Wednesday, September 03, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Gifts from Students

A longtime reader writes:

One of my students from last year came in today and gave me a t-shirt that he had gotten for me on his vacation.  I do not currently have any grading responsibility for this student, and I don't expect to, but it's not impossible.  I have written him a letter of recommendation, and I would happily do so again, if asked.  I'm sure that this student meant it entirely innocently.  There was no ulterior motive.  He just likes me and wanted to say "thanks."  So, is it appropriate for me to have accepted this gift?  If not, what do I do now?  I don't want to insult the student by returning it.  Should I just quietly donate it to Goodwill?

As always, you are welcome to post this on your blog, and solicit advice from your W&W readers.

Ironically enough, it's the well-intentioned, innocent gifts that cause the most heartache.

Most colleges have some sort of ethics policy, or conflict of interest policy, about gifts. Those policies are usually fairly specific, often identifying a minimum threshold beneath which the gift is considered too trivial to worry about. (The ones I've seen usually set a cutoff around 25 dollars, give or take.) HR departments usually have the specifics at the ready. If a ten-dollar t-shirt falls below the 'de minimus' threshold, you're fine.

The fact that you aren't grading the student is certainly helpful, too. The standard of “it's not impossible” strikes me as far too rigorous, since it could conceivably apply to just about anybody. (For those of us who work at open-admissions places, that's literally true.) Some colleges have 'fraternization' policies (that is, sex) that draw the line at grading responsibilities, and your case would meet that standard. I say if you could sleep with him, you can accept a t-shirt from him.

That said, there's often a world of difference between what's legal and what's right. And sometimes being a little extra careful can actually result in a teachable moment, if you do it right.

I worked briefly for a VP who gave conspicuously expensive gifts to all and sundry, and who encouraged others to do the same. Over time, a culture had developed in which elaborate gift-giving, both up and down the chain of command, was both expected and inappropriately binding. I wanted nothing to do with it, which my involuntarily chilly response communicated clearly enough to offend him. Since it became clear that I couldn't simply opt out of the system, I did the next best thing, which was to communicate (and act upon the idea) that any gifts should be trivial. After a while, we got down to a few chocolates at Christmas, which struck me as about right.

Depending on the gift, sometimes there's also the option of sharing it with the department. (That works pretty well for flowers and candy and the like.) For t-shirts, though, that's probably not the best route.

The fear of giving offense is real. Back at PU, a perfectly lovely professor gave me a congratulatory card and a small check when TB was born. I returned the check, sheepishly explaining that since I did her review, I couldn't accept it. I don't know which of us was the more embarrassed, but it struck me as a reasonable price to pay for keeping things above reproach. (After I left PU and TG was born, she sent another card with a bigger check. I laughed out loud when it arrived.)

In my teaching days, I occasionally had students bring in editorial cartoons that they said reminded them of me or of my class. Some of them wound up on my bulletin board, and I'll admit that I didn't feel much ethical conflict over that. If anything, I was gratified that the class was making enough of an impression to spill over into random moments. Your case strikes me as similar to that.

Or maybe I'm just becoming jaded. Vox blogosphere, vox dei, so I'll turn it over to my readers. Wise and worldly readers – what say you?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

At several of the colleges where I've taught, a large percentage of my students have been foreign-born, often from countries where small gift-giving to teachers is absolutely standard, and encouraged by parents who will send their college kid a whole box of tchotchkes from the home country to give to professors. It made me uncomfortable the first few times, but most of these items were inexpensive, and often a way for the student to communicate something about cultural heritage to me. I've gotten a lot of cards, too, thanking me for a good semester or wishing me a good Christmas, or other kids might drop by my office with a box of cookies they made. (I often bake for classes I like, so I find their return efforts very touching.) Aren't these just students whose folks raised them to be thoughtful and to treat their teachers like human beings? I can imagine someone doing this kind of stuff to be weaselly or grade-grubby, but weaselly grade-grubbers usually don't think of things that are actually nice. They just send ass-kissy emails.

