Let’s be clear: Mark Hagerott has not been a good chancellor for the North Dakota University System. He was a bad hire, a man unfit for the job of leading a system of higher education, somebody without a great depth of knowledge or background regarding higher ed, a person with personality traits that are questionable for somebody in a leadership role.
The members of the State Board of Higher Education, including then-chair Kathy Neset, are responsible for hiring Hagerott. They own him and whatever actions he takes, whatever mistakes he makes. There should be a price to be paid for that. If Neset runs in the Republican primary for the state’s U.S. Senate seat, her iffy leadership of the state board should be question No. 1 for her opponents.
That said, it seems fairly clear the North Dakota Republican Insider Country Club has the long knives out for the chancellor and it is politically motivated. Or at least tribally motivated.
Why? Because Hagerott fired a member of the country club when he canned vice chancellor Lisa Feldner “without cause” last week. It soon came to light through the reporting of The Forum’s Patrick Springer that Hagerott and Feldner clashed before she was fired over her treatment of fellow NDUS employees.
Though Hagerott was entirely within his right to fire Feldner — she served at his will — the chancellor soon found out the price of firing a member of the country club. A report quickly surfaced through Forum Communications Co. blogger Rob Port that Hagerott had been accused in an anonymous staff survey of gender bias and inappropriate language.
Also, the idea was floated that Hagerott was trying to clear salary so he could hire an old Navy buddy to a permanent position.
Slice, dice, slice. Long knives cut.
Feldner is a longtime Bismarck insider. She was appointed to be North Dakota’s Chief Information Officer by then-Gov. John Hoeven (Republican, of course) in 2006. She was hired as the NDUS’ vice chancellor for information technology and institutional research by disastrous chancellor Hamid (Big Sexy) Shirvani, a personal favorite of some members of the country club, in 2013.
Hagerott claims the smear campaign against him in the wake of Feldner’s firing stems back to 2016’s gubernatorial campaign, when interim president of the University of North Dakota Ed Schafer publicly endorsed Doug Burgum over country club member Wayne Stenehjem. Hagerott says he was pressured by certain politicos — they’ve been revealed as state Sen. Ray Holmberg of Grand Forks, state Rep. Roscoe Streyle of Minot and SBHE Nick Hacker — to discipline Schafer for the endorsement, which angered them in the heat of a competitive primary (which turned out to not be so competitive when Burgum walloped attorney general Stenehjem).
Frankly, it’s difficult to find fault with Hagerott’s theory. Feldner is tight with country club members like Streyle, Republican advertising agency head Pat Finken, state senator and Republican Party chairman Kelly Armstrong and state Sen. Nicole Poolman (who was Stenehjem’s running mate in the gubernatorial primary). With Hagerott axing Feldner from her $220,000 a year job, that could lead to political blowback. All of those people supported Stenehjem for governor over Burgum.
A couple of other things need to be pointed out. Feldner is not quite the angel some have made her out to be. Some believe Feldner had gone “rogue” during the most recent legislative session and was trying to advance an agenda that fit her goals, which were not necessarily those of Hagerott or the chancellor’s office. Also, some of those same people believe Feldner was working to undermine Hagerott to become the next chancellor.
Hagerott also said something interesting on Joel Heitkamp’s radio show on KFGO (Heitkamp didn’t follow up on it, although in fairness to Heitkamp it was a very disjointed interview because of Hagerott’s speaking style), regarding the kerfuffle last year over North Dakota State president Dean Bresciani: “Bresciani in some cases was being misrepresented.”
That leads one to wonder exactly what Hagerott meant and how it relates to Feldner, if at all. Was Feldner the source of some of the negative stories about Bresciani that led to the chancellor and the board of higher ed putting him “on notice” and not immediately renewing his contract? This is purely conjecture.
This saga isn’t over yet. There’ll likely be more mud slung back and forth. Buy some popcorn and pull up a chair.