Conflict of interest?

Amy Poppinga

Amy Poppinga

Some students and faculty have raised concerns over President David Chicoine’s recent appointment to the Monsanto Board of Directors, but the president defends his decision, saying his new position will not affect SDSU.

Chicoine was appointed to the 11-person board as an independent member on April 15. Through that position, SDSU’s president will help hire, fire and evaluate Monsanto’s management. As an independent board member, he said he will provide objective input.

Still, some students and faculty are concerned his position might create a conflict of interest. Monsanto recently donated $1 million for a plant breeding fellowship at SDSU, and according to a Securities and Exchange Commission report, the seed company has given SDSU $222,000 in research grants thus far in the fiscal year 2009. Between a retainer and benefits package, Chicoine will personally receive about $400,000 for his work with the board this year.

Despite the university’s ties to Monsanto, Chicoine said he was chosen for his background as an agricultural economist, not for his position with the university.

“They didn’t choose me because I’m the president of SDSU. I think it was due to my professional background and my experience as an administrator.”

Shawn Mohr, a Students’ Association senator for the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, recently helped sponsor a resolution opposing Chicoine’s decision to join the Monsanto board.

“He is the face of the university,” said Mohr, a junior agronomy major. “What he chooses to do, even in his personal life, may affect the way SDSU is viewed by the general public.”

Mohr said SDSU could lose credibility as an independent research institution through Chicoine’s affiliation with the seed company.

“We won’t become Monsanto-tainted, but our research, to other agricultural companies, producers and counterpart universities, might be seen as Monsanto-tainted,” he said.

Dani Herring, SA senator for the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, co-sponsored the resolution opposing Chicoine’s decision. Herring said Chicoine’s new job might cause companies to less aggressively pursue SDSU applicants.

“Other seed companies might not look as hard at SDSU graduates. They might see the Monsanto and the David Chicoine name, and they’ll wonder how they’re supposed to compete with that,” she said.

Chicoine does not see his new position as problematic. When the company selected him, it found that he had no direct or indirect material relationship with the company, Chicoine said. If he did have a conflict of interest, he would not be able to give the company objective feedback.

“As an independent board member, if I’m not independent, I have no value to the board.”

In terms of research, Chicoine said SDSU will not be given the inside track for Monsanto grants. Instead, the company will continue to look for the best researchers for their projects because it only makes sense for companies to choose the best candidate.

“The reputation of the faculty member doing research establishes the funding for the project,” Chicoine said. “That is not going to change with my position as an independent member of the Board of Directors of Monsanto.”

Currently, less than 10 percent of SDSU’s grants come from private companies, Chicoine said. SDSU is projected to receive $44.8 million in grants and contract research awards in fiscal year 2009. Chicoine said most of that money comes from the government.

According to the SEC report, in fiscal year 2008, Monsanto paid SDSU $48,000 for “services;” SDSU paid the company $203,000 for “licenses, services and goods;” and Monsanto gave the university $145,000 in research grants.

The SEC report also said, “In the ordinary course of its business, the Company has engaged in certain transactions with SDSU that were, or may be, related personal transactions with respect to Dr. Chicoine.”

Apart from conflict-of-interest concerns, some students are unhappy that Chicoine is aligning himself with a company that uses genetically modified organisms.

“I’m disappointed as a student, a Sierra Club member and a person living in Brookings,” said Holly Tilton, president of the Sierra Club.

Tilton said she opposes GMOs for several reasons. For example, she said she does not support the amount of chemicals used with GMOs and that the GMO seed cannot be used for more than one year. In addition, if an organic farm is near a farm with GMOs, the chemicals from the GMO farm may contaminate the organic farm through the water supply, she said.

While the university has taken steps to become greener, Tilton said Chicoine’s apparent support of GMOs has taken SDSU a step backward in terms of the green movement. She also said she was confused that the president spoke at the Plain Green Conference right around the time he joined the Monsanto board.

“I’d love to be able to support our president, but it’s hard when he says one thing and does another,” she said.

Chicoine said he does not believe GMOs are environmentally harmful, especially since they must meet strict government standards.

“If in their views they don’t believe the [environmental] rules are rigid enough, I can respect that opinion,” he said. “But federal agents chose what the laws are, and they put products through processes in what they believe is the appropriate level of rigor.”

Overall, Chicoine said his position is not unlike other situations at universities. He said professors can consult with outside companies on a limited basis, and some SDSU departments have advisory committees that are made up of corporate executives and industry professionals. These advisers give the school input on how to improve programs and increase graduate competitiveness.

He said he also hopes his experiences with the administration and operation of Monsanto’s board will help him with his position at SDSU.

“I thought it would be professionally interesting, and because of the interaction, it could help me do my job as SDSU’s president better.”