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about 5 years ago
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Textbook Example: Conflict of Interest in Integrative Arts

We have uncovered a situation within the Integrative Arts program that we think the University should thoroughly investigate. We were assured by a university representative that someone would be “looking into it”, but someone has been “looking into it” for almost a month. Here’s what we know…

Jeffrey Van Fossan is a faculty member in the Integrative Arts program here at University Park. The Integrative Arts program in Arts & Architecture is basically an interdisciplinary approach to art. He is identified more specifically on the program page as being an instructional designer.

In an email to PHOTO 100 students this fall, Van Fossan identified himself as the “Photo 100 Course Designer” and directed them to an online store called Pop Art University to purchase their $113.99 digital textbooks. Van Fossan himself is not an instructor in the course (there are four sections split between Tara Tallman and Alice Teeple).

The book is called The Culture of Photography and it is published by Kendall/Hunt. The publishing company has it listed on its page as having been written by Keith Shapiro. Kendal/Hunt also has its retail price listed as $113.99. Keith Shapiro is an “Assistant Professor of Integrative Arts & Art” according to his faculty profile. Oddly we have only been able to find a handful of references to the book online.

The link that Van Fossan sent his students was to a page on which they could pay to have access to http://popartuniversity.com/courses/photo100 for the duration of the course. That site has many courseware elements on it instead of on ANGEL.

The Pop Art University homepage is barren of any information about the company.

The Pop Art University mainpage has simply no contact information on it.

The Pop Art University home page has simply no contact information on it.

Sketchy, but not incriminating in itself. However, our tipster smartly searched for the WHOIS information of the site and came up with this registrant:

Extra Credit Enterprises Inc

5199 W Buffalo Run Road
Port Matilda, PA 16870
United States

and this administrative and technical contact:

Tremblay, Jason [email protected]
Extra Credit Enterprises Inc
5199 W Buffalo Run Road
Port Matilda, PA 16870
United States
+1.8145744309

Jason_TremblayThe website http://www.extracreditinc.com/ says simply ‘hello world’. Jason Tremblay is a former Penn State employee. He still has an entry on psu.edu/ph as well.

Since this information was first accessed, the WHOIS information was obscured through a proxy service. However, the address listed on the original WHOIS information is not, in fact, Jason Tremblay’s. A simple reverse address tool suggests that the 5199 W. Buffalo Run Road address is actually that of Jeffrey Van Fossan.

We then were able to look up information about Extra Credit Enterprises Inc through the Pennsylvania Department of State.

The registered office address is:

5199 West Buffalo Run Road
Port Matilda, PA 16870

And the only officer listed is:

Jason Temblay [sic]
President
1016 North Orkney Street
Philadelphia, PA 19123

We spoke to a source who says that the University “did not know about the setup between Inart and the book publisher. In short, I was told that this was a deal done totally outside of Penn State.”

If that is the case, then it seems Van Fossan has some explaining to do. He’s not the only one though. It seems that a number of courses are run through Pop Art University:

INART 115 (Author William J Kelly)
IN ART 116 (Author William J Kelly)
PHOTO 100 (Author Keith Shapiro)
INART 297b (Authors Jeff Van Fossan & Olivia Mancini)
INART 200 (Author William J Kelly)

William J. Kelly is the Department Head of Integrative Arts (directory link). Olivia Mancini is also an instructor in the Integrative Arts.

After reviewing University literature, we think that this situation might violate two University policies:

Policy HR91 Conflict of Interest
Its declared purpose is to prevent misunderstandings in transactions and relationships connected to the employee’s work with the University.

[Employees] shall be held to a strict rule of honest and fair dealings between themselves and the University. They shall not use their positions, or knowledge gained therefrom, in such a way that a conflict of interest might arise between the interest of the University and that of the individual. Faculty and staff members shall disclose to the administrative head of the college or other unit in which they are employed, or other appropriate administrative officer, any potential conflict of interest of which they are aware before a contract or transaction is consummated.

University tangible assets, equipment, supplies and services may not be used by employees for personal gain, or for purposes outside the scope of their employment.

Policy AD17 Royalty Payments for Course Materials
This policy’s purpose is to allow for royalty payments to employees on academic materials used in Penn State courses and create oversight for those payments.

This policy covers original instructional materials developed by faculty as intellectual products and printed and sold by Document Services, as well as by other publishing companies and copying services, and regardless of the tangible medium of expression on which they are fixed, printed, posted, displayed or distributed.

