Ethics questionnaire invades faculty privacy

Faculty and staff are up in arms over a new form that requires them to report outside, voluntary activities that they claim supervisors have no business knowing about. The College claims the form is necessary to meet New Jersey law requirements regarding conflicts of interest for public employees, but faculty and staff say the information can be obtained in a less intrusive way

At issue is the “State of New Jersey Outside Activity Questionnaire” that Catherine Sokoloski, director of Legal Affairs and ethics liaison officer, sent out to all faculty and staff on Nov. 11. Question four on that form asks an employee, “Do you currently hold or plan to hold outside voluntary position(s)?” and asks the employee to explain if the answer is “yes.”

The question is the same as the one on the Executive Commission on Ethical Standard’s webpage that provides a sample form for use in disclosing conflicts of interest, but faculty and staff say it asks for too much information.

According to Ralph Edelbach, associate professor of technological studies and president of the American Federation of Teachers Local 2364 (AFT) which represents faculty and some staff members, question four infringes on the privacy rights of its members.

“If I volunteer at something controversial, why do I need to report that?” Edelbach said. “What relation does that have to anything?”

The forms are supposed to be given to immediate supervisors, who would review and approve or disapprove them, and then pass them up to cabinet-level supervisors, who would then send them to Sokoloski for final approval.

Edelbach said his union’s members were concerned that supervisors who may disapprove of an employee’s voluntary activities would hold it against them in appraisals or reviews. His members, he said, were concerned that if they, for example, volunteered at an abortion clinic and had a pro-life supervisor, then that might be held against them.

“Only the TCNJ Ethics Liaison Officer or another qualified individual with the requisite experience to make the determination that an outside position potentially violates New Jersey’s ethical guide lines should be charged with the responsibility to review materials submitted,” Edelbach wrote in a memo to College President R. Barbara Gitenstein about the new process.

Previously, said Edelbach, the forms were given to Human Resources directly, and only asked about outside income, which AFT did not object to. He said the forms should only ask for information about possible conflicts of interest, not about all voluntary activities.

The administration says that the forms were necessary for complying with New Jersey state law.

“We understand that some faculty and staff members have external business interests and serve various organizations in differing capacities, and we support their right to engage in those activities,” Matt Golden, director for Public Information, said in an e-mail. “The disclosure forms are required of us by the state and allow for transparency in our business practices, but it is important to note that reporting or engaging in external activity usually does not constitute any conflict of interest.”

Edelbach said that the forms were “Big Brother” intruding on the private lives of faculty and staff at the College. He said he wanted to see Sokoloski send out a list giving examples of the sorts of outside activities that did and did not need to be reported.

All of the staff and faculty leaders interviewed, however, said they were satisfied that the administration was taking their concerns seriously.

Edelbach said he, along with the faculty and staff senate leaders, have met with Sokoloski and Vivian Fernandez, associate vice president for Human Resources, and that they have had a “good working relationship.” For example, the due date for the forms has been postponed, adjunct faculty no longer have to fill them out, and forms are first going to deans rather than department chairs.

“I’m very confident that these minor issues will be resolved,” Michael Robertson, president of the Faculty Senate, said. He said that the meetings on the issue have been “very productive” and that his organization shares AFT’s concerns about privacy.

Mike Marchetti, adjunct faculty in the general education program, said that his organization was looking for ways that the College might change policies in the future to prevent these sorts of problems.

He said that he was leaving the immediate issues about the forms this year to the unions, but said he was “satisfied with the administration’s willingness” to address the issues.

For now, Edelbach has told his members not to fill out the forms.

“There’s no clock running on this,” Edelbach said. “Let’s do this in a collegial way. Let’s sit down and talk about this.”