Frequently Asked Questions
The reporting of conflicts of interest and commitment helps to instill public confidence that activities undertaken at or on behalf of Appalachian State University are conducted in a lawful and ethical manner. Such reporting also is required by various federal and state laws, regulations, and policies that apply to the University of North Carolina in general and to Appalachian in particular.
The official and current version of the Conflict of Interest and Commitment Policy appears in the University's online Policy Manual, Policy 604.6.
The online reporting system will allow more efficient processing of COI/COC reporting. Among other things, it will allow the Office of Research to better coordinate project-specific COI/COC reporting for those individuals who are engaged in sponsored research that is tracked through the AGrants system.
Activities Interests and Relationships (AIR) - appstate.myresearchonline.org/air/
Pursuant to ASU Policy 604.6, Section 4.6.4, the reporting form "contains information that may have a direct bearing on the individual's employment. The forms, therefore, will be maintained confidentially in a database with access limited to University employees having a need to know the disclosed information."
The University has been moving gradually toward this online system, and some individuals already have experience with online reporting. We have made every effort possible to align the new online report content and form with those previously used at Appalachian. In some cases, however, the questions have been modified to allow better integration of AIR and AGrants. The formatting also has a different look – although, again, we have tried to use the content of existing forms to the extent possible.
These terms are defined and described at length in Policy 604.6. In very brief terms:
A conflict of interest generally involves a financial interest of sufficient type and magnitude that it could affect a person’s decision-making associated with her or his University responsibilities. (See ASU Policy 604.6, Section 4.1) Under Appalachian’s policy, a financial interest of more than $10,000 is “significant” and must be reported; for purposes of Public Health Services (PHS) grants, the threshold is $5,000. Financial interests of lesser amounts could constitute a COI under certain circumstances.
Example of Conflict of Interest: A faculty member has been approached to engage in research relating to a product manufactured by a for-profit company. The faculty member’s spouse is engaged by the same company to perform consulting services relating to the same product, and the spouse is paid $12,000/year for that work. The financial interest is “significant” and could be perceived as potentially biasing the work of the researcher. The relationship would constitute a COI that must be disclosed and managed appropriately.
A conflict of commitment relates to an individual’s distribution of time and effort between University obligations and activities outside of University employment. (See ASU Policy 604.6, Section 4.2) A COC exists if the external activities interfere with the individual’s fulfillment of University responsibilities.
Example of Conflict of Commitment: A faculty member chairs the board of directors of a national non-profit entity. The position is prestigious and relates to her discipline; however, the position also demands the faculty member’s attendance at monthly board meetings and attention to other business such that the faculty member is off campus at least 10 business days per month. Students have complained that the faculty member is not available for office hours and the faculty member frequently misses department meetings and other departmental obligations. The situation would constitute a COC that must be disclosed and managed appropriately.
Disclosure of a COI or COC rarely results in prohibition of the activity in question. In many cases, disclosure alone will be sufficient. In other cases, the conflict must be "managed" – for example, steps are put in place to ensure that a purchase is at fair market value, or additional checks are instituted (e.g., an external reviewer) to ensure that the activity occurs in a manner that is free from bias. The roles of individuals involved in reviewing disclosures are described in Question 13 below.
COIs and COCs are not inherently problematic – in fact, they can be expected to arise in situations where significant research activity is undertaken or where professional employees are otherwise actively engaged in their profession and community. Most conflicts can be managed or eliminated, and only a very few will preclude the activity in question. The important thing is to disclose the situation so that an open, frank conversation can be had among the appropriate individuals to identify interests and address them.
ASU Policy 604.6 requires “Covered Persons” to complete the COI/COC Reporting Form. Covered Persons include:
Covered Employees: any faculty or EPA non-faculty employee of the UNC system, constituent institution, affiliated entity, or other agency or unit of UNC (Policy 604.6, Section 3.4); and
Covered Individuals: see policy for full description, but includes Principal Investigators and Project Directors of any Public Health Service-supported grant; persons designated by a PI or PD as being responsible for the design, conduct, or reporting of PHS-funded research; and Senior/Key Personnel listed on a PHS grant application or report (Policy 604.6, Section 3.5).
Immediate Family of a Covered Person is defined as the Covered Person’s spouse and dependent children. COI reporting extends to activities of the Covered Person’s Immediate Family.
Covered Persons must submit a reporting form annually before October 1. Updates are required in certain situations defined in the policy, including when a Covered Person applies for external funding, when new employment responsibilities are assigned, or when relationships with external parties change and give rise to a potential COI/COC. (Policy 604.6, Sections 4.6.1 and 4.6.2)
Pursuant to Policy 604.6, Section 4.5.1:
"The Provost is responsible for overseeing the implementation of this policy in all units, including the process and mechanism for conflict disclosure, evaluation, and management. The Provost designates the General Counsel as the Conflicts of Interest (COI) Coordinator. The COI Coordinator will solicit, review and evaluate disclosures of financial interests from Covered Persons, and advise DUOs [Designated University Officials] on development and implementation of plans to manage conflicts of interest."
