Penn State ethicsOn October 7th, we sent a letter to Penn State University’s Provost Dr. Nicholas P. Jones that asked for his help so that our readers could better understand the School of Hospitality Management’s (SHM) relationship with the hotel industry lobby.

Among other things, we asked about Penn State Professor John W. O’Neill, former director of SHM and current Director of the Center for Hospitality Real Estate Strategy. In addition to being a Penn State professor, Mr. O’Neill also has a healthy (and, we presume, lucrative) consulting practice with major clients that include some of the biggest names in the hotel industry.

Penn State ethics

We are interested in how industry lobbying efforts intersect with university departments that are dedicated to industry. Having the stamp of university approval through research and a well-known expert can be a powerful validator of an industry’s lobbying position.

Questions About Lobbyist Influence

But it raises the question of industry lobbyist influence over university affairs. In one case Checks and Balances investigated, a Colorado professor was fired because he dared to raise questions about fracking’s contamination of drinking water supplies.

As we begin to look at the influence of the hotel lobby – particularly its fight against more sustainable forms of travel and home sharing – it’s clear that Professor O’Neill and Penn State ethics are just such an intersection point.

Last week, we called to follow up on our letter to the Penn State Provost and was told by his Executive Assistant:

“Dr. Jones is working on the response to your letter sent on Friday, October 7. He will be in touch.”

That’s great and we’re looking forward to Dr. Jones’ response.

While we and our readers wait for that, we found several examples of what Penn State University thinks about running a consulting practice using university resources.  Consider these declarations of ethics and conflict of interest policies that we found from a lengthy list of Penn State ethics policies that govern a wide range of scenarios.

We found four policies that Dr. Jones will likely be referring to when he thinks about our inquiry.

Policy #1: Institutional Financial Conflict of Interest

This Penn State ethics policy is designed to prevent financial or business interests from compromising the University’s primary mission or improperly influence its activities. The policy states that the University:

… affirms that it will not solicit or accept gifts that in any way limit the ability of its investigators to conduct and/or report the results of research in accordance with the highest scientific, medical, professional, and ethical standards.  Nor will the University solicit or accept gifts (including gifts to support research) that are contingent upon any particular business or purchasing decision(s).

Policy #2: Private Consulting Practice

Our letter to Dr. Jones pointed out that Professor John O’Neill has “led the creation of an industry advisory board comprised of more than 20 Marriott, Wynn, Starwood, Hyatt and Hilton executives. In addition, not only has Dr. O’Neill conducted paid studies on behalf of the American Hotel & Lodging Association.”

We find his relationship curious, since Penn State’s policy declares that:

… private consulting may create the potential for or perceptions of a conflict of interest between the faculty’s financial interests created by the consulting and his/her related Penn State research.

And that:

The name of the University is not in any way to be connected with the service rendered or the results obtained. The faculty member must make it clear that his or her consulting work is a personal matter.

Policy #3: Conflict of Interest

To ensure faculty and staff are behaving appropriately, the conflict of interest policy requires faculty members to “disclose to the administrative head of the college or other unit in which they are employed, or other appropriate administrative officer, any potential conflict of interest of which they are aware before a contract or transaction is consummated.”

We assume that Dr. Jones has that disclosure, and that he will both provide and explicitly address Professor O’Neill’s consulting practice.

Policy #4: Disclosure and Management of Significant Financial Interests

Understanding the need to protect the objectivity and integrity of the University, this policy ensures “transparency in relationships with outside Entities and individuals as they relate to the academic and scholarly mission of the University.”

Transparency and accountability are essential for any public institution or person whose paycheck is funded by taxpayers. We’re happy to see Penn State ethics policies have embraced these goals so clearly – particularly in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.

Surely there’s an explanation for Professor O’Neill’s relationships with Penn State and his hospitality industry clients. We look forward to learning more about it.



What Is Penn State’s Relationship With Hotel Industry Lobbyists?


Evlondo Cooper is a senior fellow with Checks and Balances Project, a national watchdog blog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists, and corporate management accountable to the public. Funding for C&BP comes from sustainable economy philanthropies and donors.