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University to review ethics complaint regarding two professors

In a study of privately-run prisons, funding from private prison companies was not originally stated, something the complaint argues influenced objectivity.

Temple is investigating an ethics complaint aimed at two professors who did not originally disclose funding for their study on private- versus publicly-run prisons, which, the complaint argued, tampered with the study’s objectivity.

Erwin Blackstone and Simon Hakim, tenured economics professors who have taught at Temple since the mid-1970s, released a working paper of their study, “Cost Analysis of Public and Contractor-Operated Prisons” in April 2013.

Through May and early June of that year, the professors published op-ed pieces about the research in newspapers like the State Journal, based in Frankfort, Ky., and the Detroit Free Press, explaining the study’s conclusion that private prisons can save taxpayers money while addressing some problems with public prisons.

“We found that contractor-operated prisons generate [12 to 58 percent] in long-run savings and help relieve overcrowding without sacrificing the quality of the services,” the two wrote in the Free Press.

Alex Friedmann, managing editor of the Prison Legal News, objected to their research and filed the ethics complaint with the university. PLN is a monthly publication about criminal justice issues with about 9,000 subscribers, most of whom are incarcerated, Friedmann told The Temple News.

Friedmann said he first heard about the study in a press release from GEO Group, a private corrections company headquartered in Boca Raton, Fla.

“Once that ran across my desk, it raised some initial questions,” Friedmann said. “I asked, ‘did this receive funding from the private corrections industry?’”

After some researching, Friedmann found that the study did receive industry funding and that there was no disclosure language on the original working paper, dated April 29, 2013. After Friedmann informally complained, the professors released an updated working paper dated May 23, 2013, with a one-sentence disclosure of funding on the fourth page.

“The study received funding by members of the private corrections industry,” the sentence read.

A 28-slide PowerPoint presentation about the study, dated Feb. 10, 2014, is available on the website for the university’s Center for Competitive Government, a research organization run through the Fox School of Business and headed by Hakim.

The Center for Competitive Government was formerly called the Privatization Research Center. Hakim is registered to teach two classes in Fall 2014, Microeconomics and “The Economics and Management of Privatization.”

This PowerPoint about the study disclosed the funding on the first slide. The disclosure reads that “the authors would like to thank members of the private corrections industry for their partial funding of this project.”

Blackstone and Hakim did not respond to multiple requests for comment by The Temple News. In an interview with the Inquirer, Hakim said, “When it appears as a working paper, it is not final. It is just for review purposes. A few weeks after, we made the disclosure that it was partially funded by the private prison industry.”

Friedmann objected to the disclosure’s placement on the fourth page, he said he felt it should have been on the first. He also felt that the specific sources of funding should have been originally disclosed.

Blackstone and Hakim would not tell the Inquirer how much funding they received or from whom. The “recent grants received” section of Hakim’s Curriculum Vitae noted that he and Blackstone conducted “an analysis of state and private prisons’ costs and performance” in 2012 and 2013 with funding from the Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group, and the Management and Training Corporation: the three-largest private corrections companies in the country.

Friedmann also argued for disclosure language in the op-ed pieces. One of the op-eds, from the State Journal, revealed that the study had received some industry funding. The Inquirer reported that Dan Liebman, an editor at the Journal, said he would not print the piece without knowing who funded the study.

Hakim told the Inquirer that the funding was disclosed in Temple’s press release on the study and that the newspapers elected not to include the disclosure. Later in the Inquirer interview, Hakim said he was not sure. “We believe we did,” Hakim said on informing the newspapers of the study’s funding source. “It’s not that important.”

Friedmann ultimately filed a formal ethics complaint against the two professors dated June 25, 2013, stating his view that the professors violated two Temple policies: a general faculty conflict of interest policy and another policy specifically concerning financial conflict of interests in research.

“Faculty members may not allow outside financial interests or relations with relatives to influence, or appear to influence, their actions and decisions as university employees,” the general policy reads.

A university spokesman said Temple will investigate the complaint this summer and will not comment since there is an ongoing investigation.

Joe Brandt can be reached at jbrandt@temple.edu or on Twitter @JBrandt_TU.

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