Evaluating Disclosures

▼   Case Scenarios
▼   Case 1  (Faculty / Research)

Professor Tang, a member of the USA Chemistry Dept, works in the field of materials and nanoscience. His lab is the setting for sponsored research and attracts a significant amount of external funds. His lab also conducts testing for private firms and government organizations on a contractual basis. In addition, Professor Tang occasionally consults with companies on a variety of materials and nanoscience issues. The local shipbuilding company Austal has recently contracted Professor Tang for 20 days of consulting time for 2020. The company also has testing performed by Professor Tang's laboratory.

What information would you need to determine whether the consulting relationship Professor Tang has with Austal could present a real or perceived conflict of interest?

Analysis: 

Is Dr. Tang involved in other consulting activities? Does his total consulting time exceed the USA’s allowance of 1 day per week limit (36 days/year)?

Is Dr. Tang using university resources?

Are graduate students involved in the testing?

Does Dr. Tang or a member of his household hold any ownership in the Austal Company?

How does the professor's USA research program relate to the activities of the company? Are they totally separate? How closely are they related?

For this scenario a Management Plan may well be necessary, especially if Dr. Tang is using university resources for his consulting, or if he holds significant ownership of Austal. At a minimum the Management Plan would need to address how Dr. Tang will avoid day-to-day involvement in the management of company activities.

▼   Case 2  (Faculty / Research)

Three professors in a common area of Marine Sciences research have formed an LLC. This group performs research for companies under contract, using USA lab property & equipment on campus, as well as at Dauphin Island Sea Lab. Initially, one day per month spent by these professors on the contract work was sufficient, but due to the increased number of contracts, the LLC has hired graduate students to assist with the work load.

Is there a potential for a conflict of interest or a conflict of time commitment?

Analysis: 

This activity will require a Management Plan. The professors should inform the impacted student(s) or staff in writing about their relationship to the LLC. The students or staff members should be assured that involvement with the LLC will not in any way adversely affect their academic progress or employment status.

The use of university resources should be addressed. The university should be compensated according to departmental procedures.

The Management Plan should include information on the professors' expected time commitment and how conflicts of interest and commitment will be avoided. In general, faculty should not be conducting day-to-day management of company activities. If it is necessary for faculty to do this for a limited period of time, explain how the conflict of time commitment will be handled, i.e., faculty leave, time management, etc.  Note: not all USA colleges are permissive of this type of arrangement.

▼   Case 3  (Faculty / Research – Familial Relationships)

Scenario A:

Dr. Harder is the top choice for an open department head position.  He is currently employed at an institution outside of the Mobile area.  Dr. Harder seeks to negotiate a position for his spouse as part of an employment package.  His spouse has a Ph.D. and is a researcher in Dr. Harder's primary field.  Dr. Harder seeks to have his spouse appointed within the department in which he will be the head.

Would this scenario meet the terms of USA’s nepotism policy? Would it be a conflict of interest? 

Analysis: 

First, the Dean would need to advocate for this concomitant arrangement on Dr. Harder’s behalf, with the Provost. USA’s policy on nepotism is based on the nepotism law of the State of Alabama, and permits employment of family members, but states, “employees are not permitted to initiate or participate in an institutional decision which would directly or indirectly benefit the member of his or her family.” If not possible to maintain the two in separate supervisory chains of command, this scenario would not be feasible. Only with permission for an exception to USA policy by the President could Dr. Harder be placed in a role where he supervises his spouse.

Scenario B:

Dr. Ticonderoga is a leading researcher in her field.  She oversees a USA laboratory with 5 full-time employees and three graduate assistants. She has been given funding to create a position for a laboratory manager. The responsibilities of the manager position include overseeing the budget, developing operating procedures, scheduling work, ordering supplies, and taking care of personnel matters. Dr. Ticonderoga would like to hire her husband in this position. To avoid issues of nepotism, she asked her colleague, who is also the assistant department head, to chair the search committee, and to recommend the top candidate to the department head (she also endorses her husband as a viable candidate). The top candidate turns out to be Dr. Ticonderoga's husband. Dr. Ticonderoga has no involvement with the search committee and does not interview any of the candidates. The department head approves the hiring of her husband. To avoid violating the nepotism policy, the responsibility for evaluating and recommending salary increases for her husband is delegated to the assistant department head.