Policy 604.6 defines a Designated University Official (DUO) as "the Dean of the Covered Person's college or, for any Covered Person not assigned to a position in any college, the appropriate unit head." (Section 3.7)
The DUO is the primary contact for the COI Coordinator if the Coordinator's initial review of a disclosure indicates that there is or may be a COI/COC. See other questions in this document for additional description of a DUO's responsibilities.
Policy 604.6 describes in detail the responsibilities and steps involved in identifying and managing COIs and COCs. In brief, as set forth in Sections 4.7 and 4.8:
- Department chairs and supervisors of Covered Persons: ensure that Covered Employees complete the Reporting Form.
- Office of Sponsored Programs: informs COI Coordinator and department chair or supervisor if updated forms are not submitted before a proposal is submitted to an external sponsor or if updated forms identify an actual or potential conflict. Sends disclosure and other reports as required by PHS regulations to PHS agencies, sub-recipients, and external sponsors.
- COI Coordinator: conducts initial review of Reporting Forms; consults with Covered Person, Covered Person’s department chair or supervisor, dean, vice chancellor or chancellor, as appropriate, regarding any potential COI. If the DUO determines that a conflict exists, the COI Coordinator works with the department chair or supervisor to collect relevant information to share with the Designated University Official (DUO) and, if appropriate, advises on elements of a management plan. The Coordinator reports all identified COIs and management plans to the Provost, Chief Research Officer, and (if the conflict involves a grant or contract) the Director of Sponsored Programs. The COI Coordinator retains file copies of all management plans.
- Designated University Official (DUO; see definition above and in Policy 604.6): based on information provided by appropriate individuals and shared by the COI Coordinator, the DUO (most often a dean) makes the determination as to whether a COI exists. If a conflict exists, the DUO confers as appropriate (potentially including conferral with the Conflict of Interest and Commitment Council – see below) to make appropriate disclosures, develop a management plan, etc.
- Conflict of Interest and Commitment Council: provides input as necessary to a DUO who has identified a COI/COC, making recommendations regarding a management plan or other steps needed to resolve the matter. Also reviews policies and may promulgate rules of procedure for its operations. (See also Question 14 below for more information on the Council.
- Provost: responsible for overseeing implementation of policy in all units. Receives reports of COIs and management plans from the COI Coordinator. Provost or Provost’s designee reviews reports of breaches of Policy 604.6 and may refer to the COI/COC Council for review and recommendation.
- Chancellor: appoints members to the COI/COC Council; also appoints the Council chair. Considers any COI/COC issues that arise with respect to the Chancellor’s direct reports.
Faculty Grievance Hearing Committee: may hear appeals, pursuant to the relevant provisions of the Faculty Handbook, by Covered Persons who object to determinations made regarding COIs, management plan requirements, or determinations of noncompliance with Policy 604.6. (Section 4.5.4)
Policy 604.6, Section 4.5.2 provides for a standing Conflicts of Interest and Commitment Council ("COI/COC Council" or "Council") and defines the membership of that body. The Council chair and all members are appointed by the Chancellor; with respect to four faculty members who sit on the Council, the Chancellor's appointments are made from a pool jointly recommended by the chair of the Faculty Senate and the Chief Research Officer.
"The Council will review policies, management plans and other conflicts of interest or commitment matters upon the request of any dean, vice chancellor or the Chancellor and make recommendation to the referring official." (Policy 604.6, Section 4.5.3)
Covered Employees remain obligated to comply with the External Professional Activities for Pay provisions as set forth in Appalachian and UNC system policies and regulations. (Policy 604.6, Section 3.8) This disclosure plays a key role in assessing Conflicts of Commitment.
Income from investments such as mutual funds or retirement accounts, whose investment decisions are not directly controlled by the Covered Person or Immediate Family member, are excluded from the definition of a "Financial Interest". (Policy 604.6, Section 3.10)
Various federal statutes and regulations require universities that conduct PHS-funded research to adopt COI/COC policies, so many universities across the country already have in place similar reporting policies and mechanisms. Reporting of COI/COC also has become a best practice in many contexts in higher education.
In addition, UNC Policy Manual 300.2.2, Section II requires all constituent institutions to “develop detailed implementing policies and procedures” for reporting potential Conflicts of Interest and Conflicts of Commitment. “Institutional policies shall require that a Covered Employee’s professional activities and financial interests must be arranged to avoid circumstances that do or may prevent or limit objectivity in the performance of University Employment Responsibilities or that otherwise do or may adversely affect any University interests.”
A number of UNC constituent institutions already are utilizing the AIR online reporting system. Some have utilized the forms and text as designed by UNC General Administration; other campuses, like Appalachian, have tailored the reporting form to their own campus policies.
Retaliation against any person who reports a violation of the University's Conflict of Interest and Commitment Policy, or who participates in an investigation of an alleged violation, is prohibited. Retaliation may be the basis for discipline, up to and including dismissal. (Policy 604.6, Section 4.9.2)