The remedy for conflicts of interest is transparency

We often hear the term “conflict of interest” referring to government officials who violate their oath to serve the public interest.

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

In these cases, officials are expected to abstain from discussing and voting, recusing themselves.

When they fail to do so, they violate the public trust and the common good, defined as the resources a community provides to residents. These include road systems, public safety and transportation, educational and cultural facilities, and clean air and water.

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

  • Junketsor paid travel for a journalist to cover an event.
  • Giftsor gifts like free meals or tickets, to befriend or influence media coverage.
  • Bribesor outright payment or promise to purchase services or goods from a media outlet in exchange for a favor.

The professors of the three Regents universities in Iowa must also serve the public interest and the common good. Many travel to conduct research or share fellowships at conferences. If the trip is funded by a scholarship or university funds, they cannot use the occasion – in whole or in part – as a personal vacation, to visit relatives and friends.

If professors are invited to speak at a reception whose expenses are paid for by the organizers, they also cannot fraudulently submit receipts for reimbursement from the university.

And of course, they can’t be bribed to modify the research to support a donor’s product or service.

Iowa State University has a detailed conflict of interest website. These generally involve “circumstances in which an individual’s professional actions or decisions at the university could be influenced by considerations of personal gain, usually of a financial nature, due to interests outside of their academic responsibilities”.

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

One of the most common conflicts involves teachers asking students to buy their own textbooks. On the one hand, teachers have the right to assign books for lessons. On the other hand, they cannot do it for their personal enrichment.

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

All conflicts of interest involve temptation, and that is the temptation here.

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

  • The book has little to do with the 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 the marks depend on the purchase of his book.
  • The professor forces less powerful colleagues to use the book.

The American Association of University Teachers recognizes that professors have the right to assign books, even their own, as long as policy permits and that such decisions “are not compromised by the slightest appearance of impropriety.”

The UIS Faculty Handbook goes further. It states that “a faculty member who receives royalties or other direct compensation for such scholarly product may face a conflict of interest when participating in the decision to adopt the material for local use” .

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

The policy allows faculty to retain royalties if they played no role in the selection process or can document “exceptional circumstances” approved by the department chair, dean, and appropriate provosts.

It is a good policy.

I do not give away 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 program that content comes from many sources, including my texts, which they must not buy. “So you get content for free on top of years of updates from a variety of sources to ensure you have the best experience from many points of view.”

That’s the point.

Finally, the views here are my own. Professors cannot speak on behalf of the university or give the appearance that they are, as this would be another conflict of interest.

Everyone should be aware of the potential conflicts of interest associated with their business and work for the common good of their constituents and customers.

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