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Taking a Position of Influence

Added06/15/1992

Updated11/23/2015

Author(s) Michael Pritchard
Authoring Institution Center for the Study of Ethics in Society at Western Michigan University
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Contributor(s) Michael Pritchard
Notes Case study originally published in “Teaching Engineering Ethics: A Case Study Approach” by Michael Pritchard. Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University, 1992.
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Authoring Institution (obsolete) Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University
Rights For more information on permissions to use this material please see: http://onlineethics.org/permissions.aspx
Year 1992
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
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  • Posted 12 years and 11 months ago

    The job of a college faculty member in any discipline is a
    complex, involving multiple tasks and sometimes conflicting
    responsibilities. Most faculty members are expected to
    participate in three general activities: teaching, research,
    and service. This means that a faculty member must facilitate
    students' learning through activities such as classroom
    teaching, laboratory supervision, and student advising. A
    faculty member must also conduct a program of independent
    research that results in articles published in academic
    journals or, perhaps, books. In addition, a faculty member is
    expected to provide service to the educational institution by
    serving on various decision-making or policy-setting
    committees. In some schools, the balance of these activities
    may differ--some schools emphasize the primary importance of
    teaching while others require more research activity.
    Nevertheless, it is the faculty member's professional
    responsibility to the academic profession to carry out these
    duties.



    Although this may not sound like a very complex situation,
    in reality performing effectively in these three areas may be a
    difficult juggling act. There are only so many hours in the
    day, and faculty members must allocate their time wisely to
    meet these three responsibilities. In addition, some faculty
    members are more talented in one area or in another. For
    example, some people are truly gifted teachers, others are
    innovative researchers, and others are highly effective
    participants in university service activities. Schools could
    not function without faculty members who contribute to these
    three important areas of academic life.



    In this case, you find yourself in a situation that
    emphasizes the sometimes conflicting nature of the professional
    responsibilities you assumed when becoming a faculty member at
    Western Tech. You have been required to assume a heavy teaching
    load that has prevented you from conducting the research you
    would like. You see the summer faculty fellowship program as a
    welcome chance to pursue some research that you have neglected
    during the academic year. It is also clear that you are valued
    for the service you have given to your institution since David
    Jackson, Vice-President for Research, has asked you to serve on
    the review panel for the faculty fellowship program. In this
    instance, your responsibility for faculty service conflicts
    with your desire to pursue a research project which was delayed
    due to your heavy teaching load.



    How do you balance these competing demands on your time and
    potential conflict of interest? In this case, you agreed to
    serve on the faculty panel even though it will be considering
    your application for a summer fellowship. Vice-President
    Jackson has stipulated the guidelines for your participation,
    and you decide that you can serve under these conditions.
    Happily, the panel awards you a summer fellowship.



    This case should lead you to think very seriously about your
    own definition of conflict of interest. You may feel that your
    participation on the committee was ethical because you received
    an invitation from Vice-President Jackson, and you followed the
    procedures he established for reviewing proposals. But does
    following someone else's procedures absolve you from ethical
    conflicts?



    Obviously the time to have thought about all of these issues
    was when the Vice-President first invited you to join the
    committee. He asked you to "leave the room" when your proposal
    was being considered. Although you can physically leave the
    room, can you ever leave the room in the minds of the other
    committee members? Imagine judging the proposal submitted by
    the colleague sitting next to you at the table even though she
    has left the room. Does your impression of her as a committee
    member affect your judgment? Does the fact that she will soon
    reenter the room affect your decision? Do you feel that you can
    make an objective decision about someone else's proposal if he
    or she is on the committee? Could you expect other committee
    members to make an objective decision about your proposal?



    Of course, you have to balance your sense of potential
    conflict of interest in this situation with your duty to serve
    on university committees when asked. You need to be a good
    university citizen without compromising your ethical standards.
    In this case, how might you have contributed to the summer
    faculty fellowship program without actually serving on the
    committee that considered your proposal?



    There is an exercise called the "nine dot problem" in which
    you are given a picture of nine dots arranged in three rows of
    three dots. You are asked to connect all the dots with four
    straight lines without lifting your pen from the paper. Most
    people who try to solve this puzzle draw an imaginary box
    around the dots and never think of going outside of this line.
    The problem is impossible to solve, however, without drawing
    lines that go beyond the boundaries of the nine dots. In the
    same way, when we are asked to do something we often think that
    our only options are to do what is asked or not to do it. But
    often there are more than two options in a situation. This case
    provides a clear example in which the initial choice became
    either serving on the committee or not serving on the
    committee. Alternative options might have been available if
    someone had explored them.



