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Fired vice chancellor officially accuses Hagerott of retaliation

FILE PHOTO: North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark R. Hagerott visits with the Editorial Board Aug. 24, 2017 at the Grand Forks Herald. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald

A former leader of the North Dakota University System has signed off on an official allegation that her September termination was a retaliatory action by the system chancellor.

Lisa Feldner, a vice chancellor who also served as chief of staff to NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott, signed on Dec. 19 an official complaint prepared by the state Department of Labor and Human Rights to further her charge that Hagerott had unjustly fired her for reporting what she "believed to be violations of rule, policy, and/or law by Chancellor Hagerott."

"After I reported these violations, I was discharged from my employment by the Chancellor," Feldner wrote in a statement included in the complaint.

Feldner has called for an investigation of her charge and is seeking either full reinstatement to her position or full salary and benefits for the period between her termination date of Sept. 14, 2017, and Nov. 20, 2022. She is also calling for the State Board of Higher Education—whose leaders oversee Hagerott and whom Feldner has accused of turning a blind eye to the chancellor's allegedly poor behavior—to "create a safe work environment for existing and future employees—an environment free from discrimination."

Feldner said in a Tuesday email she believed the state Labor Department would investigate her claim after the NDUS responds to the accusation, which it must do within a set period of time.

The formal charge is the newest development in Feldner's case that began in November when she filed an initial set of claims with the Labor Department.

Feldner also officially accused Hagerott of practicing gender discrimination. That charge was processed by the state Labor Department before being picked up in December for investigation by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Hagerott has denied all claims made by Feldner regarding the discrimination charge. On Tuesday, NDUS representative Billie Jo Lorius reiterated that position.

"The chancellor categorically denies the claim of retaliation," Lorius said. "Our office staff is working through the normal administrative process with the Department of Labor, and no further comment would be appropriate at this time."


Hagerott officially fired Feldner Sept. 14 "without cause," and informed her of her termination by email. Feldner says the chancellor had previously accused her of making derogatory comments about NDUS staff members, including speculation that they would lose their jobs. An Aug. 23 letter from Hagerott included in Feldner's personnel file also outlines those claims, which Feldner said the chancellor pursued further in a face-to-face meeting.

Feldner's original filings with the Labor Department included a 17-page narrative of her time working with Hagerott. In that document, Feldner wrote the chancellor had asked her sign the letter of accusations, to which she refused. When she asked Hagerott if he was asking her to resign, she writes that he "said that was my decision."

Feldner chose to remain in office, and "immediately wrote a rebuttal" to his claims to place in her personnel file. She was fired just a few weeks later.

In her complaint with the Labor Department, Feldner states her belief that Hagerott terminated her for reporting to SBHE leaders his actions in three different areas, including his allegedly discriminatory mistreatment of NDUS staff. The other areas include an instance when Hagerott signed off on a memorandum of understanding that Feldner said was identified by NDUS legal counsel to be flawed. Feldner said she brought the memorandum to the attention of Hagerott's supervisors on the Board of Higher Education, who ordered him to rescind it. The final point was in the months prior to her termination, when Feldner states Hagerott opted out of directly handling a contract issue in excess of $1.5 million at an NDUS school, instead deciding to wait for a vice chancellor "that he was thinking of hiring" to review the situation.

Feldner has previously declined to speak on the specific contents of her accusations. But her former coworker and NDUS Vice Chancellor Linda Donlin—who is listed in Feldner's case as a witness to her claims—has spoken in support of Feldner's efforts and did so again Tuesday. Donlin wrote in an email that Feldner's claims are supported by an internal office survey conducted in summer 2016 by an NDUS compliance officer. That survey, which was released to the public this previous summer, contained comments from staff that labeled Hagerott as a militaristic leader with a "bull in a china shop" style.

All respondents to the survey felt Hagerott treated men better than women.

"Dr. Feldner reported gender discrimination, age discrimination, discrimination based on health issues and a hostile work environment, as was her duty in her position," Donlin wrote Tuesday. "She spoke up. She put her job on the line to do the right thing, and she was fired. That is unacceptable."

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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