Las Vegas Sun

October 23, 2019

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Public kept in the dark on potential conflicts in higher ed

Nevada System of Higher Education rules designed to inform UNLV officials about potential conflicts of interest among university employees earning outside income also allow officials to withhold that information from the public.

UNLV General Counsel Richard Linstrom cited those rules in denying a Sun request for copies of outside income disclosure forms submitted in the past year by faculty members and other employees.

The university system code classifies the two disclosure forms requested by the Sun as "confidential personnel records," Linstrom said.

Despite Linstrom's opinion, university system Chancellor Jim Rogers said he favors making public the records and has ordered UNLV officials to make an effort to comply with the Sun's request.

"I think the public has a right to know who our people are working for," Rogers said.

A majority of the 13-member Board of Regents polled by the Sun said they favored disclosure, with several saying the system's rules need to be changed to give the public access to the outside income forms.

The regents plan to discuss a possible policy change at Thursday's meeting of the board's Research and Economic Development Committee.

"This is what feeds into the taxpayers' distrust of government, when they are kept from getting information that common sense says they should be able to see," Regent Steve Sisolak said. "The taxpayers can't know if there's a conflict if they can't see these records."

That view is shared by former UNLV ethics professor Craig Walton, president of the nonprofit Nevada Center for Public Ethics, who said he sees no reason for the university to assert a privacy claim in this case.

Although the vast majority of professors do legitimate work outside UNLV, there is potential for conflicts of interest, Walton said.

"Hypothetically, there could be a case where someone is skewing a syllabus because of a business interest," he said. "That would cheat the students."

Allowing tenured professors to earn money in the private sector is common at UNLV, with permission to do so often being written into faculty members' contracts. Professors are allowed to perform outside work one day a week so long as it does not interfere with their university duties.

Disclosure forms are submitted to a dean or department head for review and then placed in an employee's personnel file. The university does not maintain a centralized filing system for the records, which means the administration does not have a quick way of monitoring employees earning outside income.

UNLV President David Ashley said he is not concerned that the university has no central bank of outside income records.

"From the standpoint of where the point of control is, the information is in the right hands," he said. Ashley added that he has not seen any abuses of the system, one he thinks benefits the university and the community.

Two UNLV deans, Eric Sandgren of the College of Engineering and Ron Yasbin of the College of Sciences, said they generally rely on faculty members to point out any potential conflicts.

Both deans said they did not know how many of their faculty members have submitted disclosure forms. Sandgren said he gets about a dozen forms a year, but Yasbin could not provide an estimate. Yasbin said some of his professors do peer review work for the federal government and are obligated to file disclosure forms only with the government.

Regent Ron Knecht, a member of the Research and Economic Development Committee, circulated a memo within the university system last month after being interviewed by the Sun, saying he hoped his colleagues could develop more balanced guidelines for releasing such records.

"Sometimes, the outside engagement and conflict of interest forms include confidential and sensitive information that, if disclosed, would damage faculty members' client relations and diminish outside engagement opportunities that are in the public interest," Knecht wrote.

"On the other hand, the system has obligations to operate as openly as possible and to assure the public that it is getting its money's worth from faculty and that actual conflicts of interest are avoided."

Not all regents favor making public the disclosure forms.

Regent Howard Rosenberg, an arts professor at UNR , said he is confident that university supervisors can properly determine whether a conflict exists with faculty members' outside employment.

"To me, what this promotes is a fishing expedition, and I worry about that," Rosenberg said. "Why should a public employee be entitled to any more scrutiny than you?"

Sisolak has the answer to that question.

"These people are getting paid by the taxpayers, and the taxpayers have a right to know about any potential conflicts of interest," Sisolak said.

Two other regents on the five-member Research and Development Committee, James Dean Leavitt and Thalia Dondero, said they back making the records public.

"We may have to retool this policy," Leavitt said. "This is a public institution. Nothing should be hidden from the public unless there's a compelling reason to do it."

Dondero added: "I don't have a problem with disclosure when you're working for the public on their money."

Regents Mark Alden and Anthony Stavros also side with the public's right to know.

And board Chairman Michael Wixom said: "I'm always anxious to make as much information available as possible."