BISMARCK, North Dakota—The head of North Dakota’s state university system is under federal investigation for allegedly discriminating against female employees, creating a toxic environment by treating women staffers like “pets,” sticking notes on their bodies, and refusing to ride in vehicles alone with the “single moms” in his office.
Despite the accusations that staffers have made against Chancellor Mark Hagerott, last week the state extended his contract for another two years. The investigation of Hagerott’s office comes after an official complaint from his former chief of staff, Lisa Feldner, that states Hagerott routinely discriminated against his female employees, creating a hostile workplace ignored by his supervisors.
Feldner, who Hagerott fired last fall after working for him since 2015, said in a filing with the North Dakota Department of Labor his “degrading” behaviors to high-level female staffers included frequent, inappropriate touching to the point where “female staff always try to sit at least one chair away from the Chancellor.” That touching, Feldner says, was paired with things like a routine where he would “award” women in all-staff meetings by sticking yellow Post-it notes to their shoulders, which he didn’t do to their male peers.
Hagerott regularly told one of his vice chancellors that she “looked good for her age” before asking probing questions about her retirement prospects, Feldner said. At meetings, Feldner says he talked over women so much that his high-level female employees resorted to the “functional tactic” of texting ideas to the men in the room to ensure they were heard in office meetings.
As NDUS chancellor, Hagerott is the executive overseeing the near-dozen North Dakota public campuses and their total 45,000 students. The presidents of these colleges and universities have called him their boss, and he’s the key liaison between higher education and the state government. Feldner provided her narrative of the two-plus years she spent with Hagerott as part of a formal complaint first submitted to the state Labor Department and now being investigated by the U.S. Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission.
Beyond any sexist misconduct by Hagerott, she also claims the state board tasked with governing the system and managing the chancellor did nothing to seriously address his behavior, despite being regularly informed about the issue soon after the chancellor took office.
Board leadership has called Feldner’s complaint baseless, writing it off as a smear from a disgruntled former employee. But her claims—which have been corroborated by former coworkers, including one who went on to be a Title IX coordinator—are just the latest of the documented issues in Hagerott’s office reaching back over the past two years.
Feldner isn’t backing down.
“‘It’s not about sex, so it’s not a big deal’—I think that’s absolutely part of it,” she told The Daily Beast of the board’s inaction. “But to him, it’s like it’s OK to treat women as pets, like slaves or servants. And people are afraid to say anything.”
Hagerott did not respond to requests for comment.
Board leadership had early indicators that things were going awry in the chancellor’s office and an internal email obtained by North Dakota media suggests the board had been planning “mentoring” sessions with Hagerott as early as April 2016.
“You must treat your staff with respect,” read one point of the email. “That includes listening to them and their professional advice, as well as practicing basic leadership skills, such as not referring to their age, gender, marital status, health, weight, political affiliation or personal life in your conversations with them.”
“We all have our work cut out for us,” one high-ranking board official wrote.
By June 2016, board leaders quietly commissioned a workplace study that found Hagerott was a “bull in a china shop” that domineered over employees and acted inappropriately at work.
Those board members now dismiss that study as “informal,” but don’t dispute its authenticity. All those in the office who participated in the review said Hagerott treated men better than women.
Last Thursday, with printed copies of that study in hand, members of the North Dakota Board of Higher Education voted 7-1 to extend his contract. Hagerott started his job in 2015 with a contract salaried at more than $370,000, plus benefits, and was granted an extension last summer. With the terms of his new agreement, he’ll be contracted until 2020, at which point his office could still be facing legal troubles from Feldner’s case.
Ahead of the Thursday approval, board Chair Don Morton released a performance review of the chancellor’s past year in office. Morton omitted both the claims made against him and the early responses of the EEOC to begin the investigation, instead congratulating Hagerott on “a very good year.” (EEOC doesn’t confirm or deny they take a case, but both NDUS counsel and Feldner have confirmed that they’re in early communications with caseworkers about the investigation.)
Morton defended his decision not to include mention of the federal investigation on the chancellor’s review, saying he didn’t think it was relevant. He also maintained that internal investigation of Feldner’s complaint was unnecessary, sticking to a dismissal of the allegations as without any merit. He’s previously described her claims as those of a disgruntled, fired employee.
But that description sidesteps the issues in the office that preceded her termination, and other employee experiences that corroborate her allegations.
Since Hagerott’s arrival at NDUS, all four of his original vice chancellors, his lieutenants in the system, have left the office. That includes Feldner, who also served as a vice chancellor.