I think a T-shirt is an absolutely reasonable gift from a friendly student, especially after the context of the semester. But if it's making this correspondent feel uneasy about the relationship, I'd wonder if there is maybe some basis for feeling uneasy. Is this student personally encroaching? Do you constantly have to set boundaries for him? If you can imagine him calling your house all next year while heavy-breathing and talking about how he picked out that T-shirt just for you, don't take the T-shirt. There is no need to set some universal law, though, just because you can imagine some other student being creepy about giving gifts.

So, do you feel the T-shirt is symbolic to this particular student of your relationship? Is it symbolic to you?
Having just accepted a lovely box of Lindt truffles from an advisee for whom I had advocated in a difficult circumstance, I have no problem at all in saying yes to little gifts like this (as I drink my coffee out of a mug from a former student). I can't imagine it being any kind of problem as long as they are not currently under "grading power." DD is right: the fact that the course or something you did stuck with them is what matters here.
When I was in school I always felt like if I was going to bring a bottle of wine as a hostess gift to someone's party, I was darn well getting a thank-you gift for my thesis adviser after putting in a heckuva lot more work on my behalf than the hostess who threw the party!

(Also, it's pretty standard in many American elementary schools to give gifts to the child's main teacher, so there is at least some teacher-gift-giving embedded in American culture.)

But re: "The fact that you aren't grading the student is certainly helpful, too. The standard of “it's not impossible” strikes me as far too rigorous"

Yeah. I live in a small city where everyone knows EVERYONE, and I've only been in town four years (so I don't know EVERYONE) and teaching for two, and I've ALREADY had students who are kids of people I know socially, students who work for the same volunteer organizations I do, students whose parents I do business with, even, it being open admissions, students whom I knew socially before they were in my class. (Even, really randomly, a student who graduated high school with my youngest brother and then moved to where I was teaching!) It's a very incestuous little town -- my husband and my dean's husband judge moot court together at another nearby school. My dean volunteers with my neighbor. It just goes on and on.

At first I worried about it being weird having students in class that I knew from elsewhere, but so far it hasn't been. The fact is that when I'm grading, I'm grading far too many things in a row to worry about how I'm treating individual students. And so far nobody's tried to take advantage of the relationship, and students I know personally have worked hard enough that none of them have earned crappy grades that would make me feel awkward.

I did have one student whose family I knew casually go somewhat off the rails during the semester, but I did what I always do -- bounced her (very nicely) to student services.
For class introductions last semester I had students share their favorite movies. I shared a few professionally-accepted ones and added Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I told them that I've had the same video cassette since it came out, but I don't even have a VCR anymore. At the end of the semester one of the students brought me a copy on DVD. I gladly accepted, but I'm a lowly graduate assistant and not a dean.
I'm apparently not in the mainstream, at least if the first three comments are representative. My position is no gifts from students at any time for any reason. It creates an appearance that can only make life difficult both for me and for the student.

I have also, at places I taught a long time ago, had to deal with the foreign student. I discovered, to my surprise, that gifts to one's professors were considered almost obligatory (you wouyldn't believe the ceramic elephant I got), albeit of low-to-no real value. My solution was to give these things to my department (didn't work with the pink-and-green floral silk tie, but since that had negative value...).

I might add that I have known faculty who not only accepted gifts, but sort of let it be known that they would be happy to receive them. This strikes me as wholly inappropriate, to say nothing of coercive.

These days, if a student tries to give me anything of value (gift cards to restaurants seem to be polular), I return them, with a note, explaining why I cannn't accept them. Cards expressing gratitude for a course, having as they do no monetary value, I keep.

Gift-giving among faculty and staff is trickier. My current program has an annual "Secret Santa" thing, that extends beyond the winter holiday season. It's voluntary, and most people don't participate (I don't), but there are rules and limits. The first place I ever taught, there was an organized collection of cash program to give a Christmas gift to the college's president; the recommended donation was $5 (this was 1973), but with over 200 college employees, that added up. Let me tell you, that felt sleazy. (I was a non-contributor; I was in a one-year, leave-replacement position, and felt under no pressure. The institution does not award tenure, so permanent employees did feel a lot of pressure.)

