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Report shows improved climate in North Dakota University System office

North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott at the Capitol in Bismarck. Will Kincaid / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS — A recent survey of North Dakota University System employees suggests office climate has improved from the contentious mood captured in a 2016 study released earlier this fall — even as a system leader fired in September has begun the process of filing a retaliation complaint.

"There's definitely been a culture improvement," said Don Morton, chair of the State Board of Higher Education, which oversees the system. "I think there's more confidence in leadership now."

That concept of leadership was spotlighted in last year's survey, which focused on staff perceptions of the performance of NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott — and subsequently produced a largely unflattering commentary of Hagerott's first year in office, with some members of system staff likening him to an "absent-minded professor" or a "bull in a china shop."

The follow-up report launched this fall and submitted Tuesday, Nov. 21, to the chancellor and SBHE relied on a 10-item survey distributed Oct. 24 to a group of 28 employees. Of that total, 26 workers provided input by responding to statements with answers ranging between "strongly agree" and "strongly disagree." Eight of those workers had started their employment at the office within the past year, give or take a few months.

Beyond the statements, the survey also had a section for employees to provide qualitative feedback that was summarized by NDUS compliance officer Karol Riedman. The final report outlines a picture of general contentment with the climate of the system office as it is now, as well as a feeling that the chancellor's performance has improved over the past year. About 90 percent of respondents agreed with a set of positive statements that included prompts such as "I am treated with respect by my supervisor," "Leadership is open to input from employees" and "I feel that I am a valued employee" of the NDUS.

The part of the survey that focused on improvements to the office or to Hagerott's work since July 2016 — about the time when the earlier, much more critical study was returned to then-board Chair Kathleen Neset — also found that respondents mostly believed things had gotten better over the past year, though this category also received some neutral or negative opinions. The two chancellor-specific improvement statements produced 10 "strongly agree" responses from longer-term employees attesting to his improvement in both communication and leadership. Five respondents stayed neutral in response to both prompts.

When the eight new employees were prompted to respond to a statement that "I feel the Chancellor's communication and leadership style is satisfactory," six agreed, with four of them strongly agreeing. The remaining two employees provided a neutral response.

Staff offer praise

Individual comments and feedback from staff weren't included in the report but the summarized remarks trended positive. Reidman stated that respondents felt the office was working better as a team and appreciated an "open-door policy" embraced by supervisors. Some employees believed office morale had improved despite systemwide budget cuts, citing an "increased perception of professionalism and respect at all levels." Other workers noted the effects of turnover in the NDUS office, which has a current headcount of 21 people. However, some felt personnel change had been a positive, "referencing the elimination of intimidating and bullying behavior." The report provided no specifics as to what or whom that referred to, but Morton thought the behavior was attributed to "maybe one person" whom he declined to name. Morton also said the office's staffing had been hit by budget cuts and attrition, though he said the latter might have helped make the office stronger.

Personnel losses in the NDUS headquarters met controversy earlier this year when Hagerott fired his chief of staff, Vice Chancellor Lisa Feldner. Feldner was fired "without cause," and said Hagerott removed her from office over allegations that she'd made "derogatory references pertaining to other staff members (and) past staff members" and speculated on their "possible termination."

Feldner denied that she made such comments and said she was "bewildered" by her own termination. Kathy Kulesa, human rights director at the North Dakota Department of Labor, said her office received an "employment discrimination intake questionnaire" from Feldner Friday.

"The investigator is in the process of drafting a charge of employment discrimination and a complaint of retaliation," Kulesa said in an email. Filing the questionnaire is the first step in that process, she said.

A redacted copy of the questionnaire was not available by late afternoon Tuesday. Feldner did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Back in the NDUS office, Reidman wrote that none of the recent survey's respondents had any negative comments about Hagerott. The comments that were provided "echoed the positive survey results" and reflected improvement on the chancellor's part. Riedman did quote some glowing comments, providing references to Hagerott as a "a true public servant," "a champion of the cause of higher education," "guiding the system toward new and positive directions," and "an invaluable asset to NDUS."

Hagerott wasn't available for a Tuesday interview but said in a provided statement that he appreciated the climate feedback from staff and looked forward to the SBHE discussion of the survey. "Throughout my career, I have always valued input from others and I see the great work that faculty and staff are accomplishing at both the system and institution levels," Hagerott stated.

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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