The remedy for conflicts of interest is transparency

By MICHAEL BUGEJA, Iowa Capital Dispatch

 (Photo by Getty Images)

We often hear the phrase “conflict of interest” pertaining to government officials violating their oath to serve the public interest.

According to the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, the most common conflicts involve officeholders voting on land use matters that impact their own holdings. “Other examples include voting to grant a benefit to a company in which the officeholder owns stock or even to a non-profit organization on whose board the officeholder may sit.”

In those cases, officials are expected to abstain from discussion and voting, recusing themselves.

When they do not, they violate the public trust and the common good, defined as resources a community provides to residents. These include road systems, public safety and transport, educational and cultural facilities, and clean air and water.

Journalists also are expected to serve the public and common good. Typically, they deal with these types of conflicts:

  • Junkets, or an expenses-paid trip so that a reporter can cover an event.
  • Freebies, or gifts like free meals or tickets, to befriend or influence coverage.
  • Bribes, or outright payment or promise to buy services or goods from a media outlet in return for some favor.

Professors at Iowa’s three Regents universities also must serve the public interest and the common good. Many travel to conduct research or share scholarship at conferences. If travel is underwritten by a grant or university funds, they cannot use the occasion — in part or whole — as a personal vacation, visiting relatives and friends.

If professors are invited to speak at a function with expenses paid for by organizers, they cannot fraudulently submit receipts for university reimbursement, too.

And of course they cannot receive bribes to tweak research so that it supports a donor’s product or service.

Iowa State University has a detailed website about conflicts of interest. These usually involve “circumstances where an individual’s professional actions or decisions at the university could be influenced by considerations of personal gain, usually of a financial nature, as a result of interests outside his/her university responsibilities.”

The remedy is transparency. ISU employees must submit a disclosure form detailing any potential conflict. For instance, we must report any management role in a non-ISU entity that funds scholarly activities.

One of the most common conflicts involves professors requiring students to buy their own textbooks. On the one hand, professors have a right to assign books for classes. On the other, they cannot do so for personal enrichment.

A typical text costs $84. Royalties from such a book average about $12.60. If a professor has 100 or more students, that comes out to $1,260. Multiply that by two semesters, and the enrichment is $2,520, usually more than the typical 1% average salary increase for professors.

All conflicts of interest involve temptation, and that’s the enticement here.

Some situations are more unethical than others. Here are scenarios from Psychology Today:

  • The book has little to do with course content.
  • The book is relevant, but not used in the course.
  • The book is self-published and inferior to other available materials.
  • The professor makes grades contingent on buying their book.
  • The professor forces less powerful colleagues to use the book.

The American Association of University Professors acknowledges that professors are entitled to assign books, even their own, as long as policy allows and those decisions “are not compromised by even the appearance of impropriety.”

The ISU Faculty Handbook goes further. It states that “a faculty member who receives royalties or other direct remuneration for such a scholarly product may be faced with a conflict of interest when he/she is a participant in the decision to adopt the material for local use.”

Professors may use their texts in their classes if royalties are assigned to the university “or to a body mutually agreed upon by the university and the faculty member.”

The policy allows professors to keep royalties if they had no role in the selection process or can document “exceptional circumstances” approved by the department chair, appropriate dean and provost officials.

It is a good policy.

I do not assign any of my textbooks. Royalties from my “How-To News Writer,” published by the Iowa Newspaper Association, go into an ISU endowment managed by my director and the Iowa State Foundation.

I include a statement in my media ethics syllabus stating that content comes from many sources, including my texts, which they should not purchase. “Thus, you are receiving content for free in addition to years of updates from a variety of sources to ensure you have the best experience from many viewpoints.”

That’s the goal.

Finally, viewpoints here are mine. Professors cannot speak for the university or give the appearance that they are, for doing so would be another conflict of interest.

Everyone should know potential conflicts of interest associated with their businesses and work for the common good of their constituents and clients.

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