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Hagerott clarifies 'categorical' denial of discrimination claim

North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark R. Hagerott visits with the Editorial Board at the Grand Forks Herald on Aug. 24. (Jesse Trelstad / Forum News Service)

GRAND FORKS —Mark Hagerott is very specific when he says he “categorically” denies a sexual discrimination charge recently made against him.

“I strongly disagree with the characterization of events,” the chancellor of the North Dakota University System said Friday, speaking to a 17-page narrative of labor accusations filed Nov. 17 by former NDUS vice chancellor Lisa Feldner, whom Hagerott fired “without cause” earlier this fall. “The characterization of events, there could be an element of truth to them, but how they’re characterized -- strongly disagree.

“But what I categorically deny is charges of sexual harassment or discrimination, which are on the charge sheet that is attached to the 17 pages. … That’s what the lawyers say I can say.”

Hagerott called Forum News Service in response to an editorial published in the Grand Forks newspaper on Friday, Dec. 8, that stated the chancellor “categorically denies Feldner’s claims” made in her narrative, which include an event where the chancellor made a possibly sexist comment to Tisa Mason, president of Valley City State University. According to the complaint, Hagerott thanked Mason’s husband for “allowing her to spend so much time” on a report. Though Mason confirmed that the chancellor had made the comment, she said she hadn’t felt disrespected by it.

Hagerott first made a categorical denial of Feldner’s charge of discrimination at the Nov. 30 meeting of the State Board of Higher Education, to which he answers.

The editorial has been updated online to reflect Hagerott’s denial of Feldner’s specific claim of sexual discrimination as laid out in the charge sheet -- as opposed to the total contents of the narrative, which include statements that the chancellor behaved erratically in the office and damaged his relationships with the state lawmakers who fund the NDUS. At least one prominent state lawmaker on the Legislature’s higher education committee has told the Herald that legislators “scramble” to avoid the chancellor.

In addition to Feldner’s role as vice chancellor, she also served before her termination as Hagerott’s chief of staff. She filed the preliminary claim against him in November with the North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights. The department is processing her account to produce an official charge that Feldner will then need to sign and return. Once that’s complete, either the state Labor Department or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission may begin a formal investigation of her claim.

Hagerott said that, to his knowledge, Feldner has not yet signed the charge sheet. Though the final charge might be focused only on sexual discrimination, the claims Feldner made against the chancellor in her narrative are much broader and include discriminatory practices based on age, health and sexual orientation.

Emails obtained describe one claim made by Feldner against Hagerott, regarding potentially improper comments about a senior NDUS employee’s work capacity in light of a cancer diagnosis. In an email to the employee, then-Board Chair Kathleen Neset wrote that “it appears that you are very healthy” but added “the chancellor continues to reference your health issue as a concern.”

As they await an official charge and any subsequent investigation, both Hagerott and Board Chair Don Morton -- whom Feldner has accused, along with former board Chair Kathleen Neset, of turning a blind eye to a hostile work environment in the NDUS office -- are keeping their phrasing consistent when talking about the accusations.

“The final charge sheet hasn’t even been signed, which is very difficult for us because then we can’t actually have depositions and we can’t call evidence,” Hagerott said. “We’re just literally unable to say anything other than ‘We disagree with the characterization of events … and I categorically deny the claim of discrimination.’”

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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