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Former higher ed official supports charges against chancellor

BISMARCK — A former vice chancellor has supported allegations that North Dakota higher ed leader Mark Hagerott created a hostile workplace for staff, though his office showed relatively little turnover during a period of major cuts.

According to human resources data, the Bismarck office of the North Dakota University System, of which Hagerott is chancellor, shed four employees between May 1, 2016 and Sept. 1, 2017. That number that includes Linda Donlin, a vice chancellor, and Hagerott's former executive assistant Rebecca Duben. The other two employees worked in finance and other parts of the system office.

Hagerott's former chief of staff Lisa Feldner has accused Hagerott of routinely discriminating against employees on the basis of gender, health and age. Feldner, who also served as a system vice chancellor before Hagerott fired her without cause in mid-September, filed a complaint against Hagerott in November with the North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights.

That complaint has led to an official charge of gender discrimination that will be investigated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal civil rights agency.

Donlin, who retired from the NDUS in January and has been identified as a witness in Feldner's case, has previously said her role in any coming investigation would prevent her from commenting on the claims of her former colleague. However, after Feldner's charge was picked up by the EEOC earlier this week, Donlin said she believed an included description of conditions in the NDUS office was "an accurate account of the chain of events." "I applaud Lisa Feldner for being the first to step forward to shine a light on this troubling situation," Donlin said Thursday, Dec. 21.

Through the past year alone, NDUS institutions as a whole lost the equivalent of almost 481 full-time workers as deep budget cuts impacted all facets of the state government. The NDUS central office currently has 24 employees. While layoffs swept other parts of the system, the handful of office staff who left in the period identified by human resources did so through early retirements or resignations.

Duben resigned from the NDUS in October 2016 and is not listed as a witness to Feldner's charge. She said she'd worked for the NDUS for 15 years before learning of an employment opportunity elsewhere that she "couldn't pass up."

Duben preferred to keep a neutral stance toward the allegations against Hagerott.

"They're both friends of mine and it's unfortunate that it went like this," she said. "I support Lisa's move to do this, but I support Dr. Hagerott all the same."

Duben said her work with Hagerott was seldom one-on-one and that Feldner likely would have worked more closely in direct contact with him. All the same, Duben described her opinion of the two as both "very brilliant" people.

In the months before she left the office, Duben was present to handle a summer 2016 open records request that allegedly caused Hagerott to become overly agitated in the office. That event prompted an office climate study that produced an unflattering view of Hagerott as a militaristic leader who treated men better than women.

Duben didn't speak to the study, but chalked up Hagerott's response to the records request as part of navigating a "learning curve" in office.

"Every chancellor has their own style," Duben said. "Sometimes with their style, heads butt. ... I hold Lisa in very high regard, and Mark too, for that matter. They're wonderful people to work with and it's unfortunate that there had to be a fallout like that."

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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