U. of Michigan president sits on pharma board

On The New York Times Prescriptions blog, Duff Wilson reports that while her school has taken a lead in limiting conflicts of interest, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman herself sits on the board of Johnson & Johnson, a post which earns her $229,978 each year. Her defense is that she’s openly disclosed the relationship, and that the world of pharma and that of university administration rarely intersect.

Responding to questions on Ms. Coleman’s behalf Monday, Kelly E. Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the university, said the president satisfied the policy by disclosing her outside work. Ms. Coleman has never had to recuse herself from any discussion or action at the university because medical purchasing and investment decisions are so remote from her, Ms. Cunningham said.

“The same is true at J&J,” she added. “There has never been a discussion or decision at the board level that involved something related to the UM. But, of course, if there were, she would recuse herself.”

It’s not uncommon for university presidents to sit on corporate boards, Wilson found, but it appears that pharmaceutical companies are a special case given the major role universities play in medical research and health care delivery.

Thomas Donaldson, a corporate governance expert and professor of business ethics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, reviewed the case on Monday for The Times. He said many university presidents serve on corporate boards, but biomedical company boards pose special issues because of the possible ties to university research and medical schools.

“Because of the role of research and also the entrepreneurial interest that lies behind a lot of modern advances in medicine, this is a very difficult issue,” Professor Donaldson said in a telephone interview. “We’ve been aware for decades really that this potential for conflict of interest exists, but we haven’t as a moral community or even inside universities gotten our arms around it yet.”

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