Another of those vice chancellors, Linda Donlin, has publicly backed Feldner’s claims. Donlin even went as far as writing her own extensive narrative of her time working with Hagerott, only declining to file her own EEOC complaint so she could more effectively support Feldner’s. “I have never seen anything like [Hagerott’s leadership] in my life,” said Donlin of her time working with the chancellor. “Certainly there are instances where people make comments, but in every other work environment I’ve been in, there have been checks and balances. In the university system office, there’s not.”
According to Feldner, Hagerott’s misconduct was broadly discriminatory, and not just sexist. She said the chancellor regularly seized on medical information disclosed by staffers, even openly wondering in early 2016 if he should fire his male vice chancellor for being “too sick to work” after the man was diagnosed with an early-stage cancer. The man in question emailed board leadership to complain about the chancellor’s “nonsense tale,” which he described as “incredibly damaging and utterly unacceptable.” The vice chancellor didn’t comment for this story but has recently left the NDUS for work in a different state.
To hear Morton tell it, none of the negative employee information that has come out of that workplace has been of concern, not even the 2016 staff report that found employees widely agreed the chancellor showed sexist tendencies. He personally doesn’t consider Hagerott’s behavior a legal risk and believes “morale in the office is at an all-time high.”
With a new contract in hand, it now seems Hagerott and the legal worries of his office aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Despite the rising controversy around Hagerott, the higher ed board has publicly downplayed the accusations against him. Both Morton and Hagerott first responded in November to Feldner’s complaint with the same dismissal, stating they “strongly disagree” with her accusations.
On paper, Hagerott was a strong fit for a system in need of leadership after its last chancellor, a board hire, was forced out of office just one year into his term. Hagerott, a former Navy officer, came to the NDUS in 2015, bringing what many on the board hoped would be a military discipline. It didn’t hurt that he’d also been a Rhodes Scholar, White House fellow, and a leader of the U.S. Naval Academy’s Center for Cyber Studies, where he was also a professor. Not long after Hagerott took office, North Dakota ushered in a tech-friendly governor in Doug Burgum, an entrepreneur and former Microsoft executive who could appreciate Hagerott’s resume.
The chancellor did not comment for this story, but he referred last fall to Feldner’s complaint as a “distraction” from the work of the NDUS. He later expanded on that position with the Grand Forks Herald.
“The characterization of events, there could be an element of truth to them, but how they’re characterized—strongly disagree,” said Hagerott in December. “But what I categorically deny is (EEOC) charges of sexual harassment or discrimination… That’s what the lawyers say I can say.”
Hagerott has never formally been accused of sexual harassment but has in multiple instances denied it anyway. Board Chair Morton has said he would defer to due process which, in this instance, will fall solely to the EEOC. The members of the all-volunteer higher ed board have mostly shied away from discussing Feldner’s case in public and have not conducted an internal investigation of her complaint.
In the minutes before the board voted to extend Hagerott’s contract, NDUS legal counsel cautioned members that a federal inquiry and its aftermath could potentially drag on for years before meeting uncertain end. Gender-based labor cases from elsewhere in the national higher ed scene have resulted in bruising legal battles and major monetary settlements, all at a time when universities are eager to promote themselves as bastions of inclusivity.
Despite the public optimism of board leadership, the system’s legal counsel has himself joined the ranks of office turnover, announcing a few weeks ago that he’ll resign in July.
Feldner’s official complaint was first taken up by the EEOC in December and is now, as confirmed by the NDUS counsel, in the administrative stage of investigation. Her claims will be weighed in two parts: first, that gender discrimination took place in the system office, and second, that Feldner’s firing by Hagerott last September was an act of retaliation.
Hagerott terminated his top staffer by email and officially “without cause,” commending her work in the process, even though he had previously accused her of bullying a lower-level staff member. Feldner, a long-time public employee who has seen wide support among state lawmakers since her termination, denies that claim, countering that her firing was the final act of a rocky relationship, a retaliatory move for opposing the chancellor on an improper IT deal struck by an NDUS campus.
Feldner says she isn’t expecting a major settlement from the system, which is currently anticipating what could be its third consecutive round of steep budget cuts from the state.
“I might get my attorney’s fees paid, so no, it’s more about the principle of things,” she said. “I’m not doing this for the money. There isn’t any. It’s just to clear my name and to expose somebody to the whole system who is discriminatory.”