    The balance between teaching, research, and service is a
    complex one. Faculty members face conflicts in these areas
    every day. In fact, this case reminds me a situation that
    occurred at my university. The chair of a department was
    appointed to a committee to review proposals for special grants
    for projects to improve teaching at the university. One of the
    proposals was from a faculty member in the chair's department.
    The chair felt it was inappropriate to review a proposal that
    would, in effect, bring money into his department so he did not
    rank this particular proposal. Others on the committee did not
    perceive a similar conflict of interest and ranked proposals
    from their departments highly. When the voting was concluded,
    the proposal from the chair's department did not get enough
    votes to be funded. Many of the other proposals did. What did
    the chair learn from this experience? One conclusion, of
    course, is to vote for his department's proposals. But the
    lesson that he learned was to make sure that the criteria for
    making a decision are agreed upon in advance by the people who
    are making a decision. If the committee had decided on criteria
    before voting, the chair could have expressed his concerns
    about conflict of interest and at least made sure that everyone
    was playing by the same set of rules.



    Sometimes we play by rules that benefit us, and sometimes we
    don't. But remember, you must live by the rules you play by.
    Conflict of interest is a serious issue that is prohibited by
    the NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers. Deciding what
    constitutes a conflict of interest, however, is often a
    complicated manner that requires an individual ethical
    judgment.

  • Posted 12 years and 11 months ago

    I



    If I accept an appointment to the panel, then it appears
    that I disqualify myself as an applicant for a fellowship.
    Obviously, I would not be allowed to, and should not, review my
    own application. However, assuming that not everyone who
    applies will receive a fellowship and thus there is competition
    for awards, even if I review only applications other than my
    own, it would serve my interests to give unfavorable
    evaluations to applications that are in competition with my
    own, particularly those that appear to be strong. Therefore, it
    appears that for me to serve on the review panel in any
    capacity would place me in a conflict of interest. Perhaps
    there can be situations in which conflicts of interest cannot
    be avoided or in which allowing oneself to have a conflict of
    interest is justified by other considerations. However, no such
    considerations are evident in this situation. Thus I must
    decide whether to accept appointment to the panel or to submit
    a proposal; I may not do both.



    II



    This arrangement does not solve the problem for the reasons
    stated above. There would still be a conflict of interest even
    if I left the room when my proposal was being discussed, since
    it would be in my interest to lower my evaluation of other
    proposals against which I knew that my proposal was competing.
    Furthermore, my membership on the panel might exert some
    influence on the other panel members even if I were not present
    when my proposal was being discussed. If so, this would further
    distort the reviewing process. There are no factors apparent in
    the situation that would annul the conflict of interest that
    would result if I both accepted an appointment to the review
    panel and submitted a proposal. If I accept the
    vice-president's argument that it is important that the "best
    people" serve on the panel for the good of the university and I
    wish to do so, then I should choose not to submit a proposal.
    Even if I think that I could be objective about the proposals
    that I would review as a member of the panel, the conflict of
    interest would remain. That conflicts of interest should be
    avoided can perhaps be supported by rule utilitarian
    considerations--i.e. in the long run more good would result
    from the general avoidance of conflicts of interest than would
    result from the general practice of not avoiding them. The
    conflict of interest consideration seems to be the most
    important consideration in this case.

  • Posted 12 years and 11 months ago

    I



    In my decision to serve or not serve on the review panel for
    the summer faculty fellowship program I would have to consider
    the following:




    • Since I am nationally known for my research, any new
      research I do will almost certainly enhance both my status
      and that of Western Tech as a research institution.


    • Because of my reputation, my participation on the review
      panel that will determine the fellowships projects receive
      funding will also contribute to the desire of Western Tech to
      upgrade its status as a first-rate research institution.



    Since I have had little opportunity to do research due to my
    teaching load, my response to David Jackson, Vice-President for
    Research at Western Tech, is to decline the invitation to serve
    on the review panel and submit my proposal for review. I
    explain this to the vice-president.



