North Dakota doesn’t need another round of turmoil in the chancellor’s office and with the state Board of Higher Education. The issues that have surfaced in recent weeks need to be resolved and the focus put on the educational system.
Mark Hagerott was hired in 2015 to bring stability to the chancellor’s office after the removal of Hamid Shirvani in 2013. Shirvani was just the latest chancellor to leave office early. On the surface, the situation seemed to have settled down. A new president was installed at the University of North Dakota and the president at North Dakota State University appears to have developed a working relationship with Hagerott.
Then a number of developments created controversy.
It was announced that Hagerott had fired vice chancellor Lisa Feldner without cause. The chancellor denied the firing was related to the hiring of Phil Wisecup, an interim vice chancellor. Both Hagerott and Wisecup have Navy backgrounds. The Tribune doesn’t believe it’s unreasonable for Hagerott to make staff changes after two years. However, the handling of the Feldner dismissal could have been done better.
A 15-month-old survey criticizing Hagerott's leadership was released. It described him as having a "militaristic" leadership style and favoring men over women. He denied the favoritism charge, but both Hagerott and board members say he has adapted his style. An August 2016 evaluation of Hagerott by Kathleen Neset, then board chairwoman, largely praised the chancellor's performance in his first year on the job. It cites communication, planning and management as areas for improvement. It’s understandable that his approach was shaped by his Navy career, but military life doesn’t necessarily translate into academic life. Leadership style changes were likely needed.
Hagerott surprised many people when he requested an independent investigation into what he calls attempts to politicize and discredit his office. Hagerott wants the Board of Higher Education or a special assistant attorney general to investigate attempts to "manipulate" his office to influence the June 2016 primary election. Hagerott said he received pressure after interim University of North Dakota president and former Gov. Ed Schafer endorsed Doug Burgum for governor over Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. While university presidents endorsing candidates doesn’t seem appropriate, Schafer wasn’t an ordinary case. He was at UND on a temporary basis and with his political background and knowledge of Burgum, it wasn’t surprising he was asked about an endorsement. It would have been wiser if he hadn’t commented. The board can set policy on staff endorsements.
The Tribune doesn’t see a need for an investigation. It has been almost a year since the election and it’s settled. If Hagerott was pressured to do something about Schafer’s endorsement he was right to ignore it. As noted, the board can establish policy and Hagerott can help enforce it. An investigation would just let wounds fester.
Finally, board member Mike Ness, Hazen, made a motion during the last board meeting to discuss Hagerott’s contract. His efforts failed on a 4-4 vote. Hagerott was hired at an annual salary of $372,000.
The Tribune doesn’t think this is the time to discuss Hagerott’s contract. We believe there should be an open discussion about his concerns on the election issues, he should be asked to continue refining his leadership style and he should be asked to drop the investigation request. The focus should be on developing working relationships. There’s still 15 months until the 2019 legislative session, enough time to begin working with legislators.
If North Dakota wants a chancellor they need to give that person support and guidance. In return the state should receive leadership that inspires staff and the board to keep improving our educational system.