Illegal, Immoral or Stupid
by Ralph D. Amado
A pretty good first cut for making life choices, be they personal or
professional, is to ask, Is it illegal? Is it immoral? Is it stupid? Busy
people at the University can get into trouble, particularly with regard
to the differences between their private benefit and their responsibility
to Penn, by forgetting to pose these questions.
Forgetting to ask recently brought discredit to some faculty at an Ivy
League institution, and considerable institutional embarrassment as well.
Let's call the place Ivybridge. An audit of federally-funded cost reimbursement
grants at Ivybridge revealed that a number of University employees, including
senior faculty who were also principal investigators, were at the same time
employees of a commercial business. The business also had federal contracts
and was owned by one of the senior faculty's family. The grants to the business
were supporting many of the same activities as those at Ivybridge. The hours
that faculty and other employees reported to have worked at the commercial
business raised serious doubts about the time devoted to the grant at Ivybridge.
For example, one principal investigator, a faculty member, was a full-time
employee of the company and its chairman, working an average of 170 hours
monthly at the company during a five-month period in which he also claimed
to be on the full-time faculty at Ivybridge. Furthermore one report claimed
reimbursement to someone for work at Ivybridge on June 31 and September
31. In summary the audit found extensive violation of Ivybridge's policies
on outside paid professional activity and nepotism, as well as lapses in
research accounting procedures.
This story is not a joke. It is a true cautionary tale. Even talented
and experienced faculty can, in their busy lives, do things that may be
illegal and are certainly stupid. Usually the excesses are not nearly so
blatant as those at Ivybridge. In fact, often they involve conflicts that
are as much perceived as real. Nevertheless, these acts damage the reputation
of the faculty members, and they also bring discredit and the wrath of the
federal auditors down on the institution. We must guard against them.
At Penn, each individual employee bears primary responsibility for managing
his or her own behavior. The faculty rightly cherish their academic freedom,
but freedom carries responsibility with it. A creative environment like
ours needs to be as free as possible, but at the same time we need to be
scrupulous in separating our personal interests and gain from our institutional
responsibilities. Failure to do so will end by restricting the freedom of
Each faculty member, each Penn employee, is responsible for maintaining
a bright line between official matters, between University financial and
human resources, and personal interests. The University provides help through
policies and offices designed to help. A list of some of them appears here.
If you have the slightest question, you should consult these resources.
It is better to be a little cautious than to be a lot immoral, illegal or,
worst of all, stupid.
Conflict of Interest
- Human Resources
Vice Provost for Research
Ralph D. Amado
212 College Hall
Center for Technology
Louis P. Berneman
3700 Market St., Ste. 300
Office of Research
Mellon Bank Building, Mezz
36th & Walnut Street
Audit and Compliance
Rick N. Whitfield
3819 Chestnut St., Ste 214
Odell Guyton, Esq.
3819 Chestnut St., Ste 214
898-1934 or 573-4806