I'd strongly prefer a culture in which gifts were not given or received because of a professional relationship. What happens when people become close friends outside of (in addition to) work is another matter; among other things, it's private, not public.
For some reason, I've had several students give me gifts throughout my time as a graduate student. I teach Intro to Lit, and I've been given small things, usually ranging from Starbucks cards to candles - both of which I love. One student explicitly said that the coffee shop card was because she'd been late to a couple class and felt very badly about it. This was her way of apologizing. The other student said there was no reason at all, but I suspect it was her way of communicating something to me, as she was a terribly shy student in class. I accepted the gifts and have never thought anything was inappropriate about it. But, I've also occasionally bought pizza or doughnuts for a class. Same thing? Perhaps the gifts have never seemed inappropriate because they were given by young ladies, so I didn't perceive any "come-on" motive that might have come with a gift from one of my male students.

Ultimately, I think some people use "things" rather than words to express thanks, appreciation, regret, or just plain kindness, and this is okay. It's not like they're presenting us with Rolexes or skybox tickets to football games. I've always gotten the impression that these students have no expectations of their grades being affected by gift-giving. As long as the recipient gets a similar impression, I think it's fine to accept such small tokens.
I recently received a lovely piece of artwork from a recent grad brought it back from her travel abroad. It was a thank you because I had helped her throughout the program as her advisor, and I got her back a lot! I do not have grading authority, but I will likely be writing letters of reference for grad school. I do not feel bad about accepting the gift.

I think tokens are okay. I am honestly more concerned with the "drinking with the students" issues I have seen, rather than whether the faculty accept a T-shirt or coffee mug.
On the other end, I got a gift for each of the advisers that helped me muddle through the graduate school application process. Each of them got about a half pound of coffee and a nice card.

I only bring this up, because the graduate student application forum from which I was pulling information highly recommended it.
I don't see any problem with small gifts, assuming they are given at the end of the semester and that there are no weirdnesses associated with them (such as coming from a student who has had boundary issues all semester . . . ). Like a couple of other posters, I'm far more worried about instructors who get too involved with students' personal lives, which I see all the time. In my experience, I was always surprised by the students who gave me gifts--it was hardly ever the ones I was "friendly" with in class or who came to my office often; it was almost always the quiet student who, I guess, felt most comfortable expressing appreciation with a "thing."
The thing I fear about doc's approach (giving a gift implies some kind of inappropriate relationship) is that drawing that strict boundary between professional and private relationships does not seem, in my experience, to lead to professors being better at separating the two in deed. The professor who blustered that it was inappropriate for him to accept an invitation to see me in a play was the one who propositioned me in his office when I was 19. The professor who made sure everyone treated him like royalty, titles and all, in our small, casual English department was the one who had semi-abusive affairs with his PhD advisees.

I'm sure that doc's distinction is made with the most honorable of intentions, but I fear that the strict separation of professional and private can be very confusing and alienating for both the student and the professor and lead to far more confusing situations. If a student offers me an item from his home country and I act like he's either bribing me or seducing me, I'm acting in incredibly bad faith, and humiliating someone who certainly gets more out of handing me a wooden whistle than I get out of receiving it. Treating something that was never meant as a bribe or a proposition as some kind of low-minded self-interested curry for favor seems pointlessly hurtful.

Of course, I've never been offered gift cards, and I would certainly turn that down, as I would any money. That's not a personal communication of appreciation and good nature; it's a tip for good service, and it's inappropriate because I'm no one's servant.

