PSU Reports O’Neill in Compliance with Ethics Policy Without Answering Basic Questions

On December 8, we asked Penn State’s Conflict of Interest (COI) office to initiate an inquiry into School of Hospitality Management (SHM) Professor John O’Neill’s into possible ethics violations. Our reporting has uncovered strong evidence suggesting Professor O’Neill is using his position at Penn State not only to bolster his consulting practice, but also to increase the credibility of the hotel lobby-funded research he conducts on behalf of his client, the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA). This includes producing an AHLA-funded study that the hotel lobby is promoting as “a recent study by the Pennsylvania State University” in its advocacy and marketing materials.

We received a letter from Vice President of Research Neil Sharkey last Thursday informing us that Professor O’Neill has been found in compliance with Penn State policy. Sharkey wrote:

For your information, our internal inquiry by our Office for Research Protections has been completed. Dr. O’Neill is currently in compliance with University policy, and we consider the matter closed. As we do with all compliance issues, we will continue to monitor and will look into them as they may arise.

Dr. Sharkey’s terse reply leaves many basic questions unanswered.

After receiving an anonymous tip last December informing us that “there is a bigger story,” we also began investigating how Professor O’Neill became director of SHM in 2011.

We sent detailed letters of inquiry to Professor O’Neill’s supervisor, Health and Human Development Dean Ann C. Crouter, and Vice President of Research Neil Sharkey. But Dr. Sharkey has now attempted to shut down any further lines of inquiry. He writes:

We followed all university policies and procedures in the conduct of the search and subsequent appointment referenced in your letter. We do not feel the need to respond to requests for further detail on this matter.

In fact, Sharkey has provided no detail. Not only has the University failed to answer basic questions regarding Professor O’Neill’s possible ethics violations, neither Dean Crouter nor Vice President Sharkey have provided substantive responses to any of our questions about O’Neill’s ascension to SHM director.

The administration owes the Penn State community, as well as Pennsylvania tax-payers, answers to basic questions about whether Professor O’Neill was properly vetted, and why during his tenure he was allowed to use the imprimatur of Penn State to advance the interests of the hotel lobby as reported in the Daily Collegian.

These questions include:

  1. Did Professor O’Neill ask for and receive permission to run a private consulting firm on Penn State’s campus?
  2. Did he submit a conflict of interest disclosure statement for the two studies he conducted on behalf of his past and/or current client, the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA)?
  3. Since the appointing authority [Dean Crouter] chose not to convene a second advisory search committee, what form of faculty consultation was utilized during the internal search process that led to Professor O’Neill’s appointment?
  4. What details of the compliance review conducted by the Conflict of Interest office and Office for Research Protections will be disseminated to the public? And, when?

Dr. Sharkey also refused to provide us with a copy of a Penn State flyer for the Minor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ENTI) program, which “included biographical information with a sentence about Professor O’Neill’s consultancy practice.” Dr. Sharkey concludes, “…but there is no contact information listed. This flyer is no longer in circulation and any current brochures do not include that content.”

You can read his entire response here.

Checks and Balances Project believes our readers would like to examine this flyer to determine if it has any relevance to the just-concluded compliance review. Because, according to several individuals at SHM, it does.

If you have a physical or digital copy of this flyer or any marketing collateral that mentions Professor O’Neill’s private consulting practice, please email [email protected].


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.


You Might Also Want to Read:

Questions About Penn State Professor O’Neill Referred to Ethics Office

Hotel Lobby Proposes $1.25 Billion Tax on Home Sharers

Hotel Lobby President Kathy Lugar Refuses to Discuss Model Legislation to Tax Home Sharers