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'Russians are spying on us': Complaints against NDUS chancellor vary from Russian spies to gender discrimination

North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark R. Hagerott visits with the Editorial Board August 24 at the Grand Forks Herald. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald

A fired vice chancellor has laid out in a labor complaint a long list of accusations against North Dakota's higher education leader, including claims of sexism, making degrading comments, fear of surveillance by foreign agents and apparent attempts to force out a staff member who had cancer.

Lisa Feldner, former vice president of information technology and institutional research for the North Dakota University System, filed the complaint with the North Dakota Department of Labor on Friday. A 17-page narrative details allegations of gender discrimination and a hostile work environment that she attributed to NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott's leadership.

The Herald received the complaint Wednesday from the Labor Department. Hagerott has been unavailable for comment.

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

Here are a few excerpts from the complaint, including claims SBHE leadership told Feldner "to make it work" because they didn't want it to appear like there was a problem despite concerns being brought to light.

Click here to read the full report.

Male 'chauffeurs only

Hagerott asked for a male staff member to accompany him and serve as an aide when he traveled, Feldner said in the complaint. She said Hagerott wanted someone to drive him around, in a role she likened to a "chauffeur," so he could talk on the phone and send emails on the way to meetings, according to the complaint.

"This became very difficult to schedule because of our small staff and especially because he refused to ride in the car with either of the two, in his words, 'single moms,' in the office," Feldner said. "Interestingly, he said he would ride with (one female employee) because, in his words, she 'had a same sex partner,' although he made it clear he didn't approve of that relationship. She soon left the office for other opportunities."

Hagerott also asked a male staffer to "quit his night class" to serve in the aide position. To influence the employee's decision, Feldner alleged, the chancellor said he could delay the staffer's scheduled transition from a probationary to a permanent position.

Fear to disclose medical status

Hagerott learned a staff member was a cancer survivor, Feldner wrote, and soon began referring to that person's "lack of stamina and health as a negative."

"(The staff member) became aware that the chancellor was telling multiple individuals that (he/she) was too ill to work very hard," the complaint said. "This appears to have been an attempt to force (the staff member) out through false claims linked to (that person's) health status."

Feldner claimed he did this in an attempt to "free up salary dollars that would allow him to hire an acquaintance from the Navy."

According to Feldner, that wasn't the only instance when Hagerott exaggerated or emphasized medical conditions. Feldner wrote that she and another staff member both needed at different times to undergo minor scheduled surgeries. When they informed the chancellor, Feldner alleges, Hagerott began publicly describing the surgeries as major procedures. She wrote that he we went so far as deciding that he needed to present an NDUS budget document to state legislators instead of Feldner and the staff member. During that presentation, Feldner wrote, Hagerott announced that he was presenting the budget instead of Feldner and the other employee because they were both recovering from "major" surgery—at which point he pointed them out at the back of the room.

"Staff are afraid to mention or seek accommodation for any health issue ... for fear of public exposure and denigration," Feldner wrote. "After witnessing his reaction to (staff member) medical status, I disguised my (medical) leave requests as annual leave for a family event."

Gender discrimination

Numerous female staff complained about inappropriate touching that was not sexual but "rather denigrating and condescending, as if it's OK to pat women like children or pets," according to the complaint.

Hagerott talked over people, especially women, Feldner wrote. He would ignore female staff but would respond to the same ideas presented by men, according to the complaint.

"At meetings, the female staff always try to sit at least one chair away from the chancellor to avoid touching or patting," Feldner wrote, adding this and other behavior "created a hostile atmosphere."

She also wrote Hagerott would force women to shake his hand, even if they didn't want to.

"If you didn't, he would lean in and get closer, talking about what a nice guy he was and you really should shake his hand. ... It felt very demeaning."

He also used phrases such as "really good for her age," referring to an older staff member, and "too young to be of much use" in reference to two assigned junior lawyers.

Open records and termination

In June 2016, NDUS received an open records request regarding emails between Hagerott and the-interim UND President Ed Schafer. Hagerott's assistant called Feldner because, "The chancellor is flipping out" about the open records request.

"He's so mad he's shaking, and I'm afraid he's going to do something stupid," the assistant said according to the complaint.

Feldner told Hagerott it was typical to give out emails, but he insisted giving out the emails would "change the course of history," according to the complaint.

As a government office, the NDUS office continued to receive open records requests. Earlier this year, Feldner wrote, requests began to focus on the procedures surrounding Hagerott's hire of Phillip Wisecup for an interim vice chancellor position. That hiring was a move that drew public attention, mostly due to the fact that both men share a Navy background.

Feldner stated Hagerott was agitated by the requests—and that she'd heard he blamed her for them. In late August, Felder was called into a meeting with Hagerott to answer to accusations that she'd been making derogatory remarks to office staff, a charge she denied.

A few weeks later, Feldner said Hagerott sent her an email terminating her employment. However, she continued, the chancellor also terminated her access to the NDUS email system immediately after his notice went out, meaning that she wasn't able to read the email that let her know she was fired. Feldner said she was eventually informed of her termination later that day, from other employees.

'Russians are spying on us'

There also were apparent situations in which Hagerott showed fear of being surveilled by foreign governments and nationalists, according to the complaint. Feldner recalled a meeting with staff in an upper-level conference room at the North Dakota Capitol in which Hagerott suddenly "leaped out of his chair and ran to the windows to pull down the shades."

"He shouted, "There's a drone outside the window! The Russians are spying on us,'" the complaint said. "At first, we thought he was joking, but it soon became clear he was indeed serious and extremely agitated."

The report says students were outside flying drones.

He also called out an Aug. 22 open records request looking for emails with the terms "cyber" and "nexus," saying the request didn't come from a real person but a botnet.

"When the chancellor was briefed on the request on Aug. 24, he started ranting that Chinese nationalists were after his email," the complaint said.

He asked a member of his staff to determine if the request was from an automated source. That staff member determined that it was not.

'Not on my watch'

Feldner and others brought concerns to SBHE member Kathy Neset when she was the board's chair, according to the complaint. Some legislative leaders also brought up concerns, saying "we don't want him down here anymore. In fact, some of our folks would rather have Shirvani back."

Hamid Shirvani was the NDUS chancellor who, after criticism from state legislators, was released from his contract two years before Hagerott took over in 2015.

During a May 15 meeting, Feldner described Hagerott's leadership, but Neset said NDUS staff would "just have to make it work."

"We will be renewing the chancellor's contract," Neset said according to the complaint. "I won't have this chancellor going down—not on my watch."

Feldner said in the complaint this meant Neset didn't care about Hagerott's performance, "she was not going to let it look like there was a problem during her term as SBHE chair."

When asked about the claim, Neset declined comment.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers business and political stories. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

(701) 780-1248
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