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History of complaints trailed former CIO before being hired by University of Minnesota

Documents from Scott Studham’s former employer, the University of Tennessee, raise further questions about how the U of M fills high-profile positions.

Scott Studham
Scott Studham

Complaints of nepotism and creating a hostile work environment dogged former University of Minnesota Chief Information Officer Scott Studham long before he came to the Twin Cities, according to documents from Studham’s former employer, the University of Tennessee.

Studham resigned as CIO of the U of M on Sept. 4, originally saying he wanted to focus on his family home-school business and train for a triathlon. University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler later acknowledged that he asked Studham to resign based on “the culture in his unit and his relationship with his peers.”

Kaler’s request came after several staff members filed complaints against Studham during his more than three-year tenure, allegations that range from excessive equipment purchases and manipulating contracts to hiring his friends and taking unscheduled vacation days. Studham, who held the title of vice president at the university, was paid $265,000 a year. 

The documents from Tennessee, obtained through a public-records request, detail human resources complaints and internal investigations into Studham’s behavior both as CIO at the University of Tennessee’s flagship campus, in Knoxville, as well as similar complaints during his tenure at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), in nearby Oak Ridge, Tennessee. 

The documents also raise additional questions about the vetting process employed by the University of Minnesota for high-profile positions. Studham’s departure came just weeks after the school’s athletics director, Norwood Teague, resigned amid allegations that he sexually harassed two university employees. It was later revealed that Teague was facing a gender discrimination complaint at his previous job at Virginia Commonwealth University while being recruited to join the U of M. VCU later settled the complaint for $125,000. 

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In Studham’s case, the University of Minnesota established a “system wide search committee” to find the CIO, according to a January 2012 news release announcing his hire. Despite multiple inquiries, officials from the school wouldn’t say whether the committee turned up any complaints against Studham, many of which would have been available through a records request at the time of Studham’s hiring.

“The hiring process that brought Mr. Studham to the University of Minnesota was consistent with other searches for senior executives,” spokesman Evan Lapiska said in a statement. “While we can’t speak to internal matters related to Mr. Studham’s time at the University of Tennessee, it is important to note that complaints filed with the University of Minnesota about Mr. Studham were not the reason for his resignation. President Kaler felt it was time for a change, and Mr. Studham agreed to step aside.”

Familiar complaints 

Some of the complaints from staff at the University of Minnesota echoed allegations from his previous jobs. In Tennessee, where Studham worked before moving to Minnesota, he was cited in internal documents for trying to hire friends for university contracting jobs, as well as posting comments on social media that made staff feel uncomfortable. Employees at both former jobs said staff in Studham’s department were afraid of him.

Studham, in an emailed response to MinnPost, said he was seeing some of the documents for the first time, and was unaware of an internal investigation surrounding his conduct at the University of Tennessee, which was completed after he moved to Minnesota.

“I think it’s worth remembering what I was hired to do at Tennessee and Minnesota (and at ORNL): to be a change agent in an area of vital importance and where there was — and is — a clear need for change. I’m very pleased with what each organization I have led accomplished to cut costs and transform itself for what comes next,” he wrote. 

“It’s not a surprise to me some people are unhappy or uncomfortable with change on this scale,” he continued. “I suspect some of the allegations — both from Minnesota and Tennessee — are a reflection of that response.”

‘Not a top leader’  

Studham moved into his first CIO job in August of 2004 at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. During the nearly five years he served in that role, Studham was the subject of several personnel complaints, according to ORNL Human Resources Director Debbie Stairs, who was later interviewed by University of Tennessee officials. Her comments were included in the internal documents from the university. 

In the interview, Stairs said the lab investigated three incidents involving Studham, including “sexually suggestive” comments made to staff. In one instance, Studham held up a flash drive to employees and said, “Don’t stick it in if you don’t know where it’s been,” according to documents.