Faculty members may receive reasonable royalty payments on certain kinds of original instructional materials used in Penn State courses including, but not limited to, noncommissioned courseware modules. Faculty members seeking royalty payments on materials sold to Penn State students must obtain written approval prior to receiving payment of such royalties in order to ensure that the payment of royalties is reasonable and justified in accordance with the guidelines set forth below, and that students are not financially exploited.

We contacted Bill Mahon (Vice President for University Relations) and he said that they would “look into the allegations [we] presented to the university.”

Eli Glazier contributed to this post.

14 Responses to “Textbook Example: Conflict of Interest in Integrative Arts”

Po says:

Great work… keep pushing this story, it seems like there is more behind it.
Also, just a heads up, Jeff Van Fossan is the owner of Chronic Town in downtown SC, as well as a musician in some local bands.

Dan says:

Interesting that OnwardState is positioning itself as a whistle-blower with a post like this. I’m going to keep an eye peeled to see if the Collegian picks this up. If it’s true, it’s highly unethical.

Matt says:

First, a small point: a typo in the post has the department of “Arts and Agriculture” when it should be “Arts and Architecture.”

As for the story: It’s actually pretty common for professors who have written a textbook on a given subject to assign that textbook in the classes they teach (or, sometimes, in all iterations of that class that their department teaches). There isn’t necessarily a conflict of interest there, either: many of those professors also arrange to have the royalties from sales to PSU students donated back to the department. It sounds like maybe the rules don’t even require them to do that (?), which I’m actually pretty surprised about, but I’d be interested to know if that’s what’s going on here.

What seems especially interesting about this story, though, is the idea that someone in Integrative Arts might also be PUBLISHING the textbook (though I suppose once it just needs to be electronically accessed, being the publisher is less impressive). If that’s the case, then it’s not just royalties being made on the book, but rather the entire profit margin which is going to these individuals…

Great work finding out about this, I’ll be staying tuned to see if you find out more about the situation!

Mike L. says:

As noted, faculty employees may assign books they wrote. The corollary is that they must refund their royalties to the students in that class. Some think they can get away because students convince themselves, in a frankly Stockholm-ish way, they have no rights anyway.

GTWMA says:

Actually, it’s not true that they MUST refund royalties to students. What faculty have to do is receive written permission to use the text and collect these royalties beforehand.

Devon says:

I’ve had a half dozen teachers sell us their book, though I was told by one of them that they had to donate a portion of their proceeds to charity.

Catherine Pugh says:

Are you absolutely SURE that the material in the textbooks isn’t being used directly for this class? Where are the screenshots of the textbook itself? I’d say it would be only unethical if they didn’t actually use the textbook.

Mike L. says:

I’ll concede I was slightly off. I should have checked good old GURU. However, it is true that professors must disclose that they will receive royalties to their students. That said, it better darn well be royalty free.

Policy AD47 GENERAL STANDARDS OF PROFESSIONAL ETHICS

II.As teachers,… avoid any exploitation of students for private advantage and acknowledge significant assistance from them.

Policy RA17 COURSEWARE

The University makes no claim to copyright ownership for noncommissioned courseware initiated and completed by University-employed authors, but, for works within the scope of the author’s University employment, will claim the royalty-free nonexclusive right to use such courseware in University programs.

GTWMA says:

Sorry, Mike, you’re still off. RA17 applies to only courseware, not textbooks. (which may be the issue in this case.) Look at AD17, point 6, where textbooks are noted as presumptively reasonable and not subject to other restrictions under several commonly applicable conditions. In fact, professors don’t even need permission for using their own textbook under those conditions, although it’s best form to get that permission. If done the right way, that should prevent the kind of situation Nate had, which is certainly unethical. And having PSU students pay the same royalty that students at other universities pay for using that text would not be considered exploitation. It might be bad manners, but it’s not a violation of poliy (for textbooks–courseware is another matter).

Some other universities do prohibit royalties (I know Pitt does).

Mike L. says:

Basically OnwardState closed the loop.My interpretation is this clearly violates the courseware regs because it is not a published work. Heads are gonna roll.

Stefan says:

By the way PHOTO 100 is a crap course if you’re looking to learn anything about taking photos. If you have a pulse and a cell phone camera, congratulations on your ‘A’.

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