Summer 1991 // Volume 29 // Number 2 // To The Point // 2TP1
Conflicts of Interest and the Land-Grant Mission
The system's relationship with the private sector is vital. Existing and new challenges require the public/private sector team approach to solve problems. The need to develop conflict of interest guidelines is now incumbent on each state or territory receiving Smith-Lever funds. University employees, especially research and Extension faculty, need to be aware of potential conflicts of interest and avoid such conflicts through circumspect behavior, good communications, careful planning, and diligent program implementation.
The land-grant university, including the Experiment Station and Extension, have achieved a reputation for being an unbiased and objective educational resource. The land-grant university and its various units must protect their objectivity and strengthen their reputation as unbiased research and education resources.
The 1990 Farm Bill states: "The Secretary shall ensure that each college seeking to receive funds under this [Smith-Lever] Act has in place appropriate guidelines, as determined by the Secretary, to minimize actual or potential conflicts of interest among employees of such college whose salaries are funded in whole or in part with such funds."
The 1990 Farm Bill language refers to the Smith-Lever Act and is clearly directed to Extension. Extension, the Experiment Station, and the university, however, must act as a team to effectively serve users with unbiased research-based information and educational programs. If that's the case, should the conflict of interest guidelines apply the same way to all university research and Extension personnel?
Relations with the Private Sector
There are several areas where Extension, research, and the land-grant system should examine relationships with the private sector to protect and strengthen our objectivity and reputation.
The system's relationship with the private sector is vital. Existing and new challenges require the public/private sector team approach to solve problems. Limited public resources at the federal, state, and county levels create opportunities for alliances to be formed with the private sector that can either strengthen the land-grant mission of research and education or detract from it. It's within this public/private area where improper relationships may detract from the credibility of that mission.
A long-standing and positive relationship exists between the system and firms that produce and market products or services. Are we clear on how we should interact with these firms? I believe on balance this public/private sector relationship has benefited our clientele. Generally speaking, the testing and demonstrating of processes, techniques, and products in an unbiased, scientific environment has helped effectively transfer products and services into uses that benefit both the producer and consumer.
Working relationships between land-grant universities and the private sector should be guided by written cooperative agreements that clearly indicate freedom from constraints on publication of results by our personnel. Results should be published for public use with appropriate disclaimer statements to indicate that the testing of products isn't an endorsement by the public institution. I believe these relationships have a place within the system and should continue.
Relations with User Groups
Another area where Extension interacts with the private sector is in meetings of its professionals and with user groups. How can the private sector properly be involved with our personnel in this phase of the system's agenda? Limited resources in the public sector have seriously constrained our capacity to fully support the participation of our professionals in meetings. Some of the ways industry now supports educational programs may take the form of monetary support through contracts and grants, which could be interpreted as inappropriate.
It would seem that the key to industry support of meetings is to examine the way support is provided. As an alternative to a completely self-supported meeting, one approach may be to invite industry to display its products and services in conjunction with the educational event. Educational sessions can be conducted concurrently with the exhibit function, but with multiple exhibitors, the perception that the private sector is sponsoring any particular meeting agenda or topic is lessened. Registration fees, dues, and trade show resources then help create the financial support base for the meeting and should be publicly recognized.
There are other areas where the public/private agenda involves mutual interests and a need exists for collaborative effort. Extension's issues programming includes topics that could include joint public/private sector effort. For example, environmental issues need curriculum materials, especially for youth. Industry has generously supported youth recognition programs and selected corporations contribute significantly to enrichment and recognition programs for youth. The development of appropriate educational materials can be done collaboratively with industry, but with final editing and accuracy based on independent research resting with the Extension/research system. It's important to properly credit the firms and provide disclaimer statements relative to company products.
In short, the land-grant university can and should be collaborative with the private sector, especially where mutual concerns exist and benefits can be generated for public good. The approaches used to plan and implement these collaborative efforts need to be done carefully to avert any perceived or actual conflict of interest situations.
Areas of Potential Conflict of Interest
The need to develop conflict of interest guidelines is now incumbent on each state or territory receiving Smith-Lever funds. Should these guidelines reflect the same policy for all university faculty? In addressing that question, there are conditions of employment and specific situations that must be considered in developing guidelines. Here are some conditions of employment that may contribute to conflicts of interest:
- Many Experiment Station and Extension employees are paid primarily from public tax dollars. Other university employees often receive at least part of their salary from public funds and grants in addition to tuition revenue. University policy often allows consulting for a fee on a one-day-a-week basis. Should consulting for a fee in the same specialty area as the employee's assigned duties be allowed? It could constitute favored treatment to some clientele while denying similar treatment to other clientele who can't afford to pay. University employees may have knowledge of their clientele's operations gained through their normal job assignment. If this knowledge is used and a consulting fee is charged, does it result in unfair market competition for the clientele paying the fee? Consulting employees could be perceived as short-changing the clientele they're assigned to help, but who pay no consulting fee. Such a situation could be construed as a misuse of public funds for personal employee gain.
- Should an employee's job performance within the institution be affected by fee-based consulting activities?
- Are there employer liabilities in situations where employees are engaged in consulting for a fee?
- Extension, Experiment Station employees, and other university faculty have regular access to public tax support facilities, laboratories, materials, and equipment. If they use these items in their outside activities, does it constitute a misuse of public property for personal gain? Using university resources for outside activities could constitute a misuse of public funds and present a potential violation of public trust, which could result in an erosion of research and Extension's image as nonbiased.
- Should employees be permitted to own or operate a farm or business? What steps can be taken to ensure that time spent in the business is done on the employees' own time?
- As a side interest, employees may become involved in trading agricultural or other commodities or futures contracts that are closely related to their job. How can we help resolve real or perceived problems of unfair competition to others trading such commodities?
- In states that permit employees to hold public office, should the system ensure that these positions aren't used for political influence affecting the university? Are the hours, facilities, and materials required to be part of the political process separate from the employee's job? Is leave without pay sufficient to deal with this?
- University faculty are often asked by courts to provide facts relevant to claims, cases, suits, etc. Such expert witness testimony usually benefits one party and harms the other, placing the faculty in an unintended adversary position. But most states have laws that require all duly subpoenaed individuals to appear and testify. How should the system handle the time required and the fees paid for testifying?
- Another area that reflects unfavorably on university employees as unbiased sources of information is the practice of wearing apparel or displaying clothing, caps, or briefcases that bear the logo or trademark of a private sector firm. These items should be reserved for use on the employee's own time and not during activities related to their job.
The Challenges of Maintaining Credibility
The land-grant university mission and our current agenda place employees in highly visible roles where unbiased, highly credible approaches are vitally important to clientele. University employees, especially research and Extension faculty, need to be aware of potential conflicts of interest and avoid such conflicts through circumspect behavior, good communications, careful planning, and diligent program implementation. Our future credibility, effectiveness, and public support depend on how we handle these issues.