North Dakota State University Foundation members would be wise to heed the anything-but-subtle warning about conflicts of interest regarding a proposed student housing project. Jeff Volk, chairman of the foundation’s property management committee, last week urged members to recuse themselves if they would like to be considered as developers for the project.
It’s excellent advice. It’s the smartest strategy for not only steering clear of real conflicts of interest but also for avoiding the appearance of conflicts of interest, which can take on a life of its own and erode the credibility of the foundation and the university.
Apparently not all foundation officials agree. Developers Jim Roers and Bob Challey are foundation trustees; they also are on the property management committee. Challey suggested it was not a good idea to push away members who have experience with development. Roers wanted to know when a perceived conflict would begin: at advising or voting?
They are missing a larger and potentially damaging factor: that some developers appear to have an inside track on foundation/university projects, and other developers in the community do not. Some developers, by virtue of insider status with the foundation, enjoy what other builders might see as unfair advantages when it comes to university projects. Fair or not, accurate or not, it should be the foundation’s priority to eliminate even the perception of conflict of interest.
Regarding Challey’s concern about “experience” among foundation trustees: Experience need not mean voting members. Experience can be accessed simply by asking developers with experience to advise the foundation. Regarding Roers’ question about when a possible conflict might be perceived: Advising need not be a conflict; voting could be. The solution to the latter (if the foundation insists on having developers as voting members) is for those members with a potential conflict of interest to recuse themselves. That was Volk’s sage suggestion.
The university and the foundation are being scrutinized as never before, sometimes for good reasons, but sometimes to satisfy a no-nothing legislator’s political agenda. The foundation, in particular, has found itself in a harsh spotlight in the past couple of years. It would be foolish to hand critics yet another reason to beat up NDSU and the foundation. If ignored or even minimized, the conflict-of-interest matter could become a headline-making blowup. Not smart.
Editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.