Lawmaker: Chancellor Fired Vice Chancellor to Make Room for “Navy Buddy”

NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott, left, and newly-hired NDUS Interim Vice Chancellor Phil Wisecup, right.

“It’s pretty obvious that Dr. Feldner, who’s had 20 plus years of dedicated service to the state, was fired in part because the Chancellor needed budget money to hire his former Navy buddy,” state Rep. Roscoe Streyle, a Republican from Minot, told me yesterday.

Streyle is not alone in his opinion. In recent weeks I have received dozens of emails and phone calls from people in the university system – from people who work at the NDUS office to people who work on the campuses – upset about Hagerott’s hiring of an associate of his from the Navy.

Feldner is the former Vice Chancellor of the North Dakota University System who was let go last week in an abrupt decision made by Chancellor Mark Hagerott. Feldner was accused of making derogatory comments to staff, though it’s since been revealed that Hagerott has had some problems with that himself in the not too distant past.

The “Navy buddy” Streyle is referring to is James P. “Phil” Wisecup, a retired Vice Admiral who served as president of the Naval War College and, after leaving active service, was director of the CNO Strategic Studies Group.

“I knew Mark Hagerott by service reputation,” Wisecup told me. “We never worked together. We were both in the Navy. We were both shore officers. He was one of those bright young officers who I tracked and kind of kept an eye on. He was well known in senior circles in the Navy.”

He left that posting in April, and was hired by the North Dakota University System as the Interim Vice Chancellor Strategic Planning and Strategic Engagement in late July.

Why did this retired Vice Admiral move from his home in Ohio to North Dakota? He had a connection with Chancellor Mark Hagerott who is also a veteran of the Navy.

Hagerott declined to speak with me about this issue, but Wisecup agreed to go on the record.

“I knew Mark Hagerott by service reputation,” Wisecup told me. “We never worked together. We were both in the Navy. We were both shore officers. He was one of those bright young officers who I tracked and kind of kept an eye on. He was well known in senior circles in the Navy.”

Wisecup declined to describe Hagerott as a close friend. “I would call him up to ask him questions and things like that,” he told me. “Most of our contact was professional and things like that.”

Yet Hagerott called him directly, in Ohio, to offer him a job in North Dakota. “At one point, I can’t tell you when, I got a call from the Chancellor would you be interested in a temporary position up here,” Wisecup told me.

That’s what has Streyle seeing red flags. According to emails and other documents he requested from the NDUS through Legislative Council (see them all here), Hagerott was looking to find ways to pay Wisecup a larger salary even as he hired the man by way of an interim appointment which bypasses the need in NDUS policy for a candidate search process.

A July 21 email sent by Hagerott indicates that Wisecup had agreed to a lower salary until he could find additional funds, something he planned at the time to approach Governor Doug Burgum’s administration about:

Just six days later Wisecup would sign on the proverbial dotted line to accept an interim appointment from Chancellor Hagerott at a salary of $115,000 per year (Wisecup confirmed to me yesterday that this was still his salary).

Around this same time, the Governor’s office told Hagerott they wouldn’t share the costs of Wisecup’s employment. “Lt. Gov. Sanford and our COO, Jodi Uecker, each had conversations with Chancellor Hagerott in late July (I don’t have the exact dates) about sharing the expense of Wisecup’s position,” Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki told me last night. “The governor’s office declined to participate, in part because we had no open positions at the time to accommodate such a request.”

A month and a half later Feldner, along with her $220,000 salary, was terminated.

What’s more, per Wisecup, it’s not at all clear that his interim position will be all that interim. “In the end they have to decide next summer, that’s a decision point, the system is going to have to decide,” he said referring to the State Board of Higher Education approving his on-going appointment next summer.

Are these events related? Only Hagerott, and perhaps Wisecup, know the truth.

“Everybody has a right to their opinion,” Wisecup told me when I mentioned Streyle’s comments.

“My welcome here has been nothing but positive. If people don’t want me here that can be rectified,” he added.

Was Wisecup’s appointment by Hagerott inappropriate? Here are the facts:

  • Wisecup didn’t seek the job. Hagerott reached out to Wisecup and offered it.
  • Hagerott didn’t use a neutral search process to select a candidate. He chose his guy and used an interim appointment to bypass a search.
  • Hagerott tried, and failed, to find additional funds to pay Wisecup more.
  • After failing, Hagerott abruptly fired a Vice Chancellor with a lengthy track record of satisfactory service for dubious reasons.

Given the years of turmoil and scandal in the university system, this sort of behavior from the chancellor is ill-advised. Even if the Feldner firing and the Wisecup hire were not, in the chancellor’s eyes, related he has to know how it would look.

What the university system needs is a steady hand at the tiller. A by-the-book leader.

I think that’s what Hagerott has aspired to. In this instance, at least, he failed.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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