GRAND FORKS — Leaders of the North Dakota Board of Higher Education opened a Wednesday, Dec. 6, press release with quotes about truth to reinforce their stance on accusations made against the top executive of the state university system.
"The truth is rarely pure and never simple," board Chair Don Morton and Vice Chair Greg Stemen wrote, drawing from playwright Oscar Wilde before introducing a joint statement of support for due process and system office staff.
The statement is related to the broad set of allegations recently leveled against system Chancellor Mark Hagerott by his former second-in-command. But it doesn't mention Hagerott by name, nor does it does reference his office. Instead, the board leaders' statement emphasizes "collateral damage" that may be done to "completely innocent parties" drawn into the fray.
In making that point, the board leaders drew from another quote — that "a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." They said that's especially apt "when it when it comes to those who are paid to express partisan opinions at the expense of people who are simply doing their job in a professional manner."
"To publicly attack employees who are doing their best to work behind the scenes ... is honestly beneath even the worst of us," they stated.
Morton didn't specify in an interview who the release was referring to, either in the office or on the attacking side. He said the references to attacks were not about Hagerott.
The chancellor has been accused by his former chief of staff Lisa Feldner of creating a hostile work environment through discriminatory practices, particularly those based in sexism.
Feldner had served the system as a vice chancellor before Hagerott fired her "without cause" in September. Shortly after her termination, a 2016 study of NDUS office staff was made public for the first time. That document portrayed Hagerott as a militaristic leader who favored his male employees over their female counterparts. Some employees described the chancellor as an "absent minded professor" or a "bull in a china shop," and said he was a liability to the system.
Feldner underscored those claims and others in accusations filed Nov. 17 with the North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights.
Both Morton and Hagerott have said they "strongly disagree" with Feldner's characterization of events that occurred in the time she worked with the chancellor. Hagerott has further said that he "categorically (denies)" claims of discrimination in his office.
Board leaders have stated that they will be following a due process model to address Feldner's allegations, which may be pursued in an investigation either by the Labor Department or a federal civil rights office.
"Due process may seem outdated and too slow in today's gigabyte world," the Wednesday statement read, "but it is still the most reliable and necessary manner in which these types of situations must be handled."