Gifts and Professional Conduct

Just because the semester is over doesn’t mean there aren’t yet more teaching-related issues to consider. Take, for instance, this scenario outlined by a colleague:

Say a student left a thank you card and a gift certificate to a local restaurant in my mailbox. I received it yesterday, after grades were already due. Is it ok for me to spend it? Does the university have any kind of policy about students giving gifts?

A little research on the university website leads me to believe that no policy exists to address this question. The Bok Center website does have a page on Professional Conduct that includes some relevant discussion of teacher-student relationships:

Interpersonal Relations. The power teachers exercise over students to penalize or reward in the
form of grades and recommendations requires caution in interpersonal interactions, and the need to avoid the
kind of familiarity that compromises objective and fair evaluation of a student’s work. In particular, sexual
advances towards or liaisons with one’s students are inappropriate, and violate University policy. Within these
limits, however, intellectual mentoring and friendly interaction are important elements of the learning and
teaching process.

In other words, before accepting a gift, it might make sense to ask yourself some questions:

  • Did the student know that grades had already gone in?
  • Is there any way he or she might think they’re influencing you even if that’s not the case?
  • Are you personally comfortable with the gift?

A gift received at the end of the semester – one that isn’t attached to a request for a letter of recommendation or a grade change – seems innocuous enough. Still, secondary schools around the country are beginning to ban gift-giving entirely. and depending on where you teach, state ethics laws may proscribe gifts over a certain amount. The issue remains a murky one, definitely worthy of “Case Studies in Teaching” status.

Have you ever received a gift from a student? If you haven’t, under what circumstances would you or wouldn’t you accept a gift?

This post was written by Louis Epstein.

2 thoughts on “Gifts and Professional Conduct

  1. This is a subject that is incredibly relevant for the private sector as well. Often larger organizations have policies in place that govern gifts to/from customers/clients and potentially employees. Nice breakdown of discussion and I think it can grow past case studies in teaching into general philosophical case studies.

    • This is an issue that arises in the legal field all the time. I think the basic answer is that you want to avoid any appearance of impropriety. An expensive gift should be returned and a smaller gift should be donated to charity. It honors the spirit of the gift, while maintaining the necessary professional distance.

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