Conflict of interest solutions for higher education institutions

Maintaining transparency and integrity: conflict of interest risks for higher education institutions

Across today's increasingly complex higher education landscape, conflicts of interest (COIs) can pose a significant threat to academic integrity and trust. Higher education institutions face a growing array of potential conflicts, from faculty members engaging in outside consulting to researchers receiving grants from private foundations. Addressing these conflicts requires a thoughtful and comprehensive approach that balances the interests of all stakeholders. Colleges and universities should be transparent about their COI policies and procedures, including disclosing any potential conflicts to relevant stakeholders, such as students, faculty and the public. They should also hold themselves accountable for implementing and enforcing these policies.

It is essential for higher education institutions to implement and enforce COI policies and procedures and mitigate risks to support ethical decision-making.

Key risks associated with conflicts of interest in higher education

  • Damage to the institution's reputation: If COIs are not properly managed, it can lead to a loss of public trust in the institution's academic integrity and impartiality.
  • Compromised research quality: When COIs are not monitored, they can potentially influence research findings, skew data interpretation or affect the objectivity of research outcomes. This can undermine the quality and reliability of the research conducted by the institution.
  • Legal and financial risks: Failure to manage COIs can result in legal and financial risks for the institution. This can include lawsuits, fines or loss of funding, particularly if the institution receives federal grants or contracts.
  • Decreased productivity: If COIs are not effectively managed, they can lead to delays or disruptions in decision-making processes, particularly those related to research and partnerships.
  • Decreased morale: COIs that are not properly managed can lead to perceptions of favoritism, unfair treatment and mistrust among employees, students and external stakeholders. This can negatively impact morale and productivity within the institution.
  • Conflicts of commitment: Conflicts related to commitment arise when individuals are using institutional resources to complete outside work or are failing to meet their job requirements due to additional and external commitments. This can impact operations, productivity and related responsibilities.

How Baker Tilly can help

 Baker Tilly helps higher education institutions effectively manage COIs by:

  • Providing expertise and guidance on the development and implementation of policies and procedures
  • Identifying opportunities for training and knowledge-sharing
  • Supporting institutional leadership and general counsel in facilitating annual disclosure processes

Baker Tilly solutions for COI in higher education

Case study: COI management in action

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Client need

An organization requested assistance with managing their annual COI disclosure process.

Baker Tilly solution

The Baker Tilly team assisted in collecting and disseminating the annual COI disclosures. We then reviewed the COI disclosures and identified any disclosures that could lead to a potential COI based on the client’s policy. Common disclosures noted as potential COIs included conflict of commitment and relatives working for the same institution. The team compared the potential conflict to the employee’s documented management plan to determine if the plan mitigated the COI.

For any COI that required a new or updated management plan, we worked with the employee’s supervisor to develop an appropriate management plan.

Results achieved

The annual COI disclosure process was completed timely with management plans for all potential COIs disclosed. All disclosures and management plans have been formally documented and retained.

For more information on COI management, or to learn more about how Baker Tilly’s higher education internal audit specialists can help your institution, contact our team.

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