    II



    On hearing my decision, Vice-President Jackson explains that
    while he hasn't worked out all the wrinkles, it doesn't seem
    fair that the best people at Western Tech--the ones they want
    on the review panel--should not have a chance at the
    fellowships. He tells me that I can apply for the fellowship,
    and also serve on the review panel as long I am not involved in
    the review of my own proposal inferring that this will preserve
    the integrity of the research fellowship award process.



    I realize that if I were on the panel, my stature and
    opinions will certainly influence the award process and leave
    it suspect in the eyes of my peers on the faculty, especially
    if my proposal receives a fellowship award and another's
    doesn't. Participation by other faculty could lead to the same
    result. So to me, this suggestion does not really solve the
    problem.



    I reiterate my interest in the research opportunity and
    decline to participate on the panel. Any level of my
    participation on a panel involved in reviewing my proposal and
    competing proposals could be viewed as a conflict of interest
    that could cloud the objectivity and integrity of the process
    to upgrade the research status of the institution. I would
    suggest to the vice-president that the review panel might be
    better, more objective, and more credible if none of the
    reviewers were from Western Tech or faculty. And since he said
    that he hasn't worked out all of the wrinkles yet, this is
    still a very attractive and viable option.

  • Posted 12 years and 11 months ago

    I



    You are a professor planing to apply for a research grant
    when you are asked to serve on the committee that will evaluate
    grant applications. What can you do? You will have a conflict
    of interest if you serve on the panel, so either you must
    refuse to serve or not submit your own proposal. If you're the
    only one who can serve (in which case your university and its
    plan to up-grade its research program, are both in big
    trouble), you might consider withdrawing your application.
    Otherwise, suggest someone else.



    II



    VP Jackson has a plan, but it won't work. You'll serve on
    the committee but won't evaluate your own proposal. But there
    is still a conflict of interest since the award is competitive.
    A person with a proposal might talk and vote against the
    competition in order to improve his own chances. Even if not,
    it might seem that way to those who lose.



    III



    You allow the VP to talk you into serving and you get a
    fellowship. The question is whether the losing professors
    should demand, and are entitled to, a review of the committee's
    decisions. I think they are and they should; the review process
    ought to be done again. However opening up the process from
    scratch would be unfair to all the other professors who were
    awarded grants. So the university is going to have to find a
    way out of VP Jackson's mistake without taking away the awards
    from the other winners. This may wind up costing some money,
    since the fellowships are worth $6000. Lack of ethics can be
    expensive.

  • Posted 12 years and 11 months ago

    This is a case about conflict of interest in two
    professions, engineering and university teaching. Until
    recently, only a few professions, most notably law and public
    accounting, paid much attention to conflict of interest.
    Engineering codes of ethics did not include a general provision
    on conflict of interest until the mid-1970s. The NSPE's code
    still relies heavily on the older language, grouping most (but
    not all) conflict of interest provisions under Rule 3's
    "[acting] for each client or employer as faithful agents and
    trustees." Colleges and universities only began to worry much
    about conflict of interest in the mid-1980s. Even now they seem
    to worry about it far less than they should.



    The first question, then, is which profession's standards
    apply to "you." Will you be serving on the committee
    (primarily) as a member of the faculty, as a member of the
    engineering faculty, or as a member of the National Society of
    Professional Engineers? The answer, it seems, is that
    Vice-President Jackson wants you because of your reputation as
    a researcher, that is, because you have been a good (academic)
    engineer. He probably does not know, and would not care if he
    did know, that you are a member of the NSPE. So, it seems, you
    must respond to him as an engineer, using the NSPE code or some
    other engineering code) as a guide to understanding what your
    profession requires of you in these circumstances.



    The essence of conflict of interest is the undermining of
    independent judgment. Your training and experience as an
    engineer give powers of judgment others lack. Part of being a
    professional is exercising those powers in a certain way, that
    is, according to the (morally permissible) standards your
    profession sets. So, for example, people ask engineers to do
    certain jobs because they want such jobs done in the way
    engineers characteristically do them.



    An engineer can fail to meet professional standards either
    by failing in competence or by failing in independence. An
    engineer fails in competence when she acts without knowing what
    members of her profession expect each other to know when they
    take on a job of that sort. An engineer fails in independence
    if, while competent for the job, she is subject to pressures,
    loyalties, commitments, or the like that make her less likely
    than otherwise to do the job as a competent member of the
    profession would. A conflict of interest makes an engineer less
    reliable than she would otherwise be.



