The implementation of a robust but controversial conflict-of-interest policy at institutions in the University of Texas System that was originally scheduled for this spring has been delayed until at least September.
The proposed policy has gained attention for requiring more disclosure by university employees than the state requires for elected officials and gubernatorial appointees. In February, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry said he was “very pleased” with the steps being taken at the UT System.
But in a letter to the presidents of the system’s 15 institutions on April 17, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said that campus leaders had “raised enough concern about certain elements of the policy” to warrant further discussion and refinement of the policy.
He also noted that the delay would allow for more time to develop and institute a workflow for the system’s new disclosure forms, which are to be placed on a publicly searchable electronic database — a prospect that has many employees on edge.
Professors have described the new policy as “demeaning” and “chilling.”
“Nobody has any problem with being accountable or being transparent,” said Jennifer Ebbeler, a classics professor at UT-Austin, “but there is a big difference between those things and what is essentially being proposed, which is the equivalent of looking in faculty and staff’s underwear drawers.”
While she described it as a “well-intentioned attempt to deal with a very small problem with a very small number of faculty,” Ebbeler expressed particular concern about the policy’s broad application, the vagueness of its language and its inclusion of uncompensated outside activities.
The policy requires faculty and staff to disclose and get approval for “outside activities that may reasonably appear to create a conflict of interest or conflict of commitment.” Ebbeler said the lack of specificity as to which activities need to be disclosed could open the door for abuse of the policy.
In a February interview with The Texas Tribune, Cigarroa said: “Of course the faculty’s rights need to be protected. There is an appeals process in case there’s some jerk who just doesn’t like somebody.”
But that does not satisfy Ebbeler, who said: “The potential for abusing people that are doing their job is far too great. There are too many examples of legislation at the university that goes through with one intention that gets used for something entirely different.”
Cigarroa said it is important to have a strong a conflict-of-interest policy. “Whenever there is a problem in that area and a person gets busted, it not only adversely impacts the individual, it blemishes the university,” he said.
Major funders of university research like the National Institutes of Health have been strengthening their own disclosure policies, and the UT System’s effort began as an attempt to follow suit.
The scope of the system’s efforts expanded after two universities experienced scandals related to conflicts of interest, including questions about a study on hydraulic fracturing conducted by a UT-Austin professor who held stock in a company that engaged in the practice.
Cigarroa said that when system staff tried to pin down the universities’ conflict-of-interest policies, they were hard to find and located in multiple places. This effort by the system seeks to not only bolster the rules but bring them together in a single place.
He said he does not believe that extra disclosure will prevent faculty from coming to UT institutions; indeed, he expects such public disclosures to become ubiquitous in higher education.
“This is not meant to be punitive,” he said. “It’s just the world we live in now. There is going to be less tolerance for conflict-of-interest issues if they’re not addressed or mitigated. We might as well be ahead of the curve.”