Sunday, June 23, 2013

To give or not to give to student activities?

A couple of years ago, after I started teaching at a newcollege, a group of students asked if I would go to lunch with them. When the bill came, I assumed we'd be splitting the check, since I'm not in the habit of taking money or gifts from students currently enrolled in my class. One of my students quickly surmised that I wasn't aware that the school had a program that funded students to take their professors to lunch. The number of students who can attend each lunch, the amount each can spend and the number of lunches each student can engage in during the semester is limited. But professors can go as often as the invites come and their schedules allow.

It's fairly common for students to want to spend time with professors outside of class to discuss issues that go beyond the material being studied. How to do this over a meal without an awkward discussion of who pays is a challenge. Splitting the bill is a good option, but that puts professors and students in the position of having to pay out of their own pockets, which could get pricey.

The take-your-professor-to-lunch program is a good system. It gives cash-strapped students a free meal and allows for informal discussions outside of the classroom. More importantly, any perception that students are spending their own cash to curry favor with a professor is taken off the table.

Public grammar and secondary schools typically don't have such programs. But there are often strict restrictions on gift-giving from parents and students to public school teachers.

But what's appropriate when a professor wants to spend his or her own money on a student? Is that ever appropriate?

A reader from Boston recently began teaching as an adjunct professor at an area college. Toward the end of the semester the a capella singing group to which one of his students belonged, launched a campaign on to raise funds.

He would like to support the project, but he points out that the deadline for giving funds is three days earlier than the final date on which grades must be submitted for the class she is taking with him.

"Would it be a conflict of interest for me to donate to this group?" he asks.

I don't see the conflict of interest. The class is done and he's not seeking anything in return for his potential donation through Kickstarter. He could, of course, submit his grades earlier so that the donation occurs after that, but that doesn't make it any better or worse of a decision.

The right thing is for the reader to give to any cause he finds worthy as long as he's not trying to curry favor with any current students. The challenge, of course, comes in where to draw the line since it would likely be impossible to fund every student effort that arises. But again, making those choices is up to the reader. As long as the contribution doesn't affect the work in class and is not establishing an inappropriate relationship, it's up to him how to spend his money ... and he can do so with a clear conscience. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, a nice idea, I'm sure, but with the way activist students are nowadays, if I were a professor, I'd be suspicious and wary of people "bearing gifts"!

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Anonymous said...

So in this case the teacher could be viewed as bribing the student... for what? In would be inappropriate for the student to donate to the professor's kick starter before grades are in as it could be seen as a bribe but in the reverse, no ethical lines are crossed.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

It has too much grey to be clear. If a student can take a prof to lunch with the knowledge and payment by the school, then OK. Some administrator made that decision and he/she is responsible. Any other thing, is too grey for sure. A kid taking a prof to lunch is a bribe and a prof paying for a kid's "anything" is open to question.
I would certainly say NO because of perceptions.
Remember Fatty Arbuckle!!!!

Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma

Anonymous said...

After Atlanta was awarded the 1996 Summer Olympic games, a newspaper reported asked one of the organizers about the unprecedented spending on entertainments and gifts the Atlanta group provided to the Olympics decision makers. The reporter asked (as best I can recall from the Atlanta Journal article(, Do you think all the money spent on entertainment and gifts made a difference to the Committee?" The organizer answered, "I certainly hope so".

Exactly: the gifts (meals) are given with a purpose.

Look at another view: the gifts are not given anonymously; the giver of the gift expects something in return.

Look at yet another view: It appears the average student lives on borrowed money, judging from the debt the average student accumulates during his/her 4 or more years in school. Many college teachers are in the top 5% of national income rankings; some fit into the 1%. Should an impoverished student buy lunch (with borrowed dollars) for someone who has a really good income?

"Everyone is doing it" is no basis for doing it yourself

Years ago, after I had left my job as a magazine editor and took a significant cut in pay to become an assistant professor at a liberal ...