Types of Conflict

Conflict of Interest 

A potential Conflict of Interest (COI) exists whenever personal, professional, commercial, or financial interests or activities outside of the University have the possibility (either in actuality or in appearance) of (1) compromising a USA community member’s judgment; (2) biasing the nature or direction of scholarly research; (3) influencing a faculty or staff member’s decision or behavior with respect to teaching and student affairs, appointments and promotions, uses of University resources, interactions with human subjects, or other matters of interest to the University; or (4) resulting in a personal or family member’s gain or advancement at the expense of the University.

Examples:

  • Assigning a textbook for which you receive royalties as the required book for a course you teach.
  • Accepting gifts from a student whom you must evaluate.
  • Receiving royalties or other licensing proceeds from intellectual property you invented and are evaluating or further developing as part of your institutional responsibilities.
▼   General Q & A Scenarios
▼   I have decided to use a printing service external to USA to develop informational posters around the student gym. My brother runs a print shop that would do a nice job. Can I direct the business to him? The total job cost is below the University’s minimum bid requirements.
No. Whether or not the cost of the job is below the bid threshold, this would represent a conflict of interest because the arrangement benefits you and/or your family, possibly not USA.  Your relationship with your brother could compromise your judgment in selecting the most qualified print shop for the project.  Therefore, you should not seek a contract with your brother’s shop.
▼   I am a supervisor with the Computer Services Center (Academic Computing). I would like for one of my computer technicians to upgrade my personally owned computer so that I can work from home more effectively via VPN. Would this be ethical?  A conflict of interest?
It depends. If the University offers this service to all staff approved for working-from-home, there may be no issue. But if it is not a service the Computer Services Center typically offers, this scenario may not be ethical. Aspects to consider: Is the installed equipment funded by the University or by the supervisor?  Could the service be perceived as a personal favor by the technician to the supervisor? Is the visit during working hours or off the clock? If off the clock, does the supervisor compensate the technician?  This transaction could lead to favoritism of the employee by the supervisor (or perceivable favoritism by others in the department). This is true even if the work is, or appears to be, performed voluntarily; it need not be coerced to be wrong.
▼   A vendor servicing my department treats me to sporting events.  Is this appropriate?
No.  USA policy prohibits employees from accepting gifts of this nature from our vendors, particularly if the event exceeds the de minimis value of $25, and if the vendor is competing to maintain its relationship with your department or the university.
▼   A consultant working with the University has offered to let me stay at his vacation beach home in Destin, FL for the weekend.  Should I accept the invitation?
No.  Acceptance of this gift would give the appearance of impropriety and therefore would be inappropriate for you to accept the invitation. A vendor or consultant selected by the university should be determined based on a desired combination of quality v. cost; a continued contract with the vendor or consultant should be based on consistent quality of service and support provided by the vendor or consultant over time, not by perks provided outside the terms of the contract or agreement. By accepting gifts from this person, your judgment will likely be compromised.
▼   A vendor treats me to a meal occasionally.  Is this appropriate?
No, it is not appropriate.  To accept such an invitation, you would likely develop a bias, even if small, in favor of the vendor or his/her company, for the wrong reasons. You can accept the invitation and pay for your own meal. Some exceptions may be permissible depending on circumstances; speak to your supervisor, and/or the Chief Compliance Officer.
▼   At a professional conference, a vendor offers to pay for a group dinner or some type of hospitality event.  Is this acceptable for me to participate?
If you have been singled-out with a small group of other selected conference attendees, it would not be ethical to attend, particularly if a sales pitch will be involved. It is reasonable to assume your attendance may likely impact your professional judgment in future purchase decisions involving the vendor’s products, for the wrong reasons.
▼   A vendor sends me a $50 box of cookies during the holidays each year.  What should I do?
Either return the gift, or if it is perishable, share it with your staff or donate it to charity.  In either event, you should politely inform the vendor that such gifts are prohibited by University policy. This amount exceeds the de minimis gift value limit.

