Commentary: N.D. higher ed chancellor bad, but his bosses are worse
The most nervous man in all the world might be Mark Hagerott, the $372,000-a-year chancellor of the North Dakota University System who thinks the Russians are spying on him with drones and the Chinese are hacking his email. You never know, but Kim Jung Un might be out to get him, too.
With the news North Korea might have the missile capability of striking anywhere in the continental United States, Hagerott is likely to be found exchanging his tin-foil hat for a combat helmet. You can never be too safe when you're a paranoid VIP in the high-stakes world of North Dakota higher education.
We can joke about the anecdotes told about Chancellor Flake in a labor complaint filed by fired NDUS employee Lisa Feldner because some of her narrative seemed awfully familiar. If you've sat in a room with the chancellor for 90 minutes or talked with him on the phone a few times—and I've done both—you come away thinking there's something a little different about Hagerott.
As Feldner pointed out, Hagerott is obsessed with cybersecurity and the Navy to the point he seems to work one, the other or both into every sentence. He also has the tendency to talk over and interrupt others, as Feldner wrote.
None of that matters specifically in Feldner's complaint, other than how it fits into the larger narrative that Hagerott is a misogynistic and discriminatory bully who has all the management skills of Genghis Khan. The really bad part is that Genghis probably had better interpersonal skills.
Reading Feldner's 17-page laundry list of grievances—which are, at this point, only allegations and strongly denied by Hagerott and State Board of Higher Education chairman and One-Time NDSU Football Coaching Hero Don Morton—is like reading the script to "Horrible Bosses." It's probably fortunate for Hagerott, though, that Jennifer Aniston didn't work in the NDUS office or he would have made 237 more inappropriate comments about women.
While Hagerott's alleged behavior is cringe-worthy enough, the real buffoons in this saga might be Morton and his fellow members of the higher ed board. Previous board members hired Hagerott (due diligence, or sitting in a room with him for more than five minutes, was clearly not part of the process), but current ones like Morton, vice chairman Greg Stemen and former chairwoman Kathy Neset enabled the current crisis.
Neset, particularly, looks pigheaded to the point of incompetence.
Feldner claims NDUS staff brought up concerns about Hagerott with Neset on multiple occasions but was told they "needed to make this chancellor successful at all costs."
As recently as May 15, Feldner told Neset and Morton that Hagerott was a disaster. Neset reportedly responded by saying, "We will be renewing the Chancellor's contract. I won't have this Chancellor going down—not on my watch."
This was in response, presumably, to the previous disastrous tenure of chancellor Hamid Shirvani. He came in to crack skulls, failed and left only a trail of slime as a legacy after receiving a $1 million buyout.
So what we have here is a board complicit with a chancellor who had been accused of not doing his job, of discriminating against women, of having a shaky temperament, of alleged attempts at forcing out a staff member with cancer, of being goofier than a $4 bill—and the response was to prop up Hagerott because Neset, Morton and their cronies didn't want to look bad.
They viewed the chancellor as a $372,000-a-year train wreck they had to keep around for the sake of appearances, post-Shirvani.
These are the people charged with full control over the state's 11 campuses, the ones we're supposed to believe can run the almighty "system" better than individual university presidents can run their campuses.
Hagerott is awful, but this board might be worse. Its members enabled a sexist, tin-foil-hat chancellor when it knew better. If Gov. Doug Burgum is looking for ways to improve governance of the university system, there's an obvious place to start.