When Justin Bernstine was hired this fall as a student group advisor for Student Activities and Leadership Programs, there was little discussion or concern by his employers about the fact that he happens to be Portland State President Daniel O. Bernstine’s son.
Justin Bernstine’s qualifications or ability to do his job are not at issue here. In fact, he is well credentialed and many of the groups he advises seem to be satisfied with his advising.
What is of concern, however, is the neglect of SALP and student affairs to broach the issue of conflict of interest at all. By not having a public plan for confronting Justin Bernstine’s professional and personal connections to his father, the interests of everyone involved are undermined.
Setting aside the personal connection ?” the two Bernstines live together ?” the professional connection between the SALP advisor son and president father is not as distant as some would have students believe. Just three people stand between them: SALP director Tonantzin Oceguera, Dean of Students Wendy Endress and Vice Provost of Student Affairs Dan Fortmiller.
This means that Justin Bernstine’s supervisors, or those that would advise his supervisors on how to manage him, are also administrators who frequently report to his father.
To simply respond that potential conflict of interest “wasn’t reviewed because there isn’t a conflict,” as Oceguera told the Vanguard, a position echoed by other student affairs administrators, belittles the legitimate concerns of the students that SALP is employed to serve.
The solution is certainly not to remove Justin Bernstine from his position, or curtail his duties in any way. But students deserve an open and honest discussion about what steps, if any, are being taken to ensure that any effects that his relationship to the president may have on his position, real or perceived, are being addressed. And the discussion should be a continuous one, addressing any event or issue that may arise in the future.
Not addressing the issue undermines Justin Bernstine’s ability to effectively do his job as an advisor. If students are not reassured that steps are being taken to address any potential conflict of interest, it harms his ability to engender trust in the groups he advises. It would not be unreasonable under the circumstances, for instance, for a student to wonder how aggressively any concerns of misconduct brought against Justin Bernstine would be handled.
The issue of the professional relationship between the two Bernstines needs to be dealt with. Building trust that Justin Bernstine’s work can and will be handled with the same treatment as any university employee would empower both administration and students alike.