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May 21, 2018

Student gifts, or How do we regulate Academia

Someone has recently asked me if we have a written policy on student-to-faculty gifts. My answer is this: politely decline all gifts of value other than a thankyou card. Suggest Instead giving to the College or the University. No fruit baskets, no champagne, no Starbucks gift cards. Here is a more detailed reasoning for the case by Lionel G. Standing. If you want a written policy, here it is. As your dean, I just wrote it down, effective immediately: no gifts from students.

More seriously, it is not that simple. Writing a good policy takes time and intellectual effort. With zero-gift policy, there are many nuances and exceptions. For example, you may have an international student from a country where introduction souvenirs are a sign of routine politeness. Your graduate student may also be your colleague and collaborator, older and wealthier than you are. A refusal to accept a gift may be a rude gesture in your own cultural background, etc., etc. To have a good written policy, we should consider all these and other exceptions, define what a gift is (is a ride to a conference a gift? A dog-sitting gig?), set a threshold for monetary value, get feedback from people, revise, vote to approve, publish, maintain version control, etc. It looks like an expensive proposition; we all could be doing something else, moving our College somewhere. So why do all that? We do not really have a problem with student gifts. The absolute majority of faculty have enough common sense to discourage students from gift giving. Spending that much time on a minor problem seems to be luxury we cannot afford. It is really a case of the Parkinson’s law of triviality, which deserves a special blog one day.

Another consideration is that written policies tend to weaken ethical controls. Academia is governed by both ethics and policies, which overlap and mingle in complex and not always predictable ways. Policies often provide an excuse to abandon ethical reasoning altogether. Let me give you an absurd example, so you understand the logic: Let’s say a hospital says to its doctors – no more than two free lunches a year paid by Big Pharma sales persons. OK, there are 22 major pharma conglomerates in the world. That’s 44 free lunches, which a doctor will intentionally schedule throughout the year. Instead of limiting the abuse, the policy presents the bribes as a benign and finite resource, which you would be foolish not to use. So you end up with more abuse than before, because of the way you tried to regulate it.

Another way is to engage in a conversation with the doctors and state that free lunches are not really OK, they are corruptive and unethical. This way, they will be worried about their reputation, and police the problem as a professional community. The ethical constraints are less clear, but can be as effective and less expensive to implement.

Here is what I am trying to do here. Next time a student gives you an envelope with something like a gift card in there, please think hard – how does she or he expect you to return the favor? What is the message you are sending by accepting or declining a gift?

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