“Transparency is your friend in conflict of interest situations.”
Last month we began a discussion of conflicts of interest. As a reminder, a conflict of interest (COI) is a situation where an employee has competing interests between their university responsibilities and what could benefit them personally. Conflicts of interest will occur in higher education and every other industry, so it's important to remember that simply having a COI doesn't mean someone has done anything illegal or unethical. However, it does bring risk to the individual and to the institution if not appropriately disclosed, evaluated, and managed. We've seen this play out in higher education over the past couple of months where at one institution multiple executive-level employees were terminated (and may well be prosecuted) due to COI related issues.
The majority of information regarding COI in higher education focuses on research-related conflicts. Federal agencies have specific guidelines as to how research-related COIs are to be managed. However, it is important to realize that COIs can occur in many more ways than those encountered by researchers. Today we focus on some of the other areas where university employees may encounter COIs and provide some basic suggestions. The potential types of COI are virtually unlimited, but listed below are six general areas where we've seen issues develop at institutions in recent years.
- Vendor Relationships – employees becoming too close to one vendor, or being offered something of value by the vendor.
- Prospective Vendor Relationships – employees being offered something of value from a potential vendor especially during a procurement bidding situation.
- Family or Friends' Outside Business – employees steering institutional business to their own business, to a family member's business, or to someone who is a close personal friend.
- Corporate Boards – employees directing institutional business to an organization whose corporate board they serve, whether paid or not.
- Outside employment – employees having outside employment in addition to their university position can lead to conflicts of commitment if care is not taken to manage the situation.
- Nepotism – hiring of family members.
So what should you do if you have a conflict?
Transparency is your friend in COI situations. Disclosing and discussing the potential conflict with your supervisor in the organization is a good first step. After this discussion, it may be necessary to develop a COI management plan which protects both the employee and the institution. An effective COI management plan will eliminate or reduce the competing interest, typically bringing someone else into a decision making or oversight role.
It's also important to remember that there are some conflicts that cannot be managed and some activities that should not be undertaken as an employee. The facts and circumstances will determine when these situations arise, but going it alone without disclosure, discussion, and independent evaluation is not a wise choice.
Conflicts of interest are an important topic worthy of thought, but they are only one of many ways institutions and their stakeholders run into trouble. We again invite you to evaluate the events occurring across higher education in the past month with a view toward proactive risk management.
M. Kevin Robinson, CIA, CFE
Associate Vice President
Office of Audit, Compliance & Privacy
Information Security & Technology Events
Sep 27: A former philosophy professor at Bloomsburg University is headed to prison for having child pornography. Scott Lowe was sentenced Thursday to 11 and a half to 23 and a half months behind bars. He must register as a sex offender for 15 years and can have no contact with minors. In June, Lowe pleaded guilty to having child pornography on his work computer. According to arrest papers, during a routine check of campus computers in February, an employee noticed malware and traced it to Lowe's desktop in his office in Bakeless Hall, finding a pornographic image of a young girl. (link)
Sep 11: The University of Louisville told its faculty and staff Tuesday that a third-party fitness vendor experienced a data breach that compromised hundreds of U of L employees and retirees. The vendor, Minneapolis-based Health Fitness Corp., informed U of L officials on Aug. 24 of a data breach at the company that affected "several institutions," according to an internal email sent to U of L staffers from U of L Chief Human Resources Officer John Elliott. The data for 247 U of L employees, retirees and others enrolled in a program called "Get Healthy Now" from 2007 to 2014 were affected. Health Fitness provides health assessments, health coaching through the Get Healthy Now program, and staffing at U of L's wellness facilities. (link)
Fraud & Ethics Related Events
Sep 27: A former engineering professor at Western Kentucky University has pleaded guilty to defrauding the university, accoding to the U.S. Attorney's Office. Matt Dettman, 52, pleaded guilty before United States District Court Judge Greg N. Stivers. According to a plea agreement, between 2006 and October 2017, Dettman diverted concrete and soil test payments from WKU's Engineering Department for personal use. (link)
Sep 24: Two women are being accused of running an embezzlement scheme and stealing nearly $1 million from a community college in Mississippi. Some investigators say it took a tip to stop two women from stealing from Coahoma Community College. On Monday, state auditor Shad White handed over findings from a year's worth of investigating embezzlement allegations. White says Gwendolyn Jefferson and Stacie Neal must return more than $980,000. (link)
