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North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark R. Hagerott visits with the Editorial Board August 24 at the Grand Forks Herald. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald

Emails reveal more information on allegation that NDUS chancellor created 'hostile' work environment

BISMARCK -- As described in recent labor allegations, a top employee of the North Dakota University System complained last year to the system's governing board about Chancellor Mark Hagerott's public musings on his diagnosis of cancer.

"I have heard that you have encountered the Chancellor's story that I am having health issues and not able to work," the employee wrote to Kathleen Neset, then-chair of the State Board of Higher Education, in a Jan. 15, 2016, email obtained by the Grand Forks newspaper. The employee described Hagerott's story as a "nonsense tale" and told Neset "it is incredibly damaging and utterly unacceptable to have the Chancellor telling people that my capacity to work is limited because of a medical condition."

The employee included a breakdown of his previous week at the office as evidence that his cancer diagnosis and treatment had not affected workflow. He also noted his complaint was "just a corrective" and told the SBHE leader that there was "no action necessary."

The employee, when asked Monday, did not comment on his earlier communication to Neset. The employee's name is not being used as a courtesy to protect the privacy of his medical information.

In an email response to the employee, Neset wrote that "it sounds and appears that you are very healthy and took care of this cancer the best way possible." But, she added, "to be quite honest, the chancellor continues to reference your health issue as a concern."

Neset ended her email with reassurance that she would "defer to you for your correct and honest assessment" and said she expected the employee to continue his work.

She did not respond to a Monday request for comment.

The email complaint supports one piece of a set of labor allegations recently brought against Hagerott by his former chief of staff Lisa Feldner, who also served as a system vice chancellor until Hagerott fired her "without cause" in mid-September. Feldner filed documents Nov. 17 with the North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights alleging the chancellor had created a hostile work environment in the NDUS office since his 2015 appointment by maintaining discriminatory practices based on gender, age, health status and otherwise.

In addition to her claims against Hagerott, Feldner has also alleged Neset and current board Chair Don Morton were informed of toxic conditions early on but responded inadequately.

In a 17-page narrative outlining her accusations, Feldner wrote the chancellor had been "telling multiple individuals that (the employee) was too ill to work very hard."

"This appears to have been an attempt to force (the employee) out through false claims linked to his health status," Feldner stated, alleging that Hagerott "was repeating such claims as late as a few months ago."

Hagerott didn't comment Monday on the employee's complaint to Neset, citing a likely investigation of Feldner's claims. That investigation would be carried out either by the state Labor Department or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Both Hagerott and Morton have previously stated they "strongly disagree" with Feldner's accusations and will be following due process to determine their final outcome. The chancellor recently said he "categorically (denies)" all claims of discrimination in his office.

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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