Would this scenario meet the terms of USA’s nepotism policy? Would it be a conflict of interest?

 

Analysis: 

USA’s nepotism policy indicates employees cannot initiate or participate in the hiring of a family member. Dr. Ticonderoga removed herself from the selection process, yet was influential by suggesting that her husband be included in the pool of candidates. To many, this could be perceived as seeking ways to skirt the rules, calling ethics into question. This could at least be a perceived conflict of interest. To avoid being in a supervisory relationship with the person hired which USA policy also prohibits, Dr. Ticonderoga’s husband would need to be in an entirely different supervisory chain of command. Even though the assistant department head would be listed as the husband’s supervisor, this scenario does not appear feasible given the fact the Lab falls under Dr Ticonderoga’s responsibility. This scenario would also raise questions from a research compliance perspective.

Scenario C:

Professor Grayling is a leading researcher in her field.  Over the summer break, she hires her son to help her in her lab and to broaden his own educational experiences.  He is temporary help with part-time hours and receives a minimal hourly wage.

Would this scenario meet the terms of USA’s nepotism policy? Would it be a conflict of interest?

Analysis: 

According to USA’s nepotism policy and hiring procedures, if Dr. Grayling’s son were applying as a temporary employee through H.R. Dept, the screening process would identify the relationship. Under some circumstances the USA President can make exceptions to the policy, otherwise employment of Dr. Grayling’s son would probably not be allowed due to the direct line of supervision between the family members. Also, employees cannot advocate for the hiring of relatives. However, if Dr. Grayling’s son was being hired as a student worker, H.R. Dept would not be involved (it would be an Academic Affairs matter).

▼   Case 4  (Faculty – Conflict of Commitment)

Professor Guitarro arrives on campus at 8 AM, teaches two back-to-back classes, and then leaves. He owns a Whataburger franchise and spends much time there. He takes great pride in being #1 in sales in the entire Alabama Gulf Coast Region. Professor Guitarro is a 9 month faculty member.  

In addition, Professor Guitarro employs some of his graduate students at his Whataburger as Jr. Managers. Is this a conflict of interest or a conflict of time commitment?

Analysis: 

This is likely a conflict of time commitment issue. USA’s External Professional Activities policy limits 9 month faculty to 1 day/week (or 36/year) for External Professional Activity. Professor Guitarro should disclose the time commitment of these activities to his supervisor and discuss how to avoid interference with his ability to perform his institutional responsibilities.  It may be necessary to determine the hours of the day in which Professor Guitarro is expected to perform university duties, and assure he is compliant with USA policy. Note: for College of Medicine faculty who work at USA Health under physician employment agreements, no consulting is allowable. For basic science faculty at COM, they are allowed 36 days/year. For College of Nursing, 12-month faculty who must maintain certification through clinical practice are allowed 52 days/year “consulting” to accomplish this.

If Professor Guitarro hires his own graduate students to work at his franchise, there could be perceived favoritism among his students. He would need to make assurances that students are treated fairly whether or not they work at his franchise.

 

 

▼   ADDITIONAL “Quick-Answer” Scenarios

Conflict of Interest

▼   SCENARIO:  A staff member serves on the board of a local community organization.
This would not present a conflict unless the organization seeks to do business with the University, advocates for issues in opposition to USA efforts, or if the staff member uses their university affiliation as an advantage in acquiring their role with the community organization (or other trading on the name of the university). It may also present a conflict of commitment issue if time spent with the organization conflicts with one’s institutional responsibilities.   
▼   SCENARIO:  A USA Event Planner often works with clients to book venues for events. The Event Planner also owns his/her own event planning business.

ANALYSIS:  The university venue may only offer the Event Planner's services as one of several event planning services available to the clients and the Event Planner cannot use their public position for private gain.

▼   SCENARIO:  A faculty member would like to use laboratory space for consulting purposes.  

ANALYSIS:  Under appropriate circumstances, the faculty member may be allowed to enter into a contract with the University to pay for his/her non-University use of the laboratory.

 

▼   SCENARIO:  A staff member would like to rent property to the university.