Stairs said Studham also took a picture of a colleague who had been drinking at a party, called him a “cross dresser” and included the picture in a powerpoint to staff. Stairs said Studham was “very smart” but “not a top leader” and had “no filter.” There were several other complaints that Stairs said she could not discuss.

Another employee replaced Studham as CIO on January 26, 2009, according to the documents. Officials suspected a security breach at ORNL within IT and Studham was escorted off site in a “shoot first” response to the issue. ORNL officials later said there was no breach and Studham was allowed to return to work, but in a new position as a senior researcher.

In the documents, Stairs first said Studham was not eligible for rehire at ORNL, but later said there was a disagreement between officials as to whether the laboratory should allow him to resign or to terminate him. The final decision was to let him resign, she said, and code him eligible for rehire.

When asked if any of the complaints against Studham resulted in discipline, David Keim, director of communications at ORNL, said he could not comment on personnel issues.

‘Out of the ordinary’ hiring process 

In 2007, while still at ORNL, Studham headed up a consulting project for the University of Tennessee. Studham and an associate reported that the university lacked stable and long-term strategies to guide budget-setting and other priorities, recommending the university create a temporary CIO position to provide “strategic leadership,” according to the documents.

Jesse Poore, the former director of the Science Alliance and a friend of Studham’s, was appointed to the University of Tennessee CIO position in 2008. He planned to serve in that role for a year.

As Poore was preparing to depart the university, he recommended Studham to succeed him. The two were close, and Studham knew Poore intended to resign from the CIO job after a year. Poore also knew Studham was unhappy at his current job at ORNL and was no longer serving as CIO, according to the documents.

The university interviewed Studham and offered him the job, which Studham accepted. That’s when Linda Hendricks Harig, director of human resources at the University of Tennessee, received a memo that the college would be hiring Studham at $190,000 a year starting on March 16, 2009.

Hendricks said the “actions taken to appoint Mr. Studham were out of the ordinary” because the job was never posted, but she processed the appointment and did not post the position.

Behavior becomes an issue at UT  

It didn’t take long for complaints to surface in at Studham’s new job at UT.

By summer of 2010, human resources was already fielding several allegations about Studham’s behavior in the office. One employee was upset about a public tweet Studham posted about a male staffer who wore a kilt to work: “just threw up in my mouth. One of the guys at work is wearing a dress, again. Sometimes working in IT is better than The Office,” he tweeted.

Hendricks Harig, the human resources director, was worried. “At a minimum it’s poor judgement to post remarks like that on an open, public site (especially when his title and UT are listed). It doesn’t reflect well on University or Scott as a senior leader,” she wrote in an email. “Worst case, employee he made fun of or other UT employees could bring complaint of prejudice or bias.”

Studham took down the post at Harig’s urging, but there was no discipline in the case. Responding to an email from a concerned employee, the university said the tweet was not a violation of university policy, as he posted it on a personal account.

The university called in human resources again around the same time to deal with a strange situation regarding one of Studham’s temp workers. She was let go suddenly over an issue with Studham’s calendar, but she continued to send emails to Studham afterward. One email asked him to talk. Another included a cartoon of Studham she made in photoshop.

Studham expressed concerns for his family’s safety, but after interviews with Studham, human resources learned the situation was more complicated. Studham made the temp have dinner with his wife alone before he hired her because his wife “had to approve everyone who worked for him.” He also asked the temp to call his wife after a doctor’s appointment and provide an “update,” saying that “she would not believe him that ‘he should not mow the grass.’ ” The two also regularly exchanged non-work-related emails.

On Aug. 31, 2010, an anonymous letter was sent to the Tennessee Division of State Audit laying out a handful of allegations against Studham, including misuse of student technology fees and using university resources to benefit his wife’s personal business, Windrock IT. The complaint also alleged that Studham was using his position at the university to pass major consulting contracts to his friends.

With questions coming in from the state auditor, the university launched its own internal investigation. In a Feb. 13, 2013, report, a year after Studham had started working at the University of Minnesota, the audit dismissed most claims, but did find that he attempted to hire two friends as consultants without going through a competitive contracting process. The university’s office of the treasurer flagged and stopped both contracts. 

