Political science teacher under investigation

Heather Mangan

Heather Mangan

An SDSU political science professor is being investigated on accusations of unethical practices.

Professor Gary Aguiar is being investigated for potentially violating South Dakota Board of Regents policies pertaining to ethics and conflict of interest. Aguiar, who ran for a Brookings City Council seat in April 2005, was a mayoral candidate in the April 11 election.

Carol Peterson, provost and vice president of academic affairs, said she assigned Dean Jerry Jorgensen of the College of Arts and Science to investigate the matter. Although she wouldn’t release specifics about the investigation, she said much of that research will include in-depth conversations with students.

The Board of Regents code of professional conduct allows faculty members to run for office, but states they must abide by standard professional ethics and not use their position to influence students’ political action or involvement with a faculty member’s outside activity.

Peterson had heard rumors about the accusations for several weeks, but decided to take action after a few students questioned Aguiar at the SDSU mayoral candidate forum April 4.

She said the investigation would determine how serious the problem is and what level of action the administration should take.

The Students’ Association has received complaints about Aguiar for several months. Former SA President Ryan Brunner said students approached the SA last semester with concerns that Aguair is using students’ work for personal gain. More students came in this semester with complaints that he passed mayoral petitions around in class and asked students to help with his campaign.

Brunner said the SA realized there could be a potential problem, but an official complaint has yet to be filed.

Mitch Fargen, a senior political science and economics major from Flandreau, had heard the student complaints and saw the forum as a chance to directly ask Aguiar about them.

“I wanted students to know about this, and if this happened to them, they could speak about it,” he said.

Aguiar stands by his actions.

“I don’t think I have violated any rules or any regental rule,” he said.

“It is unfortunate that the campaign has turned nasty and someone worried that I might win this election and bring a breath of fresh air to city hall. Some people are afraid of open government because they are used to making deals behind close doors.”

One accusation brought against Aguiar said he used student work for personal gain in his political parties and campaigns class. A major project in class is to design a political campaign for a candidate of the students’ choice.

“I want to provide students with opportunity, like in all my classes, to understand real experiences,” Aguiar said.

He said he encouraged students to choose a real candidate who would be running in an upcoming election. He encouraged students to choose a local candidate that they would obtain information from and later provide information to.

Adam Molseed, a senior economics major from Pierre, took the class last semester and said Aguiar gave examples of projects they could do, including an SDSU professor running for city council or mayor.

Molseed’s group chose to do their campaign on Aguiar as a mayoral candidate, believing that the professor had intentions to run for city council.

“He never said he was running for mayor, he said he would never do that this year. And when he did run, it was kind of a surprise to us,” he said.

But not all students chose Aguiar as their subject.

“Our group chose not to use Professor Aguiar for our project because we felt it was a conflict of interest,” said Chris Hill, a senior advertising major from Watertown.

But the project itself is ethical, said Molseed.

“I feel it’s unethical if he ends up using some of the information from the project because it was never meant for an actual campaign; it was a simulation,” he said.

Aguiar said he talked about many ideas in his class that students used in their projects that he later used in his campaign. He said he never adopted one students’ plan to follow.

“I don’t know if I would say that I used my ideas or students ideas, I don’t know where they came from,” he said. “Nobody has seen the campaign plans except for myself and I have a lot of advisers helping me out.”

Justin Huck, who also took the class last fall, said Aguiar never pressured students to choose him as their subject. He merely presented himself as an option in case they couldn’t find another candidate.

The senior political science major from Spearfish said some students chose Aguiar for their projects in hope of a good grade, but Huck said all students were graded the same.

Huck doesn’t see a problem with students using Aguiar for the project, and many ideas students use in their projects are universal campaign ideas.

“I don’t think it’s unethical. I think any parallels between his campaigning and what somebody had written would be coincidental,” he said.

Brunner said Aguiar should have told his students not to use him because it was a conflict of interest.

“He is using students’ work for direct political gain,” he said.

Other accusations said Aguiar violated Board of Regents policy by passing around a candidate petition and asking for volunteers for his campaign in his American Presidency class. But he said his classes offer an open political forum where anyone can talk about their campaigns.

“Anyone who wants to bring petition to my class is welcome,” he said.

He said he never gave penalties or rewards to students who signed the petition. He does have 20 current and former students helping him with the campaign.

“In no way, shape or form is their work related on the campaign related to their grade,” he said.

The SDSU administration has never dealt with complaints like this before, Peterson said.

SA president Alex Halbach said the SA has received similar complaints before and most of those are misunderstandings.

“I don’t think this is a widespread problem. I think it’s really an isolated incident,” he said. “When multiple students come, it’s more than miscommunication or a misunderstanding. In this case, there was a clear-cut problem.”

Bob Burns, a distinguished political science professor and former head of the political science department, said professors in his field often unintentionally offend students.

“We have to understand there is a difference between violation of ethics and poor judgment. And poor judgment isn’t necessarily unethical,” he said.

#1.884521:761570234.jpg:aguiar03.jpg:Gary Aguiar spoke during the mayoral candidate forum last Tuesday at noon, in the Market.:Ty Carlson