ANALYSIS:  The decision by the university to rent the staff member's property should be made by another member of the university who is not subordinate to the property owner. The rent/rate must be of reasonable market value, and meet any necessary bid law requirements.

▼   SCENARIO:  A VP serves as a director of an organization that does business with the university.

ANALYSIS:  The VP’s involvement with the organization should definitely be disclosed, and a Management Plan would be required to assure the VP doesn’t take part in any university business discussions involving the organization or use any university resources for activity related to the outside organization. The VP should also be able to demonstrate that involvement with the organization does not impinge his/her institutional responsibilities. 

▼   SCENARIO:  A faculty member is an owner, manager or officer of a company that does business with the university.

ANALYSIS:  A Management Plan would be necessary to assure any dealings between the company and the university are overseen by a supervisor or non-subordinate colleague of the faculty member.

▼   SCENARIO:  An administrative assistant sells cosmetics out of their home.  

ANALYSIS:  If the activity does not conflict with their institutional responsibilities, doesn't use university resources (time, computer, printer) for the business, and the employee does not solicit their products to fellow employees, this should be no problem. Supervisor discretion as to whether a Management Plan be used for assurance.

 

▼   SCENARIO:  An employee works in Facilities and is responsible for ordering materials. The employee's niece owns a hardware store which sells the materials.

ANALYSIS:  The employee should not take part in the procurement of materials from his/her family member's business. Supervisor discretion as to whether a Management Plan be used for assurance.

▼   SCENARIO:  A staff member plans to take part in the evaluation and selection of a vendor from a pool of multiple bidders. One of the bidding companies is operated by the staff member's brother.

ANALYSIS:  This type of scenario is not currently addressed in USA’s conflict of interest policies (unless research-related), but is addressed in USA’s nepotism policy. The staff member cannot not take part in that or any other vendor evaluation/selection that involves his/her family's company. The evaluation and selection of the vendors will need to be done by another employee who is not subordinate to the staff member.

▼   SCENARIO:  A staff member would like to hire his spouse as a consultant to the university.

ANALYSIS:  This type of scenario is not currently addressed in USA’s conflict of interest policies (unless research-related), but is addressed in USA’s nepotism policy. The staff member must not make the hiring decision, but instead refer the hiring decision to a supervisor or non-subordinate colleague.

▼   SCENARIO:  A university Development Officer who solicits gifts from USA donors volunteers for a local non-profit organization to raise money for the non-profit.

ANALYSIS:  The Development Officer may not solicit money for the non-profit, if such activities compete with university fundraising efforts. They may engage in other volunteer activities for the non-profit that does not involve fundraising. For exceptions to this, the scenario would need to be disclosed and discussed with the supervisor.

▼   SCENARIO:  A program coordinator wants to hire their daughter to be a graduate teaching assistant in their program area.

ANALYSIS:  This type of scenario is not currently addressed in USA’s conflict of interest policies (unless research-related), but is addressed in USA’s nepotism policy. The program coordinator must not recommend or make hiring decisions involving their family members. Rather, they may refer the hiring decision to their supervisor or other (non-subordinate) colleague. If the daughter is hired, the program coordinator cannot serve in a supervisory role.

Financial Conflict of Interest

▼   SCENARIO:  A dean owns stock in a publicly traded company who he/she has a consulting relationship with, as part of an overall investment portfolio (401k). The dean has no control of the proportion of company ownership by the portfolio. He/she only controls how much overall portfolio value they own.

ANALYSIS:  Not a conflict of interest unless there is also a relationship between the publically traded company and USA. If there is such a relationship, it would need to be determined if the dean may occasionally be in a position to make or influence a USA decision that potentially benefits him/herself and/or the publically traded company rather than USA. If that were the case, a management plan would need to assure transparency, structure the dean’s recusal from such decisions, and take into consideration the amount and level of control of the publically traded company value owned by the dean.

▼   SCENARIO:  A staff member owns stock in a company that does business with the university. The staff member does not have any influence over university decisions regarding that company.

ANALYSIS:  No management plan needed unless the staff member is given authority to influence USA decisions regarding relationships with the company.

Conflict of Commitment

▼   SCENARIO:  A non-faculty USA staff member teaches a class at USA as a contract instructor and receives compensation.

ANALYSIS:  The staff member may engage in university activities for extra compensation if it doesn't interrupt primary institutional responsibilities.

