Five years ago, Steve Sviggum choked back tears when he resigned from the University of Minnesota Board of Regents in a dispute over conflicts-of-interest.
Now, he’s poised to make a comeback.
Sviggum, the former speaker of the Minnesota House, emerged as a surprise finalist this week for one of four openings on the university’s 12-member governing board.
Sviggum, 65, was selected by a legislative panel late Tuesday after a last-minute move added his name to a list of candidates recommended by a regents advisory council in January.
The lawmakers endorsed three incumbents for the other openings: Thomas Devine, David McMillan and Darrin Rosha.
Although Sviggum didn’t apply for the job, which is unpaid, he said he would be eager to return to the board if confirmed by the full House and Senate. “The university drives the economic success of Minnesota,” he said.
Sviggum, who served in the state Legislature from 1979 to 2007, including seven years as speaker, was first elected to the board of regents in 2011. But he reluctantly quit a year later after concerns were raised that his job, as communications director for the Senate Republican caucus, posed a conflict with his role as regent. His fellow board members gave him an ultimatum: Choose one or the other.
He reluctantly handed in his resignation on March 8, 2012, saying “for the good of the university, I will again — again — leave something that I love.”
He had previously been accused of another conflict-of-interest, in 2011, when he was hired to teach part time at the U’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs while serving as a regent. In that case, he quit his teaching job.
Sviggum, who now calls himself a full-time farmer, said he still works with U students, but only as a volunteer.
He said he was approached in the past few weeks, by people he declined to name, to see if he might be interested in a new six-year term as regent. “It was pretty informal,” he said.
But even he was surprised on Tuesday, he said, when he got the call to return to St. Paul for a special meeting of the House and Senate higher education committees. He canceled plans to attend a high school basketball game in Kenyon, his hometown. By Tuesday night, he was the sole finalist for the regent seat representing the Second Congressional District.
Sviggum says he bears “no ill will” over his ouster from the board. “You have to graciously move on,” he explained.
If he is confirmed as regent, he said, he plans to focus on controlling costs and ensuring its role as “the engine that drives business, jobs, inventions.”
“I’m going to be very strong about watching how the university dollar is spent,” he said. “I think the university needs to perform for the citizens of Minnesota, for the significant money, billions of dollars plus, that we give to the U.”
The final vote on the new regents will be held at a joint legislative session, which is expected later this month.