Faculty cite privacy concerns in face of new UT disclosure policies

Jordan Rudner

On the heels of two controversies involving conflicts of interest in research in the past year, UT has amended its financial conflict of interest and objectivity in research policy. 

Juan Sanchez, vice president for research, spoke at length about changes in UT’s policy at a Faculty Council meeting Monday. Sanchez said the changes were not the result of any action taken by UT but instead were instituted by the UT System. 

“The change in policy was prompted by changes in regulations by the Public Health Services, which include the National Institutes of Health, and by the guidelines issued by the UT System,” Sanchez said. “No one at UT-Austin had a say in this new policy, but I would imagine the justification used on the federal level was used by our regents, to protect the proper use of university and federal resources.” 

In July, a study on gay parenting by sociology professor Mark Regnerus garnered controversy after critics pointed out that the study was funded by The Witherspoon Institute and The Bradley Foundation, two conservative groups. In December, the director of UT’s Energy Institute, Raymond Orbach, resigned and geology professor Chip Groat retired after it was discovered that Groat published a study that found no link between hyrdaulic fracturing and water contamination, but did not disclose he sat on the board of directors of a drilling company.

The new conflict of interest policy differs from its predecessor in two main ways. Potential conflicts of interest will be determined by an independent official, as opposed to faculty members themselves. Additionally, the new policy has an extended scope, applying to all research irrespective of funding source, while the old regulations applied only to externally funded research.

Several faculty members expressed hesitation about privacy issues at the meeting. In a question submitted in advance of Sanchez’ presentation, government professor Daron Shaw stated his deep concerns about the implications of the personal financial disclosure required by the new policy.

“This is the most egregious, chilling policy UT has adopted since I’ve been here,” Shaw wrote. 

Jody Jensen, kinesiology and psychology professor, also expressed concern about the nature of the financial disclosure forms. Jensen said the fear was that the in-depth personal finances of UT faculty members would be publicly available via open records requests. 

“There is a growing culture of what we do being searchable and open to the scrutiny of those with good intentions and those without,” Jensen said. “It seems fair to me that people with conflicts of interest should disclose, but it doesn’t seem appropriate that all faculty should have these kinds of records — seeing that this should be available to all who want to snoop.”

Sanchez said it was important to clarify that UT faculty financial disclosures would not be accessible via an online database. 

“Where is the mandate that this information be publicly searchable?” Sanchez said. “There is no such mandate, and there is no such publicly accessible database. The database will be kept as a university record, and in most cases, only open records requests will make the information public.”