he tried to influence the chancellor is "absolutely false."

Hacker, a former North Dakota lawmaker who joined the higher education board in 2015, also said he didn't pressure Hagerott. He said he asked the university system office about the policy of university presidents making political endorsements.

Streyle said he asked Hagerott about those policies as well, but he said he didn't try to influence the chancellor. He said Hagerott's decision to bring up the episode now is a "diversion" from other issues, like the recent firing of Vice Chancellor Lisa Feldner and the critical staff survey report.

"I didn't think (the endorsement) was appropriate, but I don't know how you would ever consider that pressure," Streyle said.

Streyle has made five records requests through Legislative Council regarding the chancellor over the past two weeks, according to council staff, including for emails between Hagerott, higher education board members and campus presidents. Rep. Bob Martinson, R-Bismarck, has also put in two records requests this month, according to the Legislative Council.

"It's research," Streyle said. "It's just trying to get an understanding of what's going on up there."