 

▼   Faculty-Specific Q & A Scenarios

 

▼   A leading software company is offering a School of Computing professor a free laptop if she requires her students to purchase the company’s application for her class.  The professor believes the app is the best one on the market and she was going to make it a required purchase anyway.  May she accept the laptop?
USA policy and the Alabama Ethics Commission provide that no state employee shall accept gifts from vendors above a de minimis value ($25), especially during a time the vendor is competing for business with the institution.  In addition, the professor should assure she is compliant with the Alabama Competitive Bid Law before making such purchases.
▼   A Marine Sciences professor recently received an honorarium for giving the keynote address at a scholarly conference. Would this need to be either disclosed on the annual Conflict of Interest Disclosure form, or requested as an External Professional Activity?
USA’s External Professional Activities policy does not require a request form unless the activity (a) requires a time commitment (whether compensated or not), (b) is not considered part of the employee’s institutional responsibilities, and (c) involves an absence during a business day (must meet all three). Otherwise, this may need to be disclosed only on an annual COI Disclosure form. Services of a scholarly or professional nature for which tokens of appreciation (honoraria) are traditionally conferred and are not undertaken for personal financial gain, for example a scholarly presentation or program evaluation, would typically be compliant with USA policy.
▼   Can professors require their students to purchase a textbook they wrote?

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.

▼   A part-time instructor, paid-by-course, works in a department where her ex-husband is a faculty member. She does not receive annual evaluations, her salary is the same as that of all other instructors, and her course assignments are determined by the coordinator of the program she teaches in, with no involvement by her ex-husband. Is she subject to the nepotism policy?

This scenario may be disclosed on USA’s annual COI Disclosure form (as an additional type of conflict), but is generally not addressed by USA’s conflict of interest policies unless related to sponsored research. USA’s nepotism policy does not apply because the instructor is not a current family member of the mentioned faculty member, and either way the ex-family member does not supervise the instructor. However, the relationship should at least be informally disclosed for transparency purposes, so that action can be taken to avoid the perception of a conflict. Any relationship that can reasonably appear to affect USA duties, such as work-related decisions that might potentially not be made in the best interest of USA, should be disclosed.

▼   A music professor is teaching a class this semester that her son, a USA student, wants to take.  Is this covered by the nepotism policy?

This scenario would not need to be disclosed on USA’s annual COI Disclosure form, and is not addressed by USA’s conflict of interest policies unless related to sponsored research. USA’s nepotism policy covers employment only.  However, teaching and grading one’s own family member is a scenario that could easily become perceived as favoritism by other students and could be avoided by having the relative take another similar class with a different instructor, if available. When no other class is available, the conflict may be managed with the assistance of the dept chair or college dean, as appropriate.

▼   If I have a relationship with a company whose products are referenced in a presentation I give to my class, what should I disclose about the relationship?

You should disclose the nature of your relationship, including whether you are paid for your role, the type of role (i.e., consulting, advisory board service, speaking), fiduciary roles (e.g., board of

director service), and ownership interests (e.g., stocks, equity, royalties, etc.). You should also disclose

the source of funding that was the basis of your presentation. Always err on the side of transparency.

▼   May faculty members be reimbursed directly by a pharmaceutical company for travel expenses to attend a meeting that is being certified for CME or CEU credit?  (Note: this scenario would likely only likely apply to Colleges of Medicine, Nursing & Allied Health Professionals)

No. Payment or reimbursement of travel expenses to faculty, trainees or other member of the College of Medicine (COM) to merely attend a CME activity would be considered a personal gift and therefore a violation of USA’s gift policy. Consult with the COM’s Office of Continuing Medical Education for guidance.

▼   No. Payment or reimbursement of travel expenses to faculty, trainees or other member of the College of Medicine (COM) to merely attend a CME activity would be considered a personal gift and therefore a violation of USA’s gift policy. Consult with the COM’s Office of Continuing Medical Education for guidance.

Yes, but only if the process for awarding financial support for the trainee’s meeting attendance is controlled by the professional association sponsoring the conference, and the conference is being certified for CME/CEU. For CME’s, applicants should assure they meet ACCME Standards for Commercial Support by not allowing CME providers to use commercial support to pay for travel, lodging, honoraria, or personal expenses for non-speaker or non-author participants of a CME activity. Therefore, if the CME certification process is working appropriately, the funds being used to support travel would be from sources other than industry. College of Medicine (COM) applicants should also check with COM’s Office of Continuing Medical Education.

