Regent’s dual roles questioned

Newly appointed regent Steve Sviggum’s paid Humphrey School fellowship has raised conflict of interest concerns.

The University of Minnesota is opening a conflict of interest investigation into new regent Steve Sviggum, who also holds a paid fellowship at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

Sviggum, a former legislator, had taught classes at Humphrey for several years prior to being appointed a regent last month.

But a new contract, signed by Sviggum Feb. 4, will pay him $80,000 annually and expand his Humphrey duties to include fundraising and writing opinion pieces.

Sviggum’s other role at the University raises potential conflict of interest concerns, and during Friday’s Board of Regents meeting, board chair Clyde Allen announced the formation of an ad-hoc committee to investigate.

According to board policy, a financial conflict of interest occurs whenever a regent has a “financial interest or any other interest in a matter pending before the Board that may impair independence of judgment.” Sviggum’s conflict could extend to finances, as well as faculty and educational planning issues, Allen said.

“We’re dealing with lots of issues there like ‘Do we have the money for pay raises?’” Allen said. “’Should we reduce here or expand there?'”

Normally, regents recuse themselves from voting on matters where a conflict occurs. But the depth of Sviggum’s involvement with the school creates the potential for on-going conflicts.

“That question will be with us throughout his service if we don’t resolve it now and get some criteria set clearly,” Allen said.

Previously only a lecturer, Sviggum now holds the title of Legislative Fellow in the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at Humphrey.

 Sviggum, who spent nearly thirty years in the Legislature including a stint as Speaker of the House, is teaching the graduate course “Governing — Minnesota Style” this semester. His other duties include hosting public forums, writing essays and editorials on political issues for publication and fundraising for renovations at Humphrey.

Allen praised Sviggum’s work at Humphrey, saying he was well-qualified for the job and has “a bit of magic with the students.”

But, Allen said, University employees are held to a high standard for conduct and ethics, and the issue needs to be investigated to make sure any potential conflicts are addressed.

“I think we have an obligation to [our employees] to address an issue like this and say we do not have any double standards,” he said.

The ad-hoc committee will include Allen, regents Linda Cohen and Patricia Simmons, along with consultation from University lawyers. Allen said the group hopes to get started next week and he wants to have the issue resolved before the board’s next meeting in May.

Allen couldn’t say whether Sviggum would be allowed to keep both of his University positions, only that there are “substantial issues” that needed to be considered and resolved.

Sviggum said he was told throughout the selection process that his ties to the University wouldn’t be an issue. He said he doesn’t think there will be any conflicts of interest, but he apologized to the board for the distraction and said he welcomes the inquiry.

“It’s a delicate issue, I understand that,” he said.  “I personally, in my heart, feel that there is no problem. There is no conflict.”