This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.
In an effort to prevent the perception of any conflicts of interest, the University of Texas System could soon subject its faculty and staff members to more robust public disclosure requirements than lawmakers and even university system regents.
On Jan. 15, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa issued a memo to the president of each of the system’s 15 institutions that laid out new system policies and included new model disclosure forms for all faculty, staff and administrators engaged in board and business activities outside their universities.
“Over the past several years, at public and private universities, the public trust has been tested when faculty do not completely disclose even perceived conflicts of interest,” Cigarroa told The Texas Tribune.
An online database that will make some information from the new forms available to the public is expected to be functional in May. The new forms should make significant strides toward curbing such perceptions, but they have also set some faculty members on edge. Some professors, who asked not to be identified, called the new approach “demeaning” and “chilling.”
It’s certainly more robust than what Texans get from their elected officials and gubernatorial appointees. But there are some hints of support for changing that.
"Transparency at all levels holds government more accountable to taxpayers," said Allison Castle, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry. "The governor is very pleased with the new level of transparency at the University of Texas System."
While lawmakers, regents and other government officials must currently file personal financial statements with the Texas Ethics Commission, the forms can be short on details. For example, for each board or executive position held by regents, their spouses or dependent children, they need only list the organization and their title.
Faculty members, under the new UT System policies, must describe their duties, the anticipated length of their service, the total hours per month worked and the range of their estimated compensation. The ranges are significantly more specific than any that appears on the Ethics Commission’s standard forms.
Viewing a lawmaker’s personal financial statement requires a specific request to the Ethics Commission, which will not be required with the UT System's new disclosure forms.
The new measures, as well as other aspects to the policies such as a requirement to secure approval before engaging in any outside activities like business activities, consulting or service on a board, have made some faculty members nervous.
“Obviously, some rules of these kind need to be in place,” said Alan Friedman, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the past chairman of the university’s Faculty Council. “On the other hand, there are a lot of concerns that it’s potentially intrusive, excessive bureaucracy, time-consuming and being imposed on people to whom it really is not relevant.”
Murray Leaf, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas and the chairman of the UT System’s Faculty Advisory Council, helped craft the new policy and accompanying forms. He said that in some cases, the faculty actually pushed for more specifics.
Of the ranges of compensation, he said, “We started with broader ranges, but people on the faculty advisory council wanted narrower ranges. And the reason was they didn't want to be suspected of earning a lot of money.”
Leaf said that professors were being told to err on the side of caution when it comes to determining whether to disclose potential conflicts. “But the problem is, some faculty hear that and err on the side of paranoia,” he said. “As a faculty member, you don't always know what might look like a conflict of interest or not.”
Under the system's new policy, the determination of conflicts is no longer made by the individual but rather by his or her supervisor based on the disclosure form. Leaf said people shouldn't worry.
“I'm trying to calm everything and advocate a saner view,” he said. “Take the view of the general public. If you are doing something that might generally look like a conflict, go ahead and declare it. Otherwise, go on about your business.”
In recent years, there were multiple cases in Texas higher education in which questions arose regarding potential conflicts of interest. Most notably was an incident at UT-Austin involving Charles "Chip" Groat, a former faculty member who, while still at the university, authored a study finding that hydraulic fracturing did not pollute groundwater. After it was realized that he directed and held stock in a company engaged in hydraulic fracturing, the university reviewed its ethics policies.
Some higher education leaders assert that although some professors may balk at these new policies, they are necessarily and increasingly becoming the norm.
“Faculty members never like to fill out forms, and I don’t blame them because there are too many coming across their desks,” said Jonathan Cole, a former provost at Columbia University. “But this is an important one. This is something which could have real implications for the reputation of both the individual and the university.”
Cole noted that, in the mid-20th century, scholars generally did not seek to profit off their own research or discoveries, but that begin to change in the 1980s when Congress allowed universities to retain more ownership of patents developed on their campuses with federal funding.
“Suddenly this norm of not receiving remuneration for your discoveries collapsed,” he said. “This is part of that evolution that has picked up speed since the 1980s, which is leading universities to reformulate their policies about conflicts of interest.”
Cole said the definitions and disclosures related to academic conflict of interest would continue to change with the times. He predicted that issues raised by new technologies, such as professors developing massive online courses that are offered outside — and in some cases, for-profit — companies “will be increasingly at the forefront of our consciousness.”