University of Minnesota begins to adapt to conflict of interest policy


After implementing the new conflict of interest policy in August at the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center, the policy committee’s challenge became finding a version that was appropriate and inclusive enough for use University-wide.

While the policy was adopted about three months ago, exactly how things will pan out is yet to be determined. With a similar scale policy found only at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, comparison to other schools is limited.

The policy ensures relationships with “business entities are transparent, grounded in objectivity, and do not improperly influence their professional judgment.”

The Individual Conflict of Interest is part of the administrative policy, which governs all staff, faculty and students.

The policy sets guidance and standards for interactions with industry. This includes consulting relationships, ghostwriting, endorsements, attending sales and marketing events and accepting products to use in the classroom.

Before the new policy came into use, faculty was required only to report that their outside income exceeded $10,000, not the exact amount.

Between 2003 and 2007 University surgeon Dr. David Polly raked in $1.2 million from a consulting deal with Medtronic, which he did not need to specify.

Faculty will now be asked to report their outside income in specified ranges, Compliance Office Director Lynn Zentner said.

The thresholds differ from colleges and departments outside the Academic Health Center, she said.

‘It doesn’t put everyone in the same basket’

When an early draft of the all-encompassing policy was presented to College of Design Dean Thomas Fisher, he was concerned.

“It was not at all acceptable originally,” Fisher said. “[The policy] had incredible limitations on the ability of outsiders to come into the school. Well, we couldn’t function. Almost two-thirds, by head count, of our faculty are adjuncts. It just made it unworkable.”

Adjuncts also make up a substantial portion of faculty in the Law School and various College of Liberal Arts departments. The policy was reworked with the aim of allowing collaboration with external entities while still preventing unethical activity.

“I think the conflict of interest policy that finally came forward had a lot of the qualifications and limitations that we were hoping it would have,” Fisher said. “It doesn’t put everyone in the same basket.”

For CLA, a bulk of conflicts are brought up though a different branch of the administrative policy.

The Educational Materials Conflict of Interest policy states that if instructors assign their own text for class, department heads will scrutinize the material to determine if it is indeed the best text available.

The educational materials portion applies to every school in the University system, with the exception of Duluth. It was last updated in December 2009, and remains the same in the new University-wide policy.

While much of the policy is stringent, it allows room for specific needs. Colleges and administrative units can approve standards that are more, but not less, restrictive.

Conflicts and Research

While the Medical School has a history of being bombarded with products from pharmaceutical companies and faculty earning thousands from outside ventures, other fields of study do not.

“Generally there are not the kind of conflicts that medical schools encounter,” Fisher said.

In CDes, most research is done for communities and the federal government. “It’s almost never for a private company,” Fisher said.

Still, the new policy does a lot to prevent research-related problems in other colleges.

From studies in food safety to biomass, identifying conflicts is necessary for the integrity and overall accuracy of the research, said Abel Ponce de León, associate dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

“If you have an economic interest, how are you going to detach that?” he said. “[But] it’s not a matter of right or wrong … They’re situations that present themselves, and the faculty reports that.”

Of the more than 300 faculty members in CFANS, Ponce de León said there is an average of 11 conflicts of interest he flags each year, most having to do with outside influence. He said the new policy makes it easier to identify such conflicts.

Currently, Appendix A of the new policy, which addresses issues in the Academic Health Center that involve patient care, does not apply to CLA’s departments, CLA spokeswoman Kelly O’Brien said.

However, Appendix A could apply to the Julia M. Davis Speech-Language-Hearing Center, which offers a broad range of services for individuals with speech, language and hearing impairments.

“They have the most intersection with the [AHC],” CLA Dean James Parente said.