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Duke undergrad Young Trustee finalist selection raises questions on conflict of interest

This chart depicts the network of both close and business-like relationships between Young Trustee Nominating Committee members and the YT semifinalists, as disclosed by the committee. A previous version of this graphic did not indicate Brandon Putnam and Jay Kennedy as DSG affiliates.
This chart depicts the network of both close and business-like relationships between Young Trustee Nominating Committee members and the YT semifinalists, as disclosed by the committee. A previous version of this graphic did not indicate Brandon Putnam and Jay Kennedy as DSG affiliates.

The members of the Young Trustee Nominating Committee declared eight major and 13 minor conflicts of interest in relation to the Young Trustee semifinalists.

Major conflicts of interest led members of the committee—which narrowed the eight Young Trustee applicants down to three finalists Jan. 21—to remove themselves from voting on the candidate in question, but not from voting on the others. The connections between the YTNC members and the Young Trustee semifinalists posed a challenge to the ability of the committee to select finalists in an unbiased manner.

Since the committee selected the three finalists who are currently campaigning for election by the student body, several members have begun publicly supporting one or more of the candidates that the committee selected.

The YTNC sought to avoid bias during its selection process by allowing members with conflicts of interest to excuse themselves from the deliberations on candidates, said YTNC Chair Daniel Pellegrino, a junior.

“As far as conflicts of interest are concerned, any YTNC member that knows an applicant must make this known to the committee, and we told all of the applicants about the potential conflicts of interest prior to the interviews,” Pellegrino wrote in an email Tuesday. “If a member has a major conflict of interest—such as a close friendship with an applicant—they are able to remove themselves from deliberations on that applicant, meaning they cannot comment on that person or vote on them.”

If an applicant felt that a member should have declared a major conflict with any applicant, they were given the opportunity to protest, Pellegrino said. Pellegrino defined a major conflict of interest as “significant personal relationship that irrevocably impairs the YTNC member’s ability to pass impartial judgment.”

He defined a minor conflict of interest as “a business relationship where the YTNC member’s ability to pass impartial judgment is not affected by the relationship and where the relationship may in fact help the member better assess the qualifications of the candidate.”

Although members of the YTNC have the ability to excuse themselves from deliberations on a candidate that they have a relationship with, they do not need to recuse themselves from voting on the other candidates.

“A few YTNC members know they will endorse a person should they become a finalist (because of a previous friendship), but this wouldn’t help that person in becoming a finalist because the committee member would remove themselves from deliberations and voting on that person (and essentially vote on the remaining applicants as if the conflict applicant didn’t exist),” Pellegrino wrote.

The procedure, however, might not be able to remove the effect of personal relationships from Young Trustee selection, said Young Trustee finalist Gurdane Bhutani, a senior.

“It is only natural that some people on the committee are going to be friends with some of the applicants, and this may have an effect on their judgment,” Bhutani said.

DSG presence

The committee members evidently did not consider shared participation in Duke Student Government as a major or minor conflict of interest.

Nine of the 14 YTNC members hold positions with Duke Student Government. The committee includes five vice presidents and three senators. Pellegrino previously served as a senator and is the DSG representative on the Arts and Sciences Council curriculum committee.

The finalists selected by the committee have DSG ties of their own. Chris Brown, a senior, previously served as external chief of staff and vice president for athletics and campus services. Senior Gurdane Bhutani served as executive vice president in the previous administration.

The DSG-affiliated YTNC members, however, did not all indicate this as a “business relationship” by declaring a minor conflict of interest for either candidate, according to the conflict of interest document obtained by The Chronicle.

Jacob Zionce, sophomore and vice president for residential life, and Neil Kondamuri, junior and vice president for social change, declared a minor conflict for Bhutani. Three DSG members on the committee declared a major conflict with Brown: senior George Carotenuto, vice president for facilities and environment; junior Stefani Jones, vice president for equity and outreach; and Kondamuri. The remaining DSG affiliated YTNC members did not disclose any relationship with the former DSG leaders campaigning for Young Trustee in the conflict of interest document.

YTNC members endorse

Following the announcement of the Young Trustee finalists, at least four of the members of YTNC publicly announced support for one or more Young Trustee candidates on Facebook. Two members endorsed candidates for whom they had previously declared a major conflict of interest: Carotenuto for Brown, Jones for Alman.

All members of the committee were contacted by The Chronicle for comment, but each member other than the chair, Pellegrino, either did not respond or declined to comment, citing YTNC policy.

Pellegrino said that after the Young Trustee finalists are announced, endorsements have no effect on the YTNC process.

Brown said he did not have any problems with the way the YTNC operates.

“Before the process, you want to remove any conflicts of interest, but after the process, there is no reason why they cannot actively support candidates,” Brown said. “They have spent a lot of time looking over the applications and qualifications of the candidates, so in a way, they know the candidates best.”

Young Trustee finalist Ashley Alman, a senior, said she thinks it is “perfectly fair” that members of the YTNC can endorse candidates. She noted that she thinks the YTNC “can speak very confidently to our ability to perform as a Young Trustee” because they have formally interviewed the candidates and read their applications.

“I’m thrilled to have the support of the YTNC members that are backing me, as I know they are [backing me] for reasons beyond hopping on the bandwagon,” Alman said.

Pellegrino added that members of the YTNC have a “good understanding of all of the applicants.” He added that YTNC members endorse candidates based on who they were most impressed with during the screening process.

“Some may be inclined to endorse certain people before the process, but this normally means they had a pre-existing conflict of interest with that person that results in them removing themselves from deliberations and voting on that person,” Pellegrino said.

Ultimately, the results of the YTNC deliberations determine who the student body will see on the ballot, which Bhutani said he finds “kind of silly.”

“We have an election to decide who will be the next Young Trustee, so why is it necessary to have some of the choice taken out of the student voters’ hands?” Bhutani said. “Duke students are generally very smart and can figure out who of the candidates is qualified for themselves.”

He added that he does not “endorse the existence of the YTNC,” and he said anyone that wants to run for Young Trustee should have the opportunity to be on the ballot.

“A more open election would be a better choice,” Bhutani said. “The current system makes the statement that students do not care enough to take the time to learn about every candidate running, which I think is just not true.”

Nicole Kyle is a special projects editor for The Chronicle, Chris Brown previously served on The Chronicle's independent editorial board, and Precious Lockhart is a current member of the editorial board.

Correction: The graphic with this article has been corrected to reflect DSG affiliations of Brandon Putnam and James Kennedy.


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