Sep 20: Prof. Brian Wansink has tendered his resignation following the conclusion of an investigation of misconduct that was conducted over more than a year, according to a statement from Provost Michael Kotlikoff. Wansink will not be permitted to teach or research at the University, and will retire at the end of the academic year. A faculty committee concluded the investigation, and found that "Professor Wansink committed academic misconduct in his research and scholarship, including misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship." (link)
Sep 17: A UNT financial aid administrator was fired last month for suspected fraud, according to a report from North Texas Television. The staffer, Tiffany O'Neal, was terminated on Aug. 22 after UNT police found fraudulent activities, UNT spokesperson Leigh Anne Gullett said. O'Neal worked at the university since at least 2012. "As of right now, it's just an active investigation," Gullett said. "The university took immediate action on what it learned, when it learned it and at this point it's just in the hands of the police department." (link)
Sep 15: The husband of University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Chancellor Beverly Kopper has been banned from campus and stripped of an honorary, unpaid position after an investigation concluded he sexually harassed female employees, according to records obtained Friday by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The investigation was bumped up to the UW System level because of the unusual circumstances involving the chancellor's husband, Pete Hill, who had an honorary appointment as Associate of the Chancellor by virtue of his wife's position. In that capacity, he was frequently asked to participate in fundraising and alumni and athletic functions in a largely ceremonial capacity. Some of the allegations involve behavior that allegedly occurred at the official chancellor's residence. (link)
Sep 13: Wealthy alumni who have sway over the University of Michigan's $11-billion endowment have given thousands in campaign donations to members of the university's governing board. A review of state records shows that two members of the university's elected Board of Regents accepted in total nearly $30,000 in campaign contributions from donors associated with funds receiving U-M investments. In addition, a family who helps guide the university's investment strategy contributed more than $29,000 to the board's longest-serving member. To critics, some of the donations could pose a conflict of interest. "Something doesn't have to be obviously illegal for it to be the kind of thing a flagship state university should be 100 miles away from," Georgetown University law professor Brian Galle said in an interview. (link)
Sep 11: The former business director of Washington University's Division of Medical Education embezzled about $300,000 and used the money for international travel, jewelry and other personal purchases, a federal indictment claims. Barbara "Basia" Skudrzyk, 37, of Rock Hill, was indicted in U.S. District Court Thursday on six counts of mail fraud. Her indictment was unsealed after her arrest Monday. Prosecutors say Skudrzyk, also known as Barbara "Basia" Najarro, stole the money in a variety of ways from 2010 to July 31, 2018. They say she used Washington University funds to pay $12,000 for the painting of her home, $6,000 for flooring, $15,000 for construction work, $15,000 to her divorce lawyers, $4,000 to her movers and $4,000 to her cleaning company. She used more money for a friend's airline ticket to Poland, and for her friend's divorce attorney. (link)
Sep 07: A former Penn State employee bought an Apple MacBook Pro with her university-issued purchasing card, but then sold it and kept the money, according to police. Joy Teeter -- who was previously employed as a financial assistant for the Department of Chemical Engineering -- bought a MacBook Pro for a graduate student in November 2017. The 43-year-old from Bellefonte eventually tried to change the shipping address, but inadvertently bought a second MacBook Pro. With the device unaccounted for during an internal audit, police tracked the laptop's serial number and found that it was activated by a doctor in Dubois. (link)
Sep 06: Michigan State University has handed over an investigation of potential fraud related to the fund set up to pay for counseling services for survivors of abuse by former university doctor Larry Nassar to its police department. MSU stopped payments from the fund in July after its fund administrator, Commonwealth Mediation and Conciliation, Inc, raised concerns of possible fraudulent claims and sought direction from the university. On Tuesday, John Manly, who represents many of Nassar's victims, tweeted that MSU's fund was calling survivors' health care providers and "demanding confidential treatment info without waivers or seeking patient permission." (link)
Compliance/Regulatory & Legal Events
Sep 27: A longtime professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville has resigned after the university "received a series of reports about inappropriate conduct (including some reports of sexual misconduct)" and that he was having "an intimate relationship" with a student, according to his personnel file. The reports about Henri Grissino-Mayer, a well-known geography professor at UT for more than 30 years and director of the UT Laboratory of Tree Ring Science, include a recent accusation he was having a sexual relationship with a student. Other reports describe inappropriate conduct and sexual misconduct, reported by current and former students, according to Grissino-Mayer's file, provided to the News Sentinel after an open records request. (link)