“I have on occasion recommended or looked to hire vendors or former employees who have done quality work in the past and whose skills are well-suited to a specific need,” Studham told MinnPost. “My basis for these recommendations is always my professional judgment — based on experience — that the person or vendor is well-suited for the task at hand, has the necessary skills and abilities to be successful and has the work ethic needed to complete the project on time and budget.”  

During the investigation, the university posted an internal ad for a new CIO. In emails, Hendricks Harig questioned whether the school should hire someone new or continue on with Studham. That would require “several interventions,” including “frank discussion about concerns” and sending him to the Center for Creative Leadership for a weeklong program “that deals with these issues,” Harig wrote. 

Studham did ultimately attend the program, which cost $7,200, and on Sept. 30, the school closed the CIO application process, with plans to reopen it at a later time, according to documents. Studham stayed at the university until February 2012, when officials found a permanent replacement. 

A spokeswoman for the University of Tennessee said the school would not comment on human resources or personnel matters. 

Allegations of nepotism, strange purchases at Minnesota  

Before he was hired at the University of Minnesota, Studham said he was contacted by a search firm and traveled to Minnesota three times in the winter of 2011 to meet with various members of the search committee and give a presentation at a public forum on campus. The co-chairs of the search committee were University of Minnesota Rochester Chancellor Stephen Lehmkuhle and Kathy Brown, the university’s vice president for human resources. Both officials were called for comment on Monday but could not be reached. 

Studham started at the university in February 2012, the same month he left Tennessee. Under his tenure, the school became one of the first to invest in an ultra-fast 100-Gbps wide-area network. He also reorganized and centralized the 1,200-person IT department. In 2013, the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal named him CIO of the year.   

But behind the scenes, staff were starting to complain about Studham. Three complaints were officially filed against Studham in 2013 and 2014. In June 2013, Studham sent out an invitation for a pig roast, which the complainant said did not allow people of Jewish and Muslim faiths to participate in equally. Two other complaints were unsubstantiated.  

Between May and August of 2015 alone, four more complaints about Studham reached university officials, according to documents from the university’s Office of Internal Audit, released to news media as part of a data request. 

Many of the complaints mirrored allegations at Studham’s two previous jobs. Several complaints lodged against Studham accused him of trying to hire friends for jobs with the university by manipulating contracts to avoid a competitive bidding process. The audit also found that Studham moved six employees to “lesser” jobs in the department, sometimes reducing their salaries, if he was unhappy with their performance. 

Studham also made 21 equipment purchases during his time at the university, including a 3D gaming headset, a tablet computer, a body camera, a Bose Bluetooth speaker and 10 Apple computers, including laptops, desktops and Apple Mac minis. Studham said he didn’t know the location of six of the items but he planned to reimburse the university. 

The original complaint suggested he was buying computers for his family, which Studham denied in a statement to the university. “Some purchases were to evaluate new technologies, their potential benefits to the university, and develop the ability to speak intelligibly about them when asked,” Studham wrote in response the complaints.  

Studham also bought $48,000 of video equipment, which included a $16,000 camera and $3,000 for a video aerial-drone. “The use for these products is not clear,” reads the university investigation. “Reporters suggest it is for movie projects to enhance his and other IT senior leaders’ brands.” 

Among the other allegations: Studham registered for conferences and booked hotels and airfare, but would not attend; he would not show up for work for personal reasons without taking vacation time; he would keep staff on and pay them for almost no work to avoid negative feedback. 

Even without launching a formal investigation into these complaints, Kaler had decided the “culture” in Studham’s department was evidence enough to ask him to step down.  

Two more complaints were filed on Sept. 9 and 10, after Studham resigned, but the university didn’t release the details of the complaints, citing privacy laws. As part of his departure, Studham received a severance package that included three months’ salary and agreed not to sue the University of Minnesota.