Did the State Board of Higher Education Make Another Bad Hire for Chancellor?

North Dakota State Board of Higher Education member Kathy Neset, left, and chairman Don Morton, center, and university system chancellor Mark Hagerott TOM STROMME/Bismarck Tribune

At this point the question needs to be asked: Are certain members of the State Board of Higher Education standing behind Chancellor Mark Hagerott because they’re convinced he’s still the best man for the job? Or because they want to avoid admitting they made another mistake in hiring for the Chancellor position?

Either way, it sure seems like Governor Doug Burgum’s task force aimed at reviewing the governance of higher education couldn’t have come along at a better time.

Hagerott stands accused of some egregiously bad (and at times downright bizarre) behavior by former Vice Chancellor Lisa Feldner who was fired by Hagerott earlier this year (an action which itself stoked controversy). Yet despite those claims, the leadership of the SBHE is standing behind their chancellor.

“Board leadership strongly disagrees with Dr. Feldner’s characterization of events and will respond when necessary in the appropriate venue,” Don Morton, chair of the SBHE, has said.

To be sure, Feldner’s claims about Hagerott (read the narrative from her complaint filed with the North Dakota Labor Department below) should be taken with a grain of salt. Her long history of public service gives her claims some credibility, but any time a fired employee tees off on the boss you have to exercise some caution.

Is this real or sour grapes? It’s a fair question to ask.

Still, aspects of what Feldner says of Hagerott jibe with claims about him made in a staff survey (read it at the link) conducted by the North Dakota University System last year.

Feldner says Hagerott demanded a male NDUS employee act as his chauffeur and refused to ride with the “single moms” in the office. In the staff survey, NDUS employees say Hagerott treated male staff differently than women.

Feldner says Hagerott bullied a male NDUS employee into being his chauffeur, telling him to “quit his night classes” and threatening to delay this employees transition from a probationary to a more permanent position. The staff survey says Hagerott was “autocratic” and failed to show respect to NDUS staff.

Feldner says an open records request in 2016 made Hagerott “so mad he’s shaking.” This also jibes with the narrative from the staff survey which says this same open records request set Hagerott off:

Hagerott’s alleged meltdown in response to this open records request makes it easier to believe one of Feldner’s more surprising claims, which is that the Chancellor is a paranoid who thinks the Russians were spying on the state capitol with a drone:

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.

Interestingly I had heard both of these stories about the chancellor – both the drone situation and the open records regarding the terms “cyber” and “nexus” – long before Feldner filed her complaint, and from multiple sources as well.

What are we to make of all this?

If Feldner’s characterizations of Hagerott are accurate then clearly the SBHE made a bad hire. The leadership of the SBHE is currently dismissing Feldner’s account, yet that account has some degree of independent substantiation. It seems to me what Feldner has to say deserves something more from the SBHE than some off-the-cuff dismissal.

Plus, it doesn’t seem as though the SBHE is united in its support of Hagerott. The Chancellor only narrowly survived a vote by the board to reconsider his contract back in September.

Is Chancellor Hagerott really doing a good job? Or is the leadership of the university system just circling their wagons to avoid another messy termination?

Here’s Feldner’s full narrative:

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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