Conflict of interest inspected

By Kelly Canright

Arizona Daily Wildcat

The UA’s interim conflict of interest policy has not escaped causing conflict itself.

The research policy committee has recently proposed changes to the interim conflict of interest policy, which the University of Arizona Faculty Senate will discuss Monday.

The proposed document states, “A conflict of interest exists when an employee is in a position to influence any university business transaction, research activity or other decisions in ways that could lead to any manner or form of personal gain for the employee or his/her family members. Conflict of interest and conflicts of commitment may be considered improper either alone or in combination.”

If the policy is adopted, it will require the UA faculty and administrators to disclose any financial gain over $250 that is in any way related to their field.

It will also require faculty to limit external consultation and external time commitments if they interfere with teaching, research or community service.

“The policy had to be adopted on an interim basis. The federal

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government demanded that we adopt it,” said UA attorney Diane Sagner.

Charlie Hurt, the chairman of the technology transfer committee, initiated the reform process about three years ago. The recent revisions have taken about six months.

“Basically, the university was running into some interesting problems, particularly in terms of research,” Hurt said.

“Our overall goal is full disclosure. If you disclose what someone else may consider a conflict, then you’ve nipped the problem in the bud,” Hurt said.

The policy incorporates all policies and procedures set up in the Arizona Board of Regents’ Policy Manual, the University Handbook for Appointed Personnel, the Classified Staff Personnel Policy Manual, Arizona Conflict of Interest statute (A.R.S. 38-501) and all applicable federal laws and regulations.

“The revision of the conflict of interest policy was initiated to be consistent with what we feel the federal government standards are,” said vice president for research Michael Cusanovich.

The university has been operating under the interim policy during the revision process.

“Now, we are going to send it to the (faculty) senate. The policy will be revised. All comments will be reflected, but not all of them will be included. All errors will be corrected,” Sagner said.

But the revision process may be rocky, as not everyone agrees about what the policy should include.

Some professors think a restrictive conflict of interest could damage the university’s academic climate and students’ career development.

“This policy works as a prior restraint against the academic freedom of professors. It assumes involvement in the real world is a negative thing,” said law Professor and Senate member Roy Spece, an opponent of the conflict policy.

“This could be very detrimental to students by cutting them off from cutting-edge knowledge,” he said. “This is an invasion of privacy because the public doesn’t have a legitimate interest in knowing about every tiny sum of money.”

“This will hurt students because companies want students who are educated by faculty that are aware of recent developments,” Spece said.

“We need to be attuned to national norms so we can recruit the best. Businesses will not want to hire students from an inferior institution,” he added.

“Let’s be reasonable. These are people who have worked hard enough to get tenure. What this policy would allow is a professor like that to be terminated,” Spece said. “It’s an issue of insubordination. We will lose good professors, and other good professors will not be recruited to come here.”

This is not an across-the-board opinion, however.

“Anything that interferes with teaching, research or administration represents a conflict of commitment,” said Glenn Songer, a veterinary science professor and a member of the research policy committee.

“If there is a problem, instead of the state population thinking all contracts and grants are flawed, this cleans up any suggestion of impropriety. This doesn’t stop anyone from taking on the research they want to,” Hurt said.

In a recent memorandum to the senate, Spece noted that “the federal government is apparently considering changing its disclosure requirement from $5,000 to $10,000, while our administration is proposing to set the reporting threshold at $250.”

Spece has recommended several changes to the wording of the policy.

“Everybody in the country has a policy like this. Ours is less onerous than some. I think we are somewhere in the middle,” Cusanovich added.

The policy requires oversight and approval and requires the establishment of full disclosure, Cusanovich said.

“Public interest cannot be harmed if there is full and open disclosure,” Cusanovich said.

Despite the discussion, a final decision is not expected at Monday’s meeting.

“The conflict of interest policy is up for discussion only. Whenever the senate research policy committee gives us their firm recommendation, we will vote on it. They are not ready to finalize it,” said J.D. Garcia, faculty chairman.

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