Isn't it disingenuous to pretend that we don't have private relationships with our students? We don't have sexual relationships with our students, or criminal or manipulative relationships with our students, but I certainly hope that "private" means more than just "shameful." Lesboprof is right--actual inappropriate behavior is the thing to avoid; not something that some mind somewhere could see as a symbol of impropriety.
I should add that I am perhaps defensive about this issue because a great number of my students are older than the typical fresh-out-of-high-school types. The whole private/professional distinction can feel completely absurd when several of one's students are in their 40's and up, returning to college after a career of doing something else, often with other BA's in hand. One man in his 50's, who expected to hate my Brit Lit class and ended up deeply invested in it, stopped by my office one day with a late 19th-century book on Renaissance poetry that he'd found at a yard sale and he thought I might like it. It wasn't a rare or expensive sort of thing; it was just an incredibly thoughtful gesture from someone who needed to communicate privately to me that the class meant something to him as a human being. I was moved. Was I seriously supposed to tell a man 20+ years my senior, a man who's worked in manual labor all his life and is devoting himself to literature after decades of feeling undereducated, that his gift was an inappropriate breach of the professional wall between us? Hell, no. It was a big deal to him.
Interesting timing for this! A student of mine from last semester just gave me a small gift he had gotten on a trip to Europe over the summer. I noticed he took it from a bag with several of the item in it, and assume he got them for his other profs, too. I was really touched, because although the gift itself probably cost him less than a couple of Euros, he told me that the material he learned in my class made his trip to Europe much richer, because he knew so much more about the places he visited. I had no qualms taking the gift, since the grades are long in for the class he took. He might take another class with me in the spring, but the token gift will in no way affect how I grade him, and I think he'd be appalled if anyone suggested it might. While I don't get really personal with my students, we do chat before class begins, and they know they are always welcome to come and see me in my office. This was a kid who did stop by, to continue talking about ideas from class. I take his little gift to mean that he appreciated the course and my treating him like an intelligent adult, which is basically what he said when he gave it to me. Rejecting it would have hurt his feelings, and our relationship. Of course, if the gift had been expensive, or something like a gift card to a restaurant, that would be different, but I agree that an absolute "no gifts" stance can be counter-productive.
I lent a student a cheap bicycle when his transportation broke down. At the end of the semester, he gave me a small gift certificate to a local bike store.

Of course, he was fairly close to my age, so it was much more like a thank-you between equals than anything else.
When my (fiction) thesis was published by a major NY publishing house, I sent a copy, suitably inscribed, to all the members of my committee. I hope they felt flattered, as I certainly meant it to be an acknowledgement of how instrumental they were in my success.

As a professor, my students occasionally give me hand-made things at the end of the semester; most recently a little rubber stamp carved in the shape of a Sri Lankan flower, or a hand-painted card. I love them. They help make the arguments with other students about why they got an A- instead of the A they were expecting endurable.
What makes all of these acceptable-gift examples seem palatable, I think, is that they're all couched in terms of gratitude - the gift is in return for encouragement, kindness, and support given to the student, not an implied request for special treatment in the future. The problem, of course, is that you can't codify that very well in terms of setting up an ethics policy. ("Were you, in fact, good enough to this student to deserve a tchotchke?") But I think gifts given in that spirit are perfectly acceptable.
Context is everything, no?

I'm the original asker of the question. Just to clarify: the student in question is a wonderful, respectful, hard-working all-American boy. There was nothing "creepy" about the gift, or about any of the many conversations I had with him, both about the subject matter and just chatting. In fact, it didn't occur to me at the time to turn down the gift. I'm quite sure it was a well-meaning gesture of sincere appreciation. I only got to thinking later about the "appearance of impropriety." And, since I have a wise but anonymous administrator to ask (not to mention his wise and worldly readers), I asked.
When I was pregnant I had a foreign-born 50-ish female student give me a small present for my baby. It was uncomfortable, but thought it would have been culturally insulting to refuse it. One of my classes also gave me a small baby shower comprised of a small baby gift and cupcakes for everyone. I know we had a great class, but I think it was a bonus end of the school year party. Those were the only gifts I have ever received from students and don't want to deal with that again.
I am a clinical psychologist (I have been trianed, in addition to being a scientist, to provide patient care) teaching in a Psychology (mostly non-clinical) primarily undergrad program. Training as a psychologist strongly emphasizes the necessity of declining gifts. No one at my program thoguht to tell me that graduating students can buy faculty honors cords at the bookstore, and that it's appropriate to accept them. My biggest regret of the past year is turning one down during the ceremony, because I didn't know that the reason my student had it was to give it to me. I hate it when multiple worlds collide, and my training is not appropriate. I suspect I really hurt the feelings of someone who had struggled against a low education background and triumphed by graduating. I wish I had taken it.


I have gotten a couple gifts from students. All of them have been small. One of them was in fact a school t-shirt signed by the class. Other gifts I have gotten include a hat and most recently a scarf. I always wear the gifts on the day I get them (so far they have all been clothes). I do not think there is any problem in accepting tokens of appreciation from students. Nor do I think having them under grading power is a problem. I teach at a small school and get the same students semester after semester. Nobody here views small gifts as a problem. I can not imagine working somewhere where a gift of a signed school t-shirt or national hat or scarf from a student to a professor were considered inappropriate by anybody.