Sep 24: David Smith, former president of SUNY Upstate Medical University, on Monday pleaded guilty to "abusing his position ... by using several methods to illegally increase his pay. "Smith pleaded guilty to three counts of official misconduct, the office of New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood announced in a news release. As part of a plea agreement, Smith must pay over $250,000 in restitution and fines. (link)
Sep 24: An Ohio University Southern employee resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment and non-consenual sexual contact, according to an investigation report. According to the Equity and Civil Rights Compliance report, a manager sexually harassed two of his female student employees. The misconduct was first reported by one of the students to a faculty member in February. The investigation was completed in April, and the manager resigned in May. The details described in the report are disturbing. According to the investigation report, the manager asked one student to engage in sexual behavior, he made sexual comments about both students' bodies and even grabbed and inappropriately touched one of the students. (link)
Sep 18: A former University of Michigan pediatric doctor who was fired and stripped of his medical license amid child sex and pornography allegations accepted a plea deal in federal court last week. Mark F. Hoeltzel, 46, pleaded guilty Thursday, Sept. 13, to one felony count of enticement of a minor, according to court records. The original charges stem from a federal investigation into alleged inappropriate conduct with patients while he worked in the UM's Pediatric Rheumatology Clinic in Ann Arbor, as well as a doctor at a camp for children with arthritis. (link)
Sep 16: In a legal victory for Montana State University, the state Supreme Court has overturned a Helena judge's ruling in a lawsuit brought by a former student who alleges the university was negligent in hiring and supervising a music professor accused of sexual harassment and rape. Five Supreme Court justices signed the ruling, issued last Tuesday, which said the lower court judge made a mistake interpreting the law when he ruled in April that MSU's destruction of email evidence, whether intentional or not, meant that the student should win her case against the university without holding a trial. (link)
Sep 14: The University of Central Florida's chief financial officer stepped down Thursday after an audit revealed the school improperly used $38 million in state funding to construct a campus building.
UCF President Dale Whittaker told the state university system's Board of Governors on Thursday that the school has replenished the state money, while taking steps to investigate the problem and to prevent similar occurrences in the future. The use of state operating funds to build the 137,000-square-foot Trevor Colbourn Hall, which opened this semester at UCF, was in violation of state policy that restricts that money to activities like instruction, research, libraries, student services or maintenance. (link)
Sep 13: Amid a national debate about how colleges and universities should handle allegations of sexual misconduct, a federal appeals court Thursday upheld a decision by Valencia College to suspend a student for a year after he was accused of sexual harassing another student. A panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected arguments by Jeffrey Koeppel that the college had violated his First Amendment and due-process rights and the federal education law known as Title IX, which addresses discrimination based on sex. The allegations against Koeppel included that he sent numerous sexually inappropriate text messages to a student, identified only as Jane Roe, who had rebuffed his advances. (link)
Sep 13: A Florida Polytechnic University professor whose contract was not renewed earlier this summer filed a federal lawsuit against the school and President Randy Avent Wednesday, alleging that her rights to free speech were violated when she spoke out about employee terminations and a suicide on campus. The lawsuit states that Avent and Terry Parker, a provost and executive vice president, failed to renew Christina Drake's contract in "retaliation for her speaking out publicly on important matter of public concern." (link)
Sep 12: University of Louisiana at Lafayette softball players have filed discrimination complaints in federal court against the school. "Following the firing of their coach, the female softball players of University of Louisiana were locked out of their locker room and left with uncertain futures," Shreveport law firm Allison A. Jones, of Downer, Jones, Marino & Wilhite said today in a news release. Nine female softball players, Aleah Craighton, Alyssa Denham, Chelsea Lotief, DoniSanders, Miranda Grotenhuis, Sarah Koeppen, Shae Schreckengost, Kimber Cortemelia and Teryn Haley Pritchett have filed complaints with the Office of Civil Rights alleging that they were deprived of appropriate trainers, comparable playing facilities, equipment and supplies as the same were provided to their similarly situated male athletes. (link)