▼   SCENARIO:  A faculty member is offered an honorarium from another U.S. public higher education institution to give a lecture at that institution.

ANALYSIS:  Acceptance of the honorarium is fine; it is from another U.S. public institution of higher education (a little more scrutiny would be in order if it were a corporation). If the event will conflict with the faculty member's institutional responsibilities, an External Professional Activities request should be submitted.

▼   SCENARIO:  A faculty member publishes a book and receives income from sales on Amazon.com from the publisher.

ANALYSIS:  This would not be a problem unless the time spent writing the book impacted the faculty member’s institutional responsibilities.

▼   SCENARIO:  A staff member works part-time for another company performing the same or similar duties as their USA institutional responsibilities.

ANALYSIS:  The staff member's activity must not interfere with his/her university obligations and not use USA resources (without appropriate use agreement in place). The scenario should be disclosed to one’s supervisor for transparency.

▼   SCENARIO:  A USA staff member teaches a class at a local community college.

ANALYSIS:  The staff member's outside activity must not interfere with his/her institutional responsibilities or use university resources for the outside activity.

Conflicts of Interest in Research

▼   SCENARIO:  A research assistant provides consulting for Amazon related to using technology and developing products associated with the research assistant's research at USA.

ANALYSIS:  The research assistant must refrain from disclosing any technology or information protected by Intellectual Property.

▼   SCENARIO:  A faculty member is conducting sponsored research on a product developed by a company for which the faculty member is a consultant.

ANALYSIS:  The faculty member needs to disclose his/her relationship with the company to the sponsor of the research and in any published research results for that product.

▼   SCENARIO:  A faculty member directs a graduate student into a research area from which the faculty member may receive financial gain.

ANALYSIS:  The faculty member should inform the student about the possible financial gain from their outside business. Another faculty colleague should make an objective judgment about whether this research is in the student's scholarly best interest.

▼   SCENARIO:  A faculty member is offered a position on a scientific board of a company that has research contracts with the faculty member's department.

ANALYSIS:  The faculty member must disclose their relationship with the company to the department head and in any published research results the faculty member takes part in for the company.

▼   SCENARIO:  A corporation asks a faculty member to sign a contract that would forbid publication of the faculty member's research findings.

ANALYSIS:  The faculty member should renegotiate the contract to postpone publication until after a certain time has elapsed, but not to prevent publication altogether.

▼   SCENARIO:  A faculty member wants to hire several students to perform work in their university lab for a company the faculty member owns.

ANALYSIS:  Under appropriate circumstances, the faculty member may be allowed to enter into a contract with the university to pay for his non-university use of the laboratory and students. The faculty member must inform the students/employees about the faculty member's possible financial gain. A Management plan would be required to clearly outline university and company duties, and assure the company work doesn't interfere with their university responsibilities.

▼   SCENARIO:  A principal investigator wants to hire their son who is a Ph.D. student to work on a sponsored research project for compensation.

ANALYSIS:  The PI should not recommend or make hiring decisions involving their family members. Rather, they may refer the hiring decision to their supervisor or other (non-subordinate) colleague. If the son is hired, the PI should not serve in a supervisory role.

▼   SCENARIO:  A faculty member has a U.S. federal grant for classified research and collaborates with a researcher at a Chinese institution that is operated by the Chinese government.

ANALYSIS:  In this scenario, the faculty member would not be in compliance with USA policy; the institution and the researcher could pose a national security threat.

▼   SCENARIO:  A faculty member hosts a foreign national visiting scholar for a semester to work in their lab.

SCENARIO:  A faculty member hosts a foreign national visiting scholar for a semester to work in their lab.

▼   SCENARIO:  A faculty member accepts royalties for the publication of her scholarly work.

ANALYSIS:  No management plan needed. The royalties are incidental to her institutional responsibilities.

Faculty-Specific

▼   SCENARIO:  A faculty member wants to use a textbook they authored as a required text in a course they teach.

ANALYSIS:  According to USA policy and the Alabama Ethics Law, faculty may not determine if their own textbooks can be assigned for their classes; the decision must be made by a university textbook committee or administrative officials. If this has happened, it should be reported under the Faculty section of the annual COI Disclosure form.