Conflict of Commitment 

A potential Conflict of Commitment (COC) exists when a USA community member’s external relationships or activities have the possibility (either in actuality or in appearance) of interfering or competing with the University’s educational, research, or service missions, or with that individual’s ability or willingness to perform the full range of responsibilities associated with his or her position.

Examples:

  • A history professor writes historical fiction novels which consume 40 hours per week of their time, and the impact on their institutional responsibilities is noticeable.
  • A music professor performs with a traveling folk music group, which sometimes conflicts with instructional duties.
  • A pediatric faculty physician has been selected to serve as Chair of the National Board of Directors for the Girls Scouts of America, a duty which will impinge on the physician’s patient care and instructional responsibilities at USA Health.
▼   Q & A Scenarios
▼   A professor’s collaboration with colleagues at another university has resulted in an offer of a part-time position there. This will provide significant professional opportunities, and the professor has determined they can fulfill the obligations of the position within USA’s limits on outside employment. Is this a conflict?
This scenario presents a potential conflict, perhaps a manageable one. Part-time employment by another university may result in a conflict of interest and/or a conflict of commitment. A full-time faculty member’s institutional responsibilities to USA may easily be compromised by professional obligations to another institution.  No paid position at another institution should be accepted without first submitting an External Professional Activities request form which will initiate necessary discussion with your supervisor. Matters such as the listing of institutional affiliations in publications, recruiting of graduate students or postdoctoral fellows, reporting of scholarly activities for evaluation, and time commitment (should be 1 day per week or less) must all be considered before the position is approved.
▼   A College of Business professor teaches courses in their professional area for another university during the summer, when they are not employed by USA.  Does this need to be reported?
USA’s External Professional Activities policy does not require a request for activities that occur during Summer time-off of 9-month faculty (for purposes of a conflict of commitment), such employment must be disclosed for prior review for actual, potential, or apparent Conflicts of Interest to assure there is no use of University Resources, including staff, except as otherwise provided by University policy and agreement by the appropriate office, e.g. the Office of Research Compliance.
▼   A College of Engineering faculty member consults in an area related to their professional duties.  What are the limitations on this activity?
USA’s External Professional Activities policy requires a request be submitted if the activity (a) requires a time commitment (whether compensated or not), (b) is not considered part of the employee’s institutional responsibilities, and (c) involves an absence during a business day (must meet all three).  If the consulting is limited to only 1 day per week, the faculty member’s request may be approved, particularly if there are no disruptions to the faculty member’s institutional responsibilities.  However, since the consulting is related to their institutional responsibilities, a determination will be made by the reviewer as to whether a conflict of interest exists.
▼   A faculty member offers consulting services in an area related to their recognized expertise and institutional responsibilities at USA. Their overall time commitment is less than a day per week. They do most consulting from home, but do use their USA computer, email account and telephone to communicate with clients, and occasionally use equipment in the USA lab to analyze samples.  Must any of this be disclosed?
Per USA’s External Professional Activities policy, a request form will need to be submitted for this activity because it involves a time commitment that may potentially interfere with their USA institutional responsibilities, and because it is an activity directly related to their USA institutional responsibilities. For 9-month faculty, outside employment is limited to 1 day per week during the academic year (36 days per year total).  For staff, it is limited to time outside regular assigned hours.  For both faculty and staff, outside employment may be subject to further limitation if it otherwise constitutes a conflict of interest. Is there a possibility the faculty member’s decision-making and influence in USA business matters may not be in the best interests of USA due to the consulting relationship loyalty?  As for computer, phone and lab use, using USA resources to run a business is prohibited.  While truly minimal personal uses of USA telephones and email are generally not a problem, using those resources in a systematic way for a private business purpose is different.  Use of lab facilities or time for a private purpose is similarly prohibited unless covered under a facilities use agreement.
▼   May I enter into a compensated consulting agreement with a medical device manufacturer to advise on general medical issues such as providing guidance on product development and research programs for the manufacturers products?  Note: This scenario would only likely apply to Colleges of Engineering, Computing or Medicine (but not permissible for College of Medicine faculty under PEA’s with USA Health).
Yes, with the approval of your dept chair and dean through a Request for External Professional Activities form. Ideally, you should have a written agreement with the company describing the services you will provide. The compensation must be fair market value, and otherwise be compliant with USA’s Conflict of Interest and Conflict of Commitment policy and USA Health’s related Conflict of Interest policies (if applicable). The agreement should be negotiated with the manufacturer’s research division, not their marketing or sales division. As they are personal agreements between the faculty member and the manufacturer directly, they are not negotiated, reviewed, or signed by USA.