Sep 11: Winnipeg police say they have charged a former University of Manitoba professor with sexual assault. Officers say a female student, who was 19 at the time, was allegedly sexually assaulted several times by her jazz professor. News of the arrest comes after university president David Barnard issued an apology to students who have experienced assaults or harassment on campus. The university says there are currently five investigations at the institution into alleged sexual assaults and harassment, all involving faculty members. (link)
Sep 11: A woman says in a recently filed lawsuit that Larry Nassar drugged and raped her during a medical appointment in the spring of 1992, when she was a Michigan State University field hockey player. Erika Davis told her coach what happened, including that the assault was videotaped, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Grand Rapids and includes her name. Her coach, Martha Ludwig, confronted Nassar about what happened and demanded and received a copy of the recording, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit names MSU, the Board of Trustees, Nassar, USA Gymnastics and others as defendants. (link)
Sep 11: The contract for the University of Michigan Professional Nurses Council expired in June, and the two sides are struggling to come to terms on a new deal. Now, the nurses have filed a federal lawsuit, claiming the university is violating their free speech rights. The 46-page lawsuit was filed in Detroit. It alleges unfair treatment toward nurses and claims the University of Michigan is violating labor laws. Thousands of nurses are threatening to go on strike. (link)
Sep 06: A Boone County judge ruled Wednesday that the University of Missouri's prohibition of guns on campus does not conflict with state statute, but that claims the rule violates the state constitution deserve further scrutiny. Circuit Judge Jeff Harris rejected the university's argument that the case should be dismissed "without engaging in strict scrutiny or another level of constitutional analysis" of the UM Board of Curators' rule barring guns on campus. Law professor Royce Barondes brought the suit against the curators in 2015, claiming the rule against guns on campus violates both a constitutional amendment voters approved in 2014 that enshrined a right to bear arms into the state constitution and a statute allowing state employees to have guns concealed in their vehicles while parked on state property. (link)
Sep 05: A Brandeis University vice president resigned and two top administrators were placed on probation Tuesday after an independent investigation criticized the school's handling of complaints against a former basketball coach accused of racially biased harassment. On April 6, Brandeis fired its head men's basketball coach, Brian Meehan, over complaints of discrimination and unprofessional behavior, including allegations of racially biased harassment, according to university officials. The independent investigation, which began the day after Meehan was fired, concluded that "over a number of years, there was inadequate supervision of Coach Meehan and a failure to address his unacceptable conduct, especially toward his players," according to a university report released Tuesday. (link)
Sep 01: Michigan State received a letter from the NCAA this week that cleared it of any potential violations in the wake of Larry Nassar's abuse, and allegations of sexual assault against the school's basketball and football programs, according to the university. Jonathan F. Duncan, the NCAA's vice president of enforcement, wrote to new MSU athletic director Bill Beekman, "that it does not appear there is a need for further inquiry." (link)
Campus Life & Safety Events
Sep 27: Five fraternities that intended to dissociate from West Virginia University have been banned from the school's campus for at least 10 years, according to a news release from the university. President Gordon Gee announced Thursday the Alpha Sigma Phi, Kappa Alpha Order, Phi Sigma Kappa, Sigma Chi, and Theta Chi fraternities have been banned from campus for at least a decade. The five fraternities have been unhappy with university regulations that have been put into place over the last three years, primarily a ban on recruiting first-semester freshmen, the release said. (link)
Sep 26: A University of South Alabama student was suspended after university officials say the student confessed to hanging a bicycle and two nooses in a tree on campus Tuesday. USA spokesperson Bob Lowry told AL.com the student used a rope that previously held up a sheet sign to create the nooses. Campus police said the rope had been used to hold a sheet sign the day before. Also on Wednesday, an Aramark employee was fired after an offensive tweet related to the incident was posted from the school's dining hall Twitter account. The announcement was made in an official press release from the school's dining department. (link)
Sep 25: A man is in jail after being accused of entering a woman's student housing unit in Georgetown over the weekend and raping her at knife-point, according to arrest records. Cody A. Arnett, 33, of Georgetown, has been charged with rape, burglary and tampering with evidence, according to his arrest citation. The victim told investigators she was asleep on her couch when a man she'd never met entered her residence, attacked her and raped her, according to Arnett's arrest citation. (link)
Sep 24: Carlos Vargas, the president of Southeast Missouri State University, has apologized for taking a swig from a beer bong at a tailgate party before the Sept. 15 football game against Southern Illinois University.
