U of M board investigates conflict concerns for new regent

Sviggum

It didn’t take long for a new member of the University of Minnesota board of regents to land in the middle of controversy.

Steve Sviggum, who was sworn in as a regent on Thursday morning, found himself the subject of a conflict of interest investigation on Friday morning.

At issue is whether Sviggum’s other job at the U, as an instructor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, clashes with his position on the board.

Clyde Allen, the chair of the U of M’s board of regents, thinks Steve Sviggum has the credentials of a great regent.  Sviggum is a former Republican lawmaker and Speaker of the Minnesota House.

But he’s also a part-time instructor at the U.

Allen said that puts Sviggum in an ethical gray area when it comes to serving on the school’s governing body.

“I will simply say there is a substantial issue there right now. I do not want to draw conclusions, that’s without the advice of the panel. But I think there is a substantial issue.”

University officials say they can’t remember a case of an employee ever being appointed to the board.  There doesn’t appear to be a rule that prohibits employees of the U from serving in an unpaid position on the board of regents.

But according to the board’s code of ethics, members aren’t allowed to vote on issues where they have a financial interest.  In that case regents recuse themselves from a board decision.

“This one is different in that it looks like it could have a large number of ongoing such recusals,” Allen said.

As an employee of the U, Allen maintains Sviggum has a financial interest in much of what the board does, whether that’s deciding budgets or handing out pay raises.

Sviggum has taught at the U since 2007. Last month, just a few weeks before he was elected by lawmakers as a regent, Sviggum signed a new contract at the U that expanded his duties. His part-time position as Legislative Fellow, pays him $80,000 a year to teach a class, raise money for the U, and write opinion articles and essays.

At today’s board meeting Sviggum apologized to his new colleagues for putting them in an awkward position.  But he told them he didn’t think his work as an instructor and a regent would conflict.

“If there is a sin, the sin is I’m raising money for the University of Minnesota,” Sviggum said. “The sin is I’m teaching students at the University of Minnesota and educating them. They love the class and they love the involvement in the class.”

The board of regents’ investigation of Sviggum’s potential conflict of interest will begin next week.  Results of the inquiry will be made public by the time the regents meet in May.

If Sviggum leaves the board or is forced to leave, it would be up to lawmakers to appoint a replacement.