The Problem of Student Gifts
Even if the expressions of gratitude seem well-intentioned, professors need to turn them down, writes Lionel G. Standing.
They are rare, but when gifts from students arrive we should hear tiny alarm bells going off. They are never given anonymously, and they seldom arrive after the grades are in at the end of the semester, a situation that would present no problem.
A colleague of mine was surprised to be presented with a large basket of fruit and delicacies by a student before the midterm exam. He turned it down. Then before the final exam the student attempted to persuade him to raise her failing grade, this time using verbal flattery, and once more he declined. At that point she exploded into a stream of anatomical expletives and tried without success to browbeat him into compliance. Had he earlier accepted the gift, would he have been so easily able to resist her demands?
Various kinds of resources are involved in gift-giving, as explored by the late psychologist Uriel Foa: love, status, service, information, goods, and money. These resources vary both in concreteness and in how particular they are to a specific individual. Universal resources maintain the same value regardless who the giver is, whereas the value of a particular resource depends upon who gave the resource. Tangible and particularistic resources are potentially the most compromising (the extreme case being sex, which in academe is almost synonymous with sex-for-grades). More abstract resources, such as useful information provided by a student, although nice to receive, are not likely to create a problem. But a greeting card, although it could be called abstract, is personal and hence inappropriate while one is teaching at the undergraduate level, although this might change at the graduate level due to its greater collegiality over the long term.
Everyday gifts form an important part of some cultures, and are not generally given with manipulative intent (a present from an international student who comes from a country where such gifts are expected might fall into this category). It is emotionally gratifying to receive a present, as in the family context. And academics feeling underappreciated for the help that they provide to students will experience a warm glow upon receiving even a small, symbolic gift. The social norm of reciprocity then means that we are motivated to return the benefit somehow. So a gift relationship can morph into an exchange relationship.
Who could distrust a young person bearing a gift? Unthinkingly we respond politely and accept it with thanks. Or we find it in our mailbox and it would seem crass to return it. We may have sentimental images of a girl in primary school bringing an apple to her favorite teacher. But we are not schoolteachers, and a seemingly innocuous gift will commonly lead to regrets.
The only safe rule can be summarized by the single word never, preferably reiterated in faculty handbooks and course outlines. No gift, no problem. We must reject the Francis Bacon defense, that a gift can be accepted without it biasing one’s judgment -- an argument that failed to prevent his downfall as Lord Chancellor on bribery charges. Although this argument in theory might be true on occasion, the odds are strongly against it, and the world at large cannot know whether a gift did or did not affect one’s judgment in any particular case.
It seems innocent at the time but often it works out badly, and it looks unfortunate when later there are recriminations. A young instructor acquaintance of mine received a nice bottle of liquor, accompanied by a card bearing thanks for his inspired teaching, from a soon-to-graduate student. Surprised but doubtless flattered, he thanked her and thought no more of it. But before the bottle was empty, he had to serve as one of the readers of her dissertation and realized that it was plagiarized. The subsequent weeks saw some stressful and unpleasant scenes, although his department stood firm against all pressures and failed the dissertation. This incident leaves uncomfortable feelings. Did his unwary acceptance of the gift encourage the donor to think that she could rely upon her teacher later to turn a blind eye to her ethical lapse?
Another case within my personal experience again involved a dissertation that was plagiarized, although less blatantly. This time the gift, proffered at around the time when suspicions were being raised, and politely declined, involved an invitation to a no-doubt lavish dinner party to be given by the student and her well-to-do husband. What sort of awkward evening would that have been? More recently, while chatting with some students at a reception I attended, a colleague mentioned that he was intending to buy a certain piece of sports equipment, whereupon one of them told him he was just about to throw out the same item in good condition, and asked if he would take it off his hands -- brushing aside the offer of a fair market price. This pleasant offer was made so spontaneously that unthinkingly he almost accepted it, until he remembered the rule and declined. This outcome was fortunate, because academic issues concerning the student arose soon after.
Gifts from teachers to students are surely also inappropriate. Are we perhaps hoping they will give higher evaluations, for example? Or refrain from complaining, if we are slow to grade their work? And, no matter how kindly it is meant, handing out cookies during an exam is surely both inappropriate and distracting.
The implicit assumption in academe as in politics is that a small gift will produce a larger benefit for the donor, although the recipient could well end by tarnishing her career, sometimes for a bauble. This expectation can operate below the level of awareness: we are often swayed by feelings although we convince ourselves at a conscious level that we are unaffected.
We may convince ourselves that the gift simply recognizes the student’s learning or the teacher’s skill, and bend our standards accordingly without being aware of it. It is instructive to remember that some British universities and various American law schools employ anonymous grading, as do some teachers on their own initiative.
Public officials are forbidden to receive personal gifts, even if the rule is sometimes breached. But professionals are often less restrained. For example, the pervasive suborning of medical researchers by drug manufacturers ultimately damages both parties and the public suffers, as Marcia Angell has documented damningly. Yet the proliferation continues of free trips to Hawaii, grants, and consultancy fees for minimal work, as does the flood of over-reported and useless new drugs. So most medical journals today list potential conflicts of interest for their authors, at least those involving honoraria and other tangible benefits. And in the field of higher education, one reads of major scandals involving direct bribery of professors on a mass scale in some countries. These examples should give us pause. Do university teachers belong in the ethical world of reputable public servants, or that of the medical-industrial complex?
Ultimately the only way to safeguard our fiduciary relationship with the public is to say "Thanks, but no thanks."
The best gift we can give our students is some respect for our academic discipline, and the ideal reward we can receive is the feeling that this has been instilled. One might appropriately give a bottle of cognac to one’s doctor, to show appreciation of her skills. But would you offer it to the income tax inspector who is just about to look at your file? And would you respect him if he accepted it?
Lionel G. Standing teaches psychology at Bishop's University, in Québec.
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