CPay-to-Play Academicshief Ethics Officer Becker Claimed University “Will Not Tolerate Wrongful Conduct”

For more than 250 days (roughly eight months), Penn State has been unable or unwilling to answer basic questions on how Professor John O’Neill’s pay-to-play academics meets University ethics guidelines. Uncovered documents show that O’Neill conducted this research on behalf of his client, the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), which includes using his University contact information for professional work and putting pay-to-play research on PSU letterhead.

14 Requests

We have made 14 separate attempts — including letters, phone calls and visits — to point out obvious violations and obtain answers from Penn State administrators.

The only substantive answer we have received thus far was from Vice President of Research Neil Sharkey declaring that Professor O’Neill was in compliance.

He 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.

Notably, Sharkey’s response avoided answering the following questions:

  1. Has Professor O’Neill received written approval to engage in private consulting using University resources?
  2. Does Professor O’Neill still provide consulting services for the hotel lobby or any of the companies that comprise its executive board?
  3. Did Professor O’Neill disclose or vet his conflicts of interest with the administrative head of his college, Dean Ann C. Crouter, or any other appropriate administrative office at Penn State before producing AHLA-funded reports? If so, what was the basis for this decision?
  4. If not, how and when will the University inform the public that the research integrity of these reports is compromised?
  5. Did Professor O’Neill receive any compensation or remuneration for producing the two reports?

Extending the Penn State Pay-to-Play Model

These are not merely academic questions; AHLA is attempting to replicate the Penn State model at other universities, according to an April 2017 New York Times story.

In response to the Times’ story, we filed public records requests with the three institutions named in the story to obtain records of any “grants, contracts, research proposals and results of preliminary analyses” that AHLA, the primary lobbying arm of the hotel lobby, may have funded, sponsored or initiated within the last three years. But this doesn’t mean the hotel lobby has encountered the same level of cooperation at other institutions as it received at PSU.

In fact, an anonymous reader tip we received raised questions about the evenhandedness of Dr. Sharkey’s investigation:Pay-to-Play Academics

We now have four anonymous readers sending us tips on ethics problems surrounding O’Neill and the Administration’s actions.

As we obtain new information from our records requests about the hotel lobby’s larger pay-to-play scheme, we will continue to seek accountability on behalf of our readers and the Penn State community.


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.

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