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GRAMA request reveals missing faculty conflict-of-interest forms

May 2nd, 2012 Posted in Opinion

By Caitlin Moffitt

LOGAN—Utah State University may be in violation of federal and state regulations that require the school to report and manage the conflicts of interests of its employees.

That’s because the university has left much of the responsibility for oversight to the employees themselves—and some have chosen to not fulfill their legal obligation.

About 800 professors teach at the Logan campus, and all are required to submit an annual conflict of interest disclosure statement. The statement specifies, among other things, the instructor’s commercial interest in their research specialty and any royalties they earn for textbooks required in their classes.

A formal request under Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) was needed to receive copies of faculty conflict of interest disclosure forms.

USU’s federal compliance manager Russ Price acknowledged that there is an undetermined number of forms missing.

“We didn’t get things consistently from everybody,” Price said. “There’s one person that we have none.”

That professor, linguistics professor John McLaughlin, said he fills out his conflict of interest forms each year.

“Where they go after that, I don’t know – I don’t really care,” McLaughlin said. McLaughlin, who teaches in the English department, publishes a book and CD that are required for his linguistics course.

For the current school year, at least seven professors who wrote books that were then sold to students didn’t submit the conflict of interest forms. Many more who had other conflicts may also have failed to submit forms or have those forms cataloged by the compliance office.

Price, who has worked at USU since 2002, said the missing forms are now “one of the things that I’m going to be monitoring. We’ll pull one or two departments every year and just look at it and make sure that we are getting complete disclosure from the department.”

But departments are responsible for making sure all faculty complete the disclosure forms each year, Price said.

“We do leave it in the hands of department administration, so our expectation is that we will get a disclosure from every person,” Price said. “They know who comes in and who goes out. It’s our best method to make sure it happens, but I’ll be talking to business managers to tell them that this is really important.”

According to USU policy, a conflict of interest exists whenever “a University employee owes a professional obligation to the university, which is or can be compromised by the pursuit of outside interests.”

Requiring students to buy texts or other materials that professors have written is one common conflict area. Faculty are required to report royalties of $500 or more for books they sell to their students.

According to Price, the $500 figure was decided by a committee, which included the provost’s office and Craig Simper, USU’s general legal counsel.

“It was set at $500 as opposed to other thresholds that are set at $10,000, because we are very sensitive to our students being taken advantage of, or the appearance of that happening,” Price said.

Interim USU Bookstore director Dave Hansen identified seven professors who currently require their students to purchase materials they authored.

Those seven faculty members—music professor Jon Gudmundson, anthropology professor David Lancy, environment & society professor Charles Romesburg, English professor John McLaughlin, Michael Dalton, HPER professor Peter Mathesius and communicative disorders professor J. Freeman King—all indicated they received less than $500 in royalties from the sales of course materials they authored.

Conflicts are not necessarily ill-intentioned. King, a professor in the communicative disorders and deaf education department, co-publishes his own American Sign Language manual with his wife, which retails for $43.60 in the USU Bookstore.

“We were not pleased with the published books or study materials out there on the market, so my wife and I decided to pull together our own information that we wanted to share with our students,” King said. “We were also quite distraught by the cost of published books, and this cost having to be born by students themselves. Therefore, we decided to publish our own stuff.”

King said he receives about 10 percent of the profits from his material as royalty, and directs anything more than the $500 reporting limit to the Tom and Bonnie Clark Scholarship fund for deaf education.

“Typically, we wait for a couple years for any excess in royalty, and then put it back into that fund,” King said. “This is to assist students who are deaf education majors.”

King and his wife are working on an updated manual, but he said he is considering self-publishing to make it friendlier for the students who will be purchasing the materials.

Price applauded the Kings’ approach.

“Anything that Jan and Freeman receive in excess of $500, they donate to a deaf education scholarship,” Price said. “That’s one of the normal ways that we prompt people to handle that.”

King isn’t the only faculty member who turns books royalties to good causes. Anthropology’s Lancy has published eight books since 1976.

“None are strictly textbooks, but I’ve used four of them in various courses,” he said. “They take up to four years to write and I earn an average of $1,000 in royalties on each book.”

“Obviously, I don’t write books for the money.”

Lancy said his royalties got into a department account, which he has used to pay programmers periodically to update the code for CDs that he’s created.

“I bought my own and students’ computers and A/V equipment, supported anthropology students—not scholarships per se—with research and museum projects, and covered my own and student travel to research conferences,” Lancy said. “Essentially, I used the revenue in the same way that faculty use grant funds.”

Lancy said that a few years back, the IRS ruled unfavorably regarding such arrangements “so the bookstore has had to pay me the royalties earned directly. I still spend the money on much the same things but, now, federal and state taxes reduce the total available.”

The Bookstore’s Hansen says he figures most faculty members are similarly well-intentioned about the books they sell to students.

“I know the faculty have the students’ interests at heart,” he said. “When they use their own materials in class, they are doing it because they believe the students will benefit by the customized content, and if anything is made, it’s used for the benefit of the students—typically by returning it to scholarships.”

But if the store’s management does suspect a wrongful conflict, “there is no process or venue for bookstore management to communicate such incidents to academic administrators,” he said.

If faculty don’t disclose their conflicts, and if students don’t step in to report suspected conflicts, Hansen said, “we’ll never know because we’re driven by the disclosure.”


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