    Since their usefulness to employer, client, and public
    depends in part on their being reliable agents, engineers
    should generally avoid conflicts of interest. Sometimes,
    however, the conflict is not serious enough and costs of
    avoidance are high enough that avoiding the conflict may not
    make sense for client, employer, or public. When that is so,
    you need not avoid the conflict--provided you meet two
    conditions.



    First, you must have the informed consent of your employer
    or client. Part of being a faithful agent is warning your
    principal when your judgment is not as reliable as it would
    normally be. Your principal can then decide whether he prefers
    to avoid the conflict by replacing you or accept the conflict,
    taking the necessary precautions and hoping for the best. That
    decision is his, not yours.



    Second, you must be satisfied that you can do what is asked
    of you in a way that will not bring you or your profession in
    disrepute. (Cf. NSPE Code III.3.) Appearances can be as
    important as reality. The consent of your employer or client is
    part, but only part, of maintaining appearances. The rest is
    your responsibility, not your employer's or client's.



    You warned the VP of your conflict of interest. He
    understood the problem well enough to offer a common means of
    avoiding it: don't participate in any decision that directly
    affects you. He still wants you to serve on the committee.
    Should you? You have much to consider.



    One thing you need to consider is whether you can take the
    VP's consent as that of your employer, the university. You also
    need to decide whether you have a client as well as an employer
    (for example, the academic community). For brevity, let's just
    assume that you have no client here (the academic community
    being more like the public than a client) and that the VP's
    consent is your employer's consent (though, in a any large
    organization, that assumption is by no means safe).



    Next you must consider whether that consent is sufficiently
    well informed. Information can seldom be complete. You have,
    however, not done all a faithful agent or trustee reasonably
    could do under the circumstances. You have not tried to bring
    home to the VP all the problems inherent in what he is asking
    of you. In particular, you have not pointed out two conflict
    problems and one appearance problem his response ignores. These
    problems are also reasons for you to reject serving on the
    committee even with the VP's informed consent.



    One problem you have not pointed out concerns your ability
    to judge the proposals competing with yours. Since you are
    doling from a limited pot, you have some incentive to judge
    other proposals more harshly than you would otherwise. Not only
    do you stand to benefit from so judging them, but you may also
    compare them to your own, giving your own the benefit of the
    doubt while not doing the same for others. We all tend to favor
    our own work. You may well not do it deliberately or even
    knowingly. You may do it nonetheless. Or you may try to
    compensate for that tendency. You may then "bend over backward
    to be fair" and, by so doing, judge other proposals less
    harshly than you would otherwise. The problem of conflict of
    interest is not that you will necessarily serve yourself at the
    expense of those you are supposed to serve. Even you cannot
    know whose interest you will in fact serve.



    Your presence on the committee may produce a similar problem
    for other committee members. Leaving the room when your
    proposal is discussed reminds everyone else who proposal it is
    (or, if reviewing is blind, actually tells them.) Since people
    generally favor people they know over people they do not know,
    those with whom they work over strangers, and so on, leaving
    the room avoids the effect of discussing the proposal with you
    present by generating another (though somewhat less serious)
    tendency to favor you (or to bend over backward not to favor
    you). Has the VP weighed these effects before pressing you to
    serve?



    That leaves the problem of appearances. The appearance of
    wrongdoing is itself something to be avoided. For those who do
    not know the truth, the appearance is indistinguishable from
    the thing itself. The mere appearance can therefore do as much
    harm to cooperation among members of a profession as real
    wrongdoing. The message conveyed is that cooperation is falling
    apart and everyone would do well to serve herself.



    An appearance is something that more information would
    dispel. But if you cannot provide enough information to dispel
    the appearance before it does harm, you must view serving on
    the committee (while applying for a grant from it) as including
    the harm.



    I believe it was Charles De Gaulle who remarked, "The
    indispensable man, the cemeteries are full of them." You might
    remind the VP of that when you respectfully, but firmly,
    decline to serve--or give up your plan to submit a
    proposal.

Cite this page: "Taking a Position of Influence" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 6/15/1992 OEC Accessed: Thursday, July 11, 2019 <www.onlineethics.org/Resources/csaindex/Influence.aspx>