BTW: I once got my Ph.D. supervisor a bottle of Arak as a gift during a trip to Lebanon. It was meant to convey my thanks for his help and support in writing my dissertation. Before I read this post I had never thought that there were people who would view this as inappropriate.
I think it's different at different levels.

I generally do not accept gifts from undergrads unless I'm done with teaching them, period. I have always been taught, and I hold with the idea, that it's important to avoid actions that could lead to accusations of favouritism. I also thing that, since I am the person in a position of power and privilege (yay alliteration), it looks and feels weird to accept gifts from peope who depend on me for grades. I do sometimes bring treats for class at finals, and even then, it's all or nothing.

It is tougher with older students, but they often understand better the need for making it known that you appreciate the gesture, but just can't take a gift. I make exceptions for a gift from an entire class, though -- as long as it's something like a mug. And if people bring food or coffee to share at a seminar, then that's fine, too.

I think it's entirely appropriate to give one's PhD advisor a thank-you gift. My advisor thought it his duty to treat his students to drinks or dinner at each stage of our careers. At the end, I think taking him and his wife out was entirely appropriate.

And I work at a place where we collect for our admins and custodial staff at Christmas. It kind of racks up (most faculty give between $30 and $60), but there are no bonuses for staff, and they make less than half what I do -- and they make our lives way easier. Of course, I think that that this is particular to our School. And I know that the administrative units do NOT do this.
I have received many gifts over the years, but usually as a part of some event. I taught in a few colleges when I was quite young and drew a very clear line, because I would frequently get invited to go out with the students to shows, drinking and even their children's performances in the case of a student who was a little older than me. I never went out with the students. I am a giver of gifts and at one very difficult point dropped off gifts for two particularly helpful colleagues. One of them joked that when he saw a gift on his desk in December, he thought finally a bribe.

I have received little gifts from students when I was pregnant just before I went on leave. They were small items, but significant to the students. They all indulged in advising me on what to name the babies. Both were named when I was in labor. I thought they were innocent gifts and it was acceptable.

I disappeared to stay at home with my children and have returned to work in a research university. I take my teaching assistants out at the end of the semester for lunch and give them give cards for bookstores, not excessive just enough to put a down payment on a book.

I have more recently received gifts from international students after a return from a trip and home, flowers after a reference letter. The trinkets are usually small but the flowers are not returnable from another continent. I think they are well intentioned. I shy away from situations that might not be as earlier as possible.

I gave very generous gifts to my advisors and a former department head at the conclusion of my studies and a round of letter writing so that I could secure this position. I think it was greatly appreciated and surprising to them, because there is a lot of work after the fact that is rarely acknowledged.

I think that if there is an occasion for the gift and it is not excessively expensive without strings it can be fine. I do try to treat all the students as adults and people so it starts to be natural for some people.
I've received gifts over the years from CC students: a makeup set, belt, candy, cake, clothing, jewelry (nothing expensive, though).
I have no problem with this. There was never any bribery or sinister implication or arrangement; these were gifts given simply because the students felt like giving them to me.
I was an academic for many years. In those days (2004) I often received gifts from students, usually at the end of a course. I never even considered 'the insitution' but then, as a philosopher, we are really mavericks. Now some years later, I am a mature student and recently sent a bottle of wine to my course supervisor. He returned it, a month later, saying it was 'inappropriate'. I can honestly say, I have never been so offended and what's more I would only expect anyone to ever return a gift if they were a scorned lover. I now think nothing of my course leader.... apart from the fact that he obviously has a problem: note - HIS problem. Universities are really getting up their own backsides in the UK with rules on bribery. It seems common human intelligence and respect has gone out the window. If you get a gift, as a tutor, I think you should be pleased, or at least shrug your shoulders etc; this is, of course completely different from someone sending you a large cheque - but if you don't know the difference between money/wine or T shirts, you shouldn't be teaching, quite frankly, and def. not in a University.
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