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.