NSM Faculty/Staff Newsletter

From the Office of the Dean

Conflicts of Interest & Intellectual Property

Conflicts of Interest/Commitment (Part 1 of a 3-Part Series)

In the normal course of faculty life, opportunities for conflict of interest and commitment can arise. It may be a potential or an actual conflict.

The perception of a conflict, even if not an actual conflict, can be serious. It can cause those who perceive you to have a conflict to express concern about your objectivity.

The UH Board of Regents has a Conflict of Interest Policy (57.08) that incorporates Texas code 572.051 (TITLE 5. OPEN GOVERNMENT; ETHICS; CHAPTER 572. PERSONAL FINANCIAL DISCLOSURE, STANDARDS OF CONDUCT, AND CONFLICT OF INTEREST). The UH Policy states that no employee may use their “position to obtain unauthorized privileges, benefits, or things of value for oneself or others.” The UH Division of Research has a Policy on Conflict of Interest in Research; however, the policy only covers research-related conflicts of interest.

The issue, however, is broader and merits a closer look.

Non-research related conflicts can arise from personal, familial, or business relationships, and other scenarios where one faculty member may, by nature of their position, have authority over another with whom they have a conflict of interest. Examples include, but are not limited to, a spouse or co-owners of a business where one has hiring/promotion/review authority over the other. Even if the faculty member with authority believes that they can carry out their responsibilities in a fair and balanced manner, a skeptical observer will be difficult to dissuade from a claim of bias.

These and related cases are not covered by the Conflict of Interest Policy in Research, and the colleges and departments must take care to manage these potential or actual conflicts.

NSM Plan: Non-Research Conflicts of Interest

NSM is developing a set of policies and procedures to address non-research conflicts of interest in order to fairly manage such situations.

Our plan includes removing authority from the supervisor over the conflicted employee and assigning the attendant responsibilities to either the chairperson of a different department, the NSM Policy Committee, or the Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs. The responsible person/committee will design a management plan that avoids the conflict and, at the same time, does not adversely affect the conflicted faculty members. For example, a department chairperson must not provide review, promotion recommendations, certification of conflict of interest certifications, etc., for the conflicted faculty member. Instead, the alternative person/committee will carry out those functions.

Please think carefully about potential conflicts of interest and disclose them to the Dean so that they can be managed.

Conflict of Commitment

Another area of conflict relates to commitment – Conflict of Commitment. The UH Consulting Policy mentions this concept which relates to conflicts that can arise due to the allocation of time and effort among official university job-related tasks and non-official ones. The policy states that faculty must ensure that their consulting and paid professional activities do not exceed one day a week (i.e., not more than one day in a seven-day week).

We consider that unpaid activities in support of an actual or potential conflict could raise questions of conflict of commitment. For example, if a faculty member is co-owner/co-founder of a company and spends unpaid time trying to advance that company, it is still subject to the one day in seven rule. Further, the faculty member must schedule the activities such that they do not unduly interfere with the performance of their official university duties.

If you would like to discuss these matters and/or provide corrections or insights, please contact Jim Briggs, NSM Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs, jbriggs@uh.edu.

The discussion above and those to follow are meant to stir conversation and to help faculty avoid being found to be out of compliance with university, state, or federal policies/law.