What is a Conflict of Interest?
In the broadest terms, when an employee has some type of personal or professional interest that competes or is in tension with his or her duties to the university, there is a conflict of interests. Conflicts of interests are regulated by law as well as by university policies and contractual obligations.
As the American Council of Education (ACE) explains, in its Working Paper on Conflicts of Interest [pdf]:
“In general, the most conventional form of a conflict of interest involves money—typically, an institutional decision maker has some kind of financial stake in the outcome of the decision. A conflict can also arise when the decision maker has a non-monetary stake in the outcome of a decision—for example, a personal relationship, prestige, or career advancement.”
ACE goes on to explain that “[n]ot all conflicts of interest are wrong or unacceptable. Although some categories of conflicts may be prohibited by law, or law may require that they be disclosed and/or managed in a particular way, in many cases conflicts management is not primarily a question of law but of ethics.”
In other words, often conflict situations just need to be considered and managed to make sure that those involved are acting ethically and without bias, and that applicable university policies and procedures – such as hiring or procurement rules – are followed.
A common mistaken is to decide that because you have not allowed your personal or professional interest to affect your conduct of your university duties, there is no conflict. In fact, a conflict may exist even if your personal or professional interest does not actually affect decisions you make or the way you do your job.
University Policies and Procedures
The university’s overarching prohibition on conflicts of interest is imposed by the Code of Ethics, which directs all members of the William & Mary community to “avoid both conflicts of interest and the appearance of such conflicts.”
There are four narrower, more specific policies and procedures.
1. The university’s Policy on Financial Conflicts of Interest applies to faculty, executive employees, and professionals and professional faculty in the context of research grant or contract work.
2. For individuals participating in research funded by the NIH, FDA, CDC, or certain other agencies operating under the Public Health Service, an additional Financial Conflict of Interest Procedure [pdf] applies.
3. The university’s Policy on External Paid Employment [pdf] applies to any outside professional activity that is undertaken for compensation by faculty, executive employees, or professionals and professional faculty. This Policy requires covered employees to complete a Approval Form [pdf] prior to engaging in external paid employment.
4. The university’s policy and rules regarding procurement of goods and services include prohibitions on conflicts arising in contracting, such as by
- Prohibiting employees responsible for procurement transactions from accepting or agreeing to accept anything of value from a bidder, offeror, contractor or subcontractor, unless consideration of substantially equal or greater value is exchanged; and
- Prohibiting employees responsible for procurement transactions from accept an employment with any bidder, offeror or contractor with whom he or she dealt on behalf of the university within one year from the cessation of the employment with the university, unless a written notification is provided to the university before the commencement of the employment by that bidder, offeror or contractor.
The Conflict of Interest Act. The Virginia State and Local Government Conflict of Interests Act addresses financial conflicts of interest of university employees.
The Act also requires certain university employees to annually disclose certain economic interests, and undergo training in the Conflict of Interest Act. Guidance on the State and Local Government Conflict of Interests Act, including FAQs, is provided by the Secretary of the Commonwealth at https://commonwealth.virginia.gov/applications/conflict-of-interest/
Governor McAuliffe's Executive Order No. 33 (2014) implements elements of the Conflicts of Interest Act by identifying classes of university employees required to complete statements of economic interest (pdf), the disclosure forms specified by the Conflicts of Interest Act. For institutions of higher education such as William & Mary, the Order specifies the following:
- Presidents/Vice Presidents/Provosts
- Deans/Department Chairs
- Associate/Assistant Deans
- Legislative Liasons and Policy Advisors
- Division/Department/Section Chiefs
- Chief Administrative Officers and Deputies
- Chief Financial Officers and Deputies
- Chief Technology Officers and Deputies
- Human Resource Management Directors
- Procurement Officers and Deputies
- Anyone with authority over contracts or audits.
Conflict of Interest Obligations Arising in the Context of Sponsored Research Activities.
Faculty and others involved in sponsored research at W&M are subject to the university policies regarding conflicts of interest, particularly the Policy on Financial Conflicts of Interest. They are also subject to specific requirements and restrictions imposed by the grant. And individuals participating in research funded by the NIH, FDA, CDC, or certain other agencies operating under the Public Health Service are subject to the Financial Conflict of Interest Procedure applies. NIH provides guidance and online regulations regarding financial conflict of interest rules.
The Office of Sponsored Programs provides guidance and assistance with conflicts issues arising in the research context, and can answer questions regarding them.Other Resources
Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges Statement on Conflict of Interest