Sunday, February 14, 2016

Was student creative or simply wrong for renting out his dorm room?

Earlier this week, I received a tweet from T.P., a reader who provided a link to a story about a college student who had been caught renting his dorm room on Airbnb, an online site that allows people to rent rooms, apartments, houses, and other forms of lodging to others.

T.P.'s question to me accompanying the link was simple and direct: "ethical or not ethical?"

The student who rented out his dorm room told a Boston Globe reporter that he was taking advantage of his dorm's desirable downtown location as well as his own desire to "make a little bit of extra money." (Full disclosure: I used to teach at the student's college.)

Airbnb is one of many popular businesses that have had wild success on the Internet by participating in the sharing economy -- where people sell access to goods they own, which others might use. Uber and Lyft are comparable services where people who own cars charge others for rides they book online to and from destinations. There a number of services available where people offer stuff or time or goods or services that they have and others want.

While Airbnb has come under criticism from licensed hotel operators and Uber from licensed taxicab drivers, each service seems to be thriving as people use the services to make money by leasing out things they already own.

The college sophomore saw an opportunity and was industrious enough to try to capitalize on it. He told The Boston Globe that he had cleared the rental of his dorm room with others in his suite. He also said he escorted them in and out of the building when they arrived. (It wasn't entirely clear where the student was staying himself when he let out his room, which overlooks a large city park.)

When the college found out about the enterprising student's efforts, it shut him down and he was to face a disciplinary hearing.

Quickly, a student-led support effort emerged on Twitter and a petition was started on As I'm writing, the petition has 498 supporters, but the Twitter feed, while largely supportive, has some voices mixed in condemning the student's action.

If the student had owned the room he rented out and he didn't violate any homeowner's association agreement, he would likely be in the clear. If the student rented the room from a landlord and had the landlord's permission, he would also have been in the clear.

But the student did not have the dorm owner's permission to rent out his room, an action that violates both Airbnb's and the college's policy.

It's good to applaud creativity and industriousness among students. Entrepreneurial wherewithal is all the rage on many college campuses. And with skyrocketing tuitions and fees, who couldn't use some extra money to offset costs and staggering college loans?

But renting out a dorm room, knowing that doing so violates the agreement with the college and with the website listing the rental is dubious both legally and ethically.

When embracing the sharing economy, agreements should be honored and youthful enthusiasm should never get in the way of doing the right thing. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

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

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Usually, if you think something is morally but not actually wrong, it is never-the-less wrong in the everyday world, especially when it involves doing business. I am no more moral than the next person, but there is an old saying "if it looks wrong, or possibly wrong, it is probably wrong". The example pretty clearly falls into the "wrong" category.

Charlie Seng