Saturday, January 25, 2014

As we wait for the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois to indicate whether they plan to investigate the various ethical issues surrounding the recent usurpation of the University of Illinois name and reputation, it is illustrative to look at other aspects of financial dealing between high-ranking University officials and private firms.  As state employees, these folks file annual disclosure forms with the Secretary of State, and the information I summarize here is taken directly from those filings.  I don't have time to go through them all, so I will focus here only on one person.

The Dean of the College of Medicine is required by the University's research processes to sign off on financial disclosure forms and manage and mitigate any potential conflicts of interest.  The Dean indicates on his own annual state forms that he is on the board of Novartis, self-styled as "one of the highest-ranked pharmaceutical and healthcare companies by sales in the world." He also receives consultant fees from Forsight Labs and Alcon Labs, a Novartis company.

Let's reflect on the Novartis code of conduct, which includes this thoughtful advice to employees and governing bodies:

Would your family and friends think it was ethical for a Novartis board member who oversees a large portfolio of research at a university, including research related to the areas in which Novartis and its competitors conduct business, to make determinations of whether researchers in that school are infringing on conflict of interest standards?  Would the answer matter if a portion of that person's own research and educational funding or consultant fees or honoraria had come from that company before becoming Dean?  Would you be comfortable reading about that relationship in the media?

Please understand that I am not suggesting that this person has done anything illegal or that he is personally immoral.  Indeed, the facts presented above are those filed by him in the state documents. But what message is sent to other doctors by this affiliation? Does it send a clear signal of high ethical standards, of the need to protect the University's excellent clinical and research programs from possible disrepute?  The salaries paid by the University are set by the Trustees to be sufficient, in and of themselves, to attract world-class people to work in leadership positions.  When deans ultimately step down from their jobs, they are viewed as extremely attractive candidates for health science company boards.  Why not just wait a few years to cash in, when there is no likelihood of sending the wrong signal throughout your faculty?


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