Leadership in the North Dakota University System Means Pretending Like Nothing Is Wrong

Last month the State Board of Higher Education released a glowing evaluation of North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott and voted 7-1 in favor of extending his contract through 2020.

Not mentioned in that evaluation is a complaint filed by former Vice Chancellor Lisa Feldner alleging sexist behavior from Hagerott, as well as unequal treatment for employees based on things like health, age, and sexual orientation. Also unmentioned is a 2016 staff survey which backs up Feldner’s claims, which came to light last year as a result of some open records requests I filed.\

Just to be clear on that last point, members of the SBHE had a staff review which alleged serious misconduct by Chancellor Hagerott and they sat on it. Not even the full board was aware of the review.

Back in September of last year Hagerott narrowly survived a SBHE vote to reconsider his contract. In the more recent vote only SBHE member Mike Ness voted against extending Hagerott’s contract, arguing to his fellow board members that at the very least the decision ought to be postponed until the Feldner complaint is addressed.

I reached out to Ness for an interview about the matter, and it appears as though he’s given up (and his term on the board is at an end anyway). “Thanks for the invite but there is no reason why I would continue with the dialogue,” he told me. “The vote is done and it is time for me to get into full retirement mode and leave it behind me.”

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]”I’m very disappointed that the Board voted to renew Mark Hagerott’s contract, despite all of the information they have. I remain deeply concerned about the impact of this decision for the long term, not only on the staff still in that office but also on the faculty, staff and students in the entire university system, and perhaps even on college campuses across the country.”[/mks_pullquote]

Meanwhile, the SBHE leadership continues to poo-poo the Feldner matter. Don Morton and Greg Stemen, the current SBHE Chairman and Vice Chairman respectively, published an op/ed last year here on SAB imploring the public to “get both sides” of the story when it comes to the accusations against Hagerott.

That those men both voted to extend Hagerott’s contract before Feldner’s complaints is adjudicated by the federal EEOC (where it was transferred by the ND Department of Labor) suggests that they aren’t actually interested in both sides.

Just one side.

I reached out to Feldner for an interview about the matter. She declined that, but did give me this statement: “I’m very disappointed that the Board voted to renew Mark Hagerott’s contract, despite all of the information they have. I remain deeply concerned about the impact of this decision for the long term, not only on the staff still in that office but also on the faculty, staff and students in the entire university system, and perhaps even on college campuses across the country.”

Over the weekend the issues with Hagerott made national news. TheĀ Daily Beast has published a scathing profile of the situation which, I must say, does not paint the current leadership of the North Dakota University System in a positive light.

But the Feldner situation is just one example of the sweep-it-under-the-rug mentality from the State Board of Higher Education.

John Richman, the belligerent president of the North Dakota State School of Science in Wahpeton, is currently being investigated by auditors for possibly manipulating space utilization reviews of his campus as a way to manufacture a case for a campus expansion in Fargo he’s long been desirous of. Staff at NDSCS have complained about Richamn’s “bullying” and “intimidation.”

The SBHE has delayed a decision on extending Richman’s contract pending the outcome of the audit, but it’s clear that board leadership already feels they know what the outcome will be. Chairman Morton described the complaints against Richman as a “badge of courage,” comments which drew criticism from the editorial board of theĀ Wahpeton Daily News.

Mark Kennedy, the former Congressman who everybody thought would bring a degree of political deftness to the leadership of the University of North Dakota, got a positive review and a contract renewal from the SBHE despite a very public spat with one of the institution’s biggest private donors.

I could go on, citing previous adventures in cover-ups and glossings-over involving people such as NDSU President Dean Bresciani, but I think you get my drift.

There is little in the way of accountability for leaders in the North Dakota University System. They have been plagued with scandal and incompetence in the past. Those problems persist in the present. Yet the solution from the appointees on the State Board of Higher Education seems to be a bunker mentality.

They work to keep problems out of view of the public. They put forward fatuous statements about about how wonderful everything is at the institutions they manage. They pretend as though, if they carry on like problems don’t exist, those problems simply won’t exist.

Governor Burgum has formed a task force to review the governance of North Dakota’s sprawling, bloated university system. I think that’s wise. Something needs to change, though the people he chose to put on that task force are something less than inspiring. It looks to me like a recipe for maintaining the status quo.

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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