When he interviewed for his current position as an adviser in the Students and Activities Leadership Program, Justin Bernstine said that many people asked him the same question: Do you realize you have the same last name as the president of our university?
Bernstine chuckled when he recalled the memory, and mentioned he gets that a lot.
Though many of the students Bernstine advises say he is doing a good job, some have raised concerns about his position, given that he is the son of President Dan Bernstine.
When the question of a conflict of interest was brought to Bernstine, he made his feelings on having any connection with his father clear.
“I am a full-grown adult, totally separate from my father,” he said.
Some members of student groups that Bernstine directly advises feel there are problems with him holding the position.
The concerned students asked not to be named, fearing retribution.
The first group’s leader mentioned that she felt it was a conflict of interest, adding that she fears if Bernstine should disapprove of something her group does, it could easily reach high levels of the university without taking the typical bureaucratic route.
The question of conflict of interest often arises when two individuals with close personal ties, particularly one in high ranking, are working within the same institution.
Patrick Hern, executive director of the Oregon Government Standards and Practices Commission, said that potential conflicts of interest can differ slightly from institution to institution, but that it is generally defined in Chapter 244 of the Oregon Revised Statutes of the Oregon State Legislature.
“Potential conflict of interest is any action that would or could financially benefit an individual, their relative or a business in which one is associated,” Hern said, adding that ORS 244 continues in Section 120 by requiring any public official to give notice if job requirements might cause a conflict of interest.
“When that happens,” Hern said, “it requires that public official to give oral notice.”
Portland State expands on the state’s policy in the Department of Human Resources employee handbook.
“Anyone in a position of power or authority should avoid situations where he or she would make determinations or evaluations affecting the terms and conditions of employment or student status for relatives, family members, spouses or significant others with whom he or she has an intimate relationship,” reads the Consensual Relationship Policy subsection of the handbook.
Cathy LaTourette, associate vice president of Human Resources, said that the university does whatever it can to prevent a conflict of interest. She said that even though all employees may be related in some indirect line, they prevent any direct connections being made from family member to family member.
Tonantzin Oceguera, director of the Student Activities and Leadership Program, sees no problem with the father and son working in the same university.
She said she considers the familial connection a non-issue and that Bernstine was hired on his own merits without using his father’s status to land the job.
“If there were a conflict, I feel [Berstine] would be the first one to say there is,” Oceguera said.
“The problem with it is that it maintains the appearance of impropriety,” Hern said, adding that Oregon has no laws against appearance of impropriety, but that it can still be an issue for many.
“Sometimes it is just perceived,” LaTaurette said. “Let’s prevent the perceptions even.”
Potential conflict of interest is felt to exist by many, including a student leader of a group advised by Bernstine, because the potential for impropriety is there.
Even so, both Oceguera and Wendy Endress, dean of students and associate vice provost for Student Affairs, discount students’ concerns about potential conflict of interest and maintain that there is no cause for worry.
“I think there are policies and structures in place to prevent unethical conduct,” Endress said. “We rely that we have hired honest people.”
Oceguera added that this was the first time conflict of interest was mentioned to her regarding the Bernstines and that the potential of conflict of interest was not discussed during the hiring process.
“It wasn’t reviewed because there isn’t a conflict,” Oceguera said, adding that she rejects the premise of there being conflict of interest or the possibility of one in the situation.
Dan Bernstine also said that he will not respond to hypothetical situations and that he does not believe there is a conflict of interest.
He said, in response to the complaints by the student group, “Justin works in Student Affairs, so that is up to Student Affairs to resolve.”
LaTaurette said that if there are student concerns, she will assess the situation and deal with it accordingly.
“We will look at the circumstances and take it on a case by case basis to protect the person and co-workers,” LaTaurette said. “It doesn’t have to be a complaint, but a voiced concern. If we needed to build parameters around it, we would.”
Bernstine said he has received a lot of positive feedback from the groups he advises, however, and has tried to get in contact with all of them, but some have not responded.
“Some groups don’t even know what I look like,” he said.
Elliott Adams, program coordinator for Popular Music Board, said that Bernstine has done a great job as an adviser.
“He came on board, and at first everyone questioned it because he was the president’s son,” Adams said, adding that Bernstine’s qualifications are eminent as he has just received his masters from PSU this past year and has quite a bit of experience in the art field. “I’ve gotten to know Justin well and he is totally qualified.”
“[Justin is] very supportive and has forward-thinking ideas that I find inspiring,” said Liz Bacon, the Music Committee coordinator.
Endress and Bernstine both added that he and the president do not have the only family relations on campus, but that multiple related family members work in the university. Oceguera also said that if there was a direct connection in the organizational structure between the president and Bernstine, or any family member, it would be a different situation.
Bernstine, who according to a Nov. 17 Oregonian article recently moved in with his father, laughed in response to a hypothetical situation relating the potential of conflict of interest between the two.
“In the hierarchy of PSU, I am pretty far from the president,” he said.