Financial Conflict of Interest

Arises when an employee (or family member) in a position to financially benefit from USA business or research decisions is involved in the decision-making. While financial interests should not and, in most cases, do not, compromise intellectual honesty or institutional integrity, under federal law and according to USA policy, they must not have the appearance of compromising the University's values and missions of teaching, research, and public service. Financial Conflicts of Interest are based on tangible conflicts that can be seen and measured and associated with monetary value.

Examples:

  • Negotiating on behalf of the University for the purchase of materials from a company in which you have a financial interest.
  • Directly influencing the negotiation of contracts, including research contracts or licensing contracts, between the University and a company in which you have a financial interest.
▼   Q & A Scenarios
▼   A faculty member owns mutual funds and a retirement account, whose portfolios may include companies that do business with USA (related to their department). The faculty member also has a small business selling antiques on consignment in a store cubicle, which she claims takes no time away from her institutional responsibilities and has nothing to do with her USA duties.  Do these need to be reported and approved?
With respect to the mutual funds and retirement account, per USA’s COI Disclosure form, employees are exempt from reporting any stock owned as part of a larger mutual fund or retirement plan. The reasoning behind this is that USA employees likely have negligible control over portfolio decisions, and the amount of said company’s stock as a proportion of a mutual fund’s overall portfolio is also likely negligible. More significant types of financial interest (ownership) aside from this exception would need to be disclosed. With respect to the antiques consignment business, USA’s External Professional Activities policy does not require reporting of employment unrelated to one’s USA duties unless the particular employment may (either in actuality or in appearance) interfere or compete with the University’s educational, research, or service missions. Finally, USA’s conflict of interest policies would not prohibit External Professional Relationships if the company is not a competitor to USA, does no business with USA, and the USA employee’s involvement is outside the course and scope of one’s University responsibilities.

Conflict of Interest in Research

Occurs when an employee who is conducting research has a financial interest which could cause bias that affects the design, conduct or reporting of his/her research, for instance, a financial interest in a sponsor of the research, or in the manufacturer of a product or device used in the research. If the financial interest could reasonably be perceived to directly and significantly affect the research it must be reported even if its dollar value or percentages is minimal.

Examples:

  • Accepting gifts or gratuities from companies doing business or sponsoring one's research at the University.
  • Accepting honoraria over fair market value for lectures on behalf of companies, for instance for a company whose economic or political interests are affected by an investigator's research.
  • Performing research for a company in which the investigator has a financial interest.
  • Accepting a paid consultancy with a company having an interest in your research.
  • Using students to perform services for a company in which you have a financial interest.
  •  Providing privileged access to information developed with University or independent sponsorship to another entity in which you have a financial interest.
  • Providing or receiving financial bonuses from a research sponsor for meeting subject recruitment targets or achieving stated results.
  • Holding office or membership on a board or committee of an entity supporting your University research.
  • Holding equity interests, including stock options, in an entity which supports your University research.
  • Imposition of restrictions on the actions of students or trainees, including disclosure of research findings, at the request of a sponsor or financially interested company.
▼   Q & A Scenarios
▼   I have an outside consulting practice that solicits business from several sponsoring agencies that provide funding awards to USA. Do I need to disclose this relationship?
Yes, this relationship must be disclosed on your annual COI Disclosure form, since your consulting practice competes with USA for funding. It will need to be determined if any potential conflict exists between your outside business and USA.  A University employee or faculty member may not perform work, either in a self-owned business or as an employee of an outside business, which (i) uses confidential information that the employee receives in the course of his or her employment, (ii) could be considered a "quid pro quo" for the contracting party to obtain University business or (iii) directly or indirectly places the University at a financial or competitive disadvantage.