Full Disclosure

Professors at U. of Texas say that proposed conflict-of-interest rules would infringe on their privacy and academic freedom.

May 6, 2013

Should not disclosing the fact that you coach Little League be a fireable offense for a professor?

As administrators in the University of Texas System move to expand the employee disclosure policy to avoid overlooking inappropriate conflicts of interest, faculty members say the plans infringe on their academic freedom and personal privacy.

The “Conflict of Interest, Conflicts of Commitment and Outside Activities” policy, meant to go into effect May 1, was pushed back four months after faculty members last month spent more than an hour objecting to measures, which some professors described as excessive.

“It’s invasive. It’s intrusive. It basically says you’re guilty before you’re proven innocent,” said Alan W. Friedman, a professor of English at the Austin campus. “It threatens loss of tenure over failure to report that you volunteer for Planned Parenthood.”

A March 5 draft of the policy would require the university system’s more than 70,000 salaried employees to disclose any outside employment, whether compensated or not, as well as “substantial interests in business entities” that could be cause for a conflict of interest. Professors also have to file a report if they or close family members receive any gifts worth more than $250 from one of those entities. The information will be pooled into a publicly available electronic database.

“Noncompliance with this policy may subject one to discipline in accord with applicable procedures up to and including termination of employment,” the draft reads.

Friedman and other faculty members described the disclosure policy as a knee-jerk reaction to a 2012 case involving a geology professor, Charles G. Groat, who authored a report that seemingly cleared hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” of contaminating groundwater. It was later discovered that Groat sat on the board of the Texas-based fracker Plains and Exploration Company, and had been paid $413,900 for his services. Groat retired in November 2012.

When asked during the faculty meeting what evidence prompted the new policy, Friedman said administrators only named one case of an undisclosed conflict of interest. “The system got a lot of egg on its face because of this case, so they came up with this overreaction,” he said.

Most research universities have strict rules in place for those doing biomedical research, which for example, would draw attention to scientists who study drugs at the same time they are consulting with a pharmaceutical company.  The UT System already has disclosure policies in place, but should the changes go into effect unaltered, a professor could potentially be terminated for not disclosing volunteer activities like a Boy Scout field trip, said Brian L. Evans, professor of engineering.

“It kind of gets pretty ‘big brother’ on that one,” Evans said.

In a letter announcing the delay of the new policy, Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa called for more discussion and the creation of a committee to study the draft. Based on the response of faculty members, the policy is likely to be revised, said Daniel H. Sharphorn, associate vice chancellor and deputy general counsel. He downplayed the significance of the Groat case.

“[The new policy] was intended to cover conflicts of commitment rather than just conflicts of interest,” Sharphorn said. “It’s the notion that there’s not a specific conflict of interest ..., but you’re spending 35 hours a week working someplace else when you’re supposed to be primarily employed with the university.”

The Faculty Council at UT-Austin is on Monday set to consider a resolution outlining faculty members’ qualms about the new policy. The 13-point list points out that the policy runs counter to widely accepted ideas of academic freedom. The American Association of University Professors has encouraged faculty members to cultivate activities outside their institutions, saying it “builds the reputations of institutions, and can also promote the interests of both the administration and the faculty.”

The resolution also includes concerns about student and faculty recruitment, privacy and job security.

“No other institutions of higher education have been cited as having such a policy in place,” one point reads. Another, “No study has demonstrated the need for such an expansive and intrusive policy or the good it will supposedly accomplish. It seems to us to be a solution in search of a problem.”


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