New conflict-of-interest regulations for research are burdensome, unnecessary

Travis Knoll

After a slew of controversies over university research, UT has doubled down on attempting to define and control the line between where a professor’s job ends and their private activities begin. Two policies in particular have drawn pointed critiques from UT faculty: The “UT 180 Conflict of Commitment” policy, which requires professors to disclose and seek approval for outside activities that might affect their ability to do objective research, and the HOP 7-1210 Financial Conflict of Interest policy, which requires an extra set of financial disclosure forms for professors who may be conducting research on behalf of companies they work for, or other organizations that could present the appearance of impropriety. Both of these policies had a deadline of March 31.


Here’s the problem: More forms and modules probably won’t address the conflicts of interest and might, instead, lead to unnecessary bitterness. 


The principle behind the first policy — to protect the University’s reputation and monitor what its employees are doing — seems admirable. After all, UT’s reputation doesn’t end at the 40 Acres, or in academic conference halls. It continues in political and personal activities in the public square, where an individual professor’s position carries weight. The second policy attempts to clamp down on potential quid pro quos in areas such as engineering, geology and sociology, where professors’ expert opinions are called upon by outside groups to settle public debates with potentially lucrative deals on the side for their testimony or reports. 


Although these policies have a basis in real concerns, they risk becoming just another paperwork burden for professors who don’t engage in activist and consulting work, a danger to those who do so ethically, and meaningless to those who don’t care as much about the University as they do their own pocket books. While these forms will allow for greater transparency regarding consulting work, the policies also risk exposing faculty to unnecessary intrusion into their personal lives by University officials. The forms further blur the line between public and private in an age where every piece of public information is searchable, and most University records are subject to public records requests — even a professor’s email account. 


When the regulations on financial conflicts of interest were first announced last year, some faculty bridled at what they saw as overreach. As KUT reported in January 2013, some professors believed that the regulations missed the point, broadly targeting cases that had little to do with conflict of interest. 


Jon Olson, an associate professor of petroleum and geosystems engineering, told KUT he would have to fill out forms because he was conducting a project for a company he owned stock in. He argued that this was an administrative burden because he was not evaluating any of the company’s own property. Government professor Daron Shaw said in that story that private family financial information could be exposed through open records requests because of the new policy. 


Brian Evans, electrical and computer engineering professor, also sharply criticized the UT 180 policy last May; both Evans and the Faculty Council said the regulations stymie legitimate political activities. In a follow-up summary last semester, Evans gave several examples of activities now subject to University approval, such as innocuous volunteer work for nonprofits and participation in organizations such as unions and the National Rifle Association. 


These professors have a point. Leaving the protection of private information to redactors, who many times fail to shield sensitive information from disclosure, increases the chance of identity theft and of further harassment of public figures. For examples of redacting failures, one need only look at the accidental FERPA-protected records released in the case of UT System Regent Wallace Hall, who, according to a recent investigation, “manipulated” his role as a regent to push through an inquiry into UT President William Powers Jr., including  his burdensome requests for information. On that note, I agree that these policies risk hampering engagement with the public sphere. However, greater self-reflection by faculty could lead to less draconian legislation in the future. Unscrupulous professors are not stopped by paperwork but by the vigilance of their peers. 


Overall, these regulations seem like window dressing. UT never lacked regulation but, rather, the political will to enforce the common sense policies we already had on the books. Whether this is due to conflict with the UT regents or just plain slothfulness, I’m skeptical UT will enforce these policies more vigorously and fairly than the previous ones. The administration’s focus on profits and business partnerships to fill their coffers in an age of austerity even seems to encourage financial conflicts, and the Tower only seems to move when a scandal actually breaks at its doorstep. But, even then, the Tower’s first reaction seems to be to wash its hands of any responsibility, to encourage everyone to take side deals and to hope a new set of rules would scare would-be wrong doers. Such hope is naive. Without breaking our addiction to the language of business over learning, and without a sense of shared stewardship and ethical self-policing from the departments themselves, these policies will be as ineffective as the ones we already have. 


Knoll is a first-year graduate student in Latin American studies from Dallas.