Our Visit Sparks University Probe
Not long after we began investigating the hotel lobby’s campaign to undermine the more sustainable method of hospitality offered by home sharing, we became aware of Penn State Professor John O’Neill. Professor O’Neill is a well-known advocate for the hotel lobby (here) and is frequently called upon by journalists.
But despite his renown, we’ve found strong evidence that suggests Professor O’Neill is using his position at the School of Hospitality Management (SHM) to bolster his consulting practice and increase the credibility of his hotel lobby-funded research conducted on behalf of his clients.
We made repeated attempts to ask Penn State officials basic questions about conflict of interest standards at the university and for any exemptions given to Professor O’Neill for his consulting practice. They were largely ignored. So, on Dec. 8, we visited the university and Professor O’Neill in person.
An Invitation to Third Parties to Come Forward
Penn State declares a commitment to the highest standards of ethical behavior. But when we tried on Nov. 28 to schedule a time to discuss our concerns with Clint Schmidt, director of the Conflict of Interest (COI) Program, to discuss Professor O’Neill’s apparent ethics violation, we were told Schmidt was in a meeting.
We sent an email on Dec. 2 but received no reply. Mr. Schmidt was also unavailable when we sought to ask him basic questions in person. None of the staff members at his office could tell us when he would be available.
Penn State’s Conflict of Interest Program’s handbook, “Procedures for Handling Alleged Noncompliance,” invites fact-based complaints:
“COI staff may become aware of alleged noncompliance during a review of disclosures or other information submitted by researchers or other administrative offices, or as a result of an allegation made by a third party.”
A Pattern of Avoidance
We expected to deliver our complaint to Director Schmidt and ask a few short questions about next steps. Instead, after waiting approximately fifteen minutes, we were told by the office manager that Schmitt was unable to spare even a minute to simply accept our complaint. We were given a phone number for the ethics hotline.
Eventually, the office manager reluctantly agreed to accept our referral, while reminding us that only the director had the power to act on it.
This reluctance was a recurring pattern with those we contacted regarding the intersection of Professor O’Neill’s consulting practice and the use of university resources.
- On Oct. 7, we sent a letter to Provost Dr. Nicholas P. Jones, asking for help to better understand SHM’s relationship with the hotel industry and the origins of this university-corporate partnership. We received a reply on Nov. 9 in a letter from Vice President Neil Sharkey, in which he said that it was Professor O’Neill’s responsibility to report conflicts: “All university personnel are responsible for research disclosures as defined in the policies.”
- Then, on Nov. 22, we sent a letter to Dean Ann “Nan” Crouter of the College of Health and Human Development, of which the School of Hospitality Management is a part. We wanted to know if Professor O’Neill had sought and obtained a waiver to operate a private consulting practice out of Penn State. Despite two follow-up contacts, we still have not received a response from Dean Crouter.
- On Nov. 30, we left a voice mail for Professor O’Neill and emailed him on Dec. 6. O’Neill did not respond.
Official Examination Begins
Finally, on Dec. 18, ten days after our visit to the campus, we received the first word that our complaint is being investigated by the university’s ethics office. We learned that not through any communication to us, but through an article in the Centre Daily Times, who quoted Penn State spokeswoman as saying:
“The Checks and Balances group has in fact brought this to our attention and, as we would with any issue of this type, we have referred the matter to Penn State’s Office of Ethics and Compliance for independent review.”
As state support for universities drops, there is a growing trend of corporate support in the form of specially designated departments, professorships, etc., often with alarming consequences. At Columbia University, we found pro-tar sand industry officials were given jobs at a fossil fuel-friendly “Energy Center” (here). A professor who raised reasonable concerns about the practice of fracking was fired from Colorado School of Mines (here).
We won’t know if the same applies to Professor O’Neill’s consulting practice until we know if it violates Penn State’s strong and clear ethics standards. Professor O’Neil claimed to the Centre Daily Times that there’s no problem. It’s now up to university officials to supply the records that back up that claim.
You can read our letter to Clint Schmidt here:
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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.