A video of the incident was shared on the Barstool SEMO Twitter account. "I made a poor decision," Vargas wrote in an apology dated Saturday and emailed to members of the SEMO community. His statement - and one from the school's Board of Regents president - was published by KFVS in Cape Girardeau, where the school is located. (link)
Sep 24: Following his request, Ole Miss announced it will remove Ed Meek's name from its School of Journalism and New Media after controversy stemmed from his Facebook post last week. School officials said it is in the "best interest of our students" to take the well-known alumnus and significant booster's name off the school of journalism. Ole Miss faced backlash after Meek's post on Facebook last weekend, as many -- including Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter -- said the post had "racial overtones, according to the school paper." (link)
Sep 18: A University of Michigan professor refused to write a recommendation letter for a student to study abroad in Israel, claiming it was part of an "academic boycott" of the country. John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor in the American culture department, rejected student Abigail Ingber's request in an email, a screenshot of which was posted to Facebook by Club Z, a networking organization for pro-Israel students. He wrote that he had previously agreed to provide the letter to Ingber, but later realized he had "missed out on a key detail." (link)
Sep 15: On Friday morning at 7:45 a.m., the University of Massachusetts Police Department received a call on its anonymous tip line describing an "agitated Black male" walking up the ramp of Whitmore Administration Building. The man was said to be carrying a "heavy backpack that is almost hitting the ground," according to UMPD Chief of Police Tyrone Parham. Reginald Andrade, an employee of the University for 14 years and consumer manager in the Disability Services office, matched the physical characteristics described in detail in the call. (link)
Sep 11: A longtime College of Southern Nevada sociology professor is facing felony gun charges in connection with an on-campus shooting on the second day of classes. Mark J. Bird, 69, was charged last month with discharging a gun within a prohibited structure, carrying a concealed weapon without a permit and possessing a dangerous weapon on school property, court records show. He was found bleeding from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his arm about 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 28 outside a bathroom in the Charleston campus K building. (link)
Sep 07: Acadia University has fired tenured professor Rick Mehta, a move that comes months after a formal investigation was launched into complaints over controversial comments he made on social media and in the classroom. Mehta said in an interview he is disappointed by the university's decision to fire him on Aug. 31, and he has filed for arbitration and wants his job back. The associate professor of psychology has been outspoken on a range of contentious issues. He has come under fire for saying multiculturalism is a scam, there's no wage gap between men and women, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has created a victim narrative. (link)
Sep 06: Police at Montclair State University are facing student criticism after they responded to a reported fight, ordered individuals to the ground and drew their weapons in an incident captured on video and shared on social media. The incident unfolded at about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday when an officer from the university Police Department saw and responded to a fight between two people next to a car in a campus parking lot on Clove and Village roads, according to a statement from the university. The video sparked debates on social media over the actions of the police officers. Some defended police while others criticized their actions -- in particular the drawing of guns -- as excessive. (link)
Sep 01: Seven people were arrested on Saturday at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as tensions between demonstrators intensified over the toppling this week of the "Silent Sam" statue, which stood for over a century on campus grounds as a symbol of the Confederacy. University officials had warned students on Friday about the possibility of more protests, writing in a message to students, "We urge you not to attend." But on Saturday, packs of demonstrators supportive of the monument's removal clashed with protesters advocating its preservation. Some demonstrators carried signs condemning racism; others had draped themselves in Confederate flags. (link)
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