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Petitioning Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger

Hold the Ivory Tower Accountable: Columbia University Make Conflicts of Interest Transparent

Hold the Ivory Tower Accountable: Make Conflicts of Interest Transparent 

In the ongoing wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which resulted in a global economic downturn and an enormous loss of wealth and stability, particularly for the most vulnerable in society, we, the undersigned members of the Columbia University community, are concerned that the ties between the Columbia faculty and the financial institutions at the root of this crisis have not been sufficiently investigated. Furthermore, at the institutional level, we find that steps to address the issue of conflict of interest in these relationships have been characterized by too little demonstration of serious commitment, let alone enforcement.

With this petition, we ask that the University commit the necessary resources to enable the Financial Conflict of Interest (FCOI) Committee to carry out its functions.  University departments must adhere to the 2009 Policy on Financial Conflicts of Interest and Research.  We, the members of Columbia University, demand that the following steps be taken immediately to strengthen the University’s commitment to transparency and accountability:

1) Actively and uniformly enforce the existing Conflicts of Interest Policies.

We call for an active and uniform enforcement of the University Policy and School-specific Policies on Financial Conflicts of Interest. An initial investigation reveals great disparities in adherence to policies and rules, even among senior faculty members for the most basic requirements, such as Business School Dean Glenn Hubbard’s failure to disclose his position as economic advisor to Mitt Romney on his university CV. Such omissions demonstrate that conflicts of interest are still not being taken seriously and enforcement is lacking in even its most basic and essential requirements.

 2) Adopt FCOI recommendations made in November 2011.

The University should not delay in adopting the FCOI recommendations outlined in its November 30, 2011 report to the University Senate. In particular, Morningside professional schools should be on par with the Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) school specific COI Policy.

3) Strengthen public disclosure.

We call for greater transparency in conflict of interest policies and rules.

All University departments should post all conflicts of interest on a centralized, dedicated, and searchable webpage accessible to the public. The webpage should specify each faculty member’s financial ties to private organizations, including a detailed description of the faculty member’s relationship to the organization, types of remuneration (e.g., income, stocks, etc.) or any other economic benefit, and amount of such remuneration or other benefit received by year, for the previous five years. Where these relationships have resulted in, or have influenced or may reasonably be thought to have influenced, published research in the form of reports, papers, chapters, books or otherwise, online citations and links to these publications should be provided.

Where, in the preceding five years:

i) a faculty member has had relationships with governmental, not-for-profit, or for-profit entities and such relationships did not entail any remuneration or other economic benefit, the webpage should provide a detailed description of the relationship.

ii) a faculty member has had relationships with organizations that lobby the government, media outlets, or other entities, the webpage should provide a detailed description of the organization and the clients on behalf of which the faculty member and the organization have lobbied, the subject matter on which the lobbying focused, the governmental, media outlet, or other entity or official that was the targets of such lobbying, and any affected legislation, regulation, policy, media report, or other product of the lobbying effort.

iii) a faculty member has served as a formal or informal advisor to government or corporate entities or officials, or to candidates for political office, the webpage should provide a detailed description of the entity or official, the duration of the advisory relationship, the subject matter as to which advice was provided, and the legislation, regulation, or other government policy or any public proposal or statement by the political candidate influenced by such advice or that may reasonably thought to have been influenced by such advice.

Where any such economically beneficial, non-economically beneficial, lobbying or advisory relationship has influenced, or may reasonably be thought to have influenced a faculty member’s teaching, there should be analogous disclosure on the webpage and in the classroom.

This requirement does not apply to remuneration for sale of books, journals, or remuneration by publishers or other intermediary entities.

4) Initiate audits and sanctions.

The existing self-disclosure process of potential conflicts of interest has resulted in an unrealistically low percentage (3%) of disclosed conflicts, of which an even smaller percentage was actually investigated.  This self-disclosure process should be replaced with a random audit process that will reduce the burden on the FCOI.  Audited faculty found to be actively withholding potential conflicts would face sanctions for doing so.  Where faculty members believe that a conflict of interest would interfere with their research or teaching responsibilities, they should be encouraged to consult with the FCOI and allowed to recuse themselves from the pertinent teaching or research activity.

5) Cap remunerations.

The University and each of its department should enforce an annual cap on remuneration or other economic benefits from non-University sources constituting conflicts of interest as defined above. The broader Medical School community has already begun to cap the annual remuneration faculty members may receive from ties to the medical and pharmaceutical industries. We believe the Business and Law Schools, and the economics and other departments will benefit from such caps.

Because Columbia faculty are teachers, mentors, and researchers first and executives, board members, consultants, lobbyists and advisors second, and because we wish to ensure that at Columbia ‘what is being taught is not bought,’ we believe that stronger conflict of interest policies and rules will increase excellence in teaching, trust in research, and the quality of Columbia’s relationships with non-University organizations and individuals.

This petition was delivered to:
  • Columbia University
    President Lee C. Bollinger

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