Illegal, Immoral or Stupid

by Ralph D. Amado

A pretty good first cut for making life choices, be they personal or professional, is to ask, Is it illegal? Is it immoral? Is it stupid? Busy people at the University can get into trouble, particularly with regard to the differences between their private benefit and their responsibility to Penn, by forgetting to pose these questions.

Forgetting to ask recently brought discredit to some faculty at an Ivy League institution, and considerable institutional embarrassment as well. Let's call the place Ivybridge. An audit of federally-funded cost reimbursement grants at Ivybridge revealed that a number of University employees, including senior faculty who were also principal investigators, were at the same time employees of a commercial business. The business also had federal contracts and was owned by one of the senior faculty's family. The grants to the business were supporting many of the same activities as those at Ivybridge. The hours that faculty and other employees reported to have worked at the commercial business raised serious doubts about the time devoted to the grant at Ivybridge. For example, one principal investigator, a faculty member, was a full-time employee of the company and its chairman, working an average of 170 hours monthly at the company during a five-month period in which he also claimed to be on the full-time faculty at Ivybridge. Furthermore one report claimed reimbursement to someone for work at Ivybridge on June 31 and September 31. In summary the audit found extensive violation of Ivybridge's policies on outside paid professional activity and nepotism, as well as lapses in research accounting procedures.

This story is not a joke. It is a true cautionary tale. Even talented and experienced faculty can, in their busy lives, do things that may be illegal and are certainly stupid. Usually the excesses are not nearly so blatant as those at Ivybridge. In fact, often they involve conflicts that are as much perceived as real. Nevertheless, these acts damage the reputation of the faculty members, and they also bring discredit and the wrath of the federal auditors down on the institution. We must guard against them.

At Penn, each individual employee bears primary responsibility for managing his or her own behavior. The faculty rightly cherish their academic freedom, but freedom carries responsibility with it. A creative environment like ours needs to be as free as possible, but at the same time we need to be scrupulous in separating our personal interests and gain from our institutional responsibilities. Failure to do so will end by restricting the freedom of all.

Each faculty member, each Penn employee, is responsible for maintaining a bright line between official matters, between University financial and human resources, and personal interests. The University provides help through policies and offices designed to help. A list of some of them appears here. If you have the slightest question, you should consult these resources. It is better to be a little cautious than to be a lot immoral, illegal or, worst of all, stupid.

Sponsored Research

Conflict of Interest

Intellectual Property

Human Resources
Vice Provost for Research
Ralph D. Amado
212 College Hall
573-2108 (fax)
Managing Director,
Center for Technology
Louis P. Berneman
3700 Market St., Ste. 300
898-9519 (fax)
Executive Director,
Office of Research
Anthony Merritt
Mellon Bank Building, Mezz
36th & Walnut Street
898-9708 (fax)
Vice President,
Audit and Compliance
Rick N. Whitfield
3819 Chestnut St., Ste 214
227-7265 (fax)
Coporate Compliance
Odell Guyton, Esq.
3819 Chestnut St., Ste 214
898-1934 or 573-4806
662-7265 (fax)

Almanac, Vol. 44, No. 32, May 5, 1998