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I am a professor at a US university, and I'll be away on a sabbatical for all of the coming academic year. I would like to sublet my house while I am away, and I think that one or two of the graduate students in my department might be interested. I'd prefer to do that instead of renting to a complete stranger. However, since I would effectively be their landlord and they would be paying me rent, I am wondering if this raises ethical or conflict-of-interest concerns, since those students may be in my courses in the future.

(I have checked my university's regulations and they do not address this situation. I would certainly check with my superiors before going ahead; this question is just to find out whether this seems okay in terms of general professional ethics, or presents the appearance of a conflict.)

Some possibly relevant notes:

  • My department's graduate program is not in my research area, so there would not be any chance of me becoming the dissertation advisor of any of these students. However, I could serve on their dissertation committee.

  • The sublet would end before I would be teaching classes again, so I wouldn't simultaneously be a student's landlord and their instructor. It is conceivable, though, if they fell behind on the rent, that they might still owe me money at that time.

  • 2
    At least one of the older folks on this site has said it was quite common for them (I don't remember who). – Azor Ahai May 8 at 19:53
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    I'd be a bit wary of the worst-case scenarios, and it might be worth reading and considering some of the nightmare situations people have gotten into by renting to (even distant) family, for example. – Bryan Krause May 8 at 20:43
  • 9
    More as a chuckle: when I was a TA in Germany in the 2000s, my contract still referenced 1930s legislation (Reichsassistentenordnung) that allowed them to directly deduct the rent from my salary under those circumstances, because you were essentially an apprentice to your advisor anyway. – Ulrich Schwarz May 9 at 7:04
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    A faculty member in my department rents out his second home, and prefers to have grad students in the department stay there rather than complete strangers. He also gives better than typical rates to help the students a little financially. – anjama May 9 at 18:29
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    If they miss payments and you need to charge them, either personally or by legal means, or even if they destroy your property and you are still in bad terms with them, from my point of view that all goes into the bucket of "I dislike him/her/them for personal reasons". Which is always a risk. One of them could crash your car in the parking lot by accident and the same issue would arise. As long as you can refuse to be in their thesis committee, and you can ask someone else to independently grade them for a course you give, you should be fine. If everything goes well with the rent, better yet – Mefitico May 9 at 20:59

10 Answers 10

54

At the time they sign the lease there is no conflict of interest. Further, there is no conflict of interest anticipated throughout the duration of the lease. There is of course the possibility that an unforeseen conflict arises, but this is always a possibility. You are putting yourself at an elevated risk of a conflict of interest, so it is probably worth mentioning it to you department chair. If an unforeseen conflict does arise, just let your department chair know and do what ever is needed at that point.

  • 3
    Together with the chair OP can also discuss what the actual probability of a conflict of interest arising later on is (I see a difference between OP teaching courses that practially everyone takes at some point vs. teaching specializations that < 5 % of students take) and whether there are feasible ways to resolve such a conflict of interest if it arises. – cbeleites supports Monica May 9 at 17:09
16

The rule of thumb for conflicts of interest is: "If you think there might be a conflict of interest, or wonder whether there might be, then there is." That's because the perception of a conflict of interest is just as bad as the conflict of interest itself.

So yes, whether you feel conflicted or not, other people might believe that you could be, and that's just as bad. A better choice would likely be to rent your house to grad students in other departments.

  • 8
    "A better choice would likely be to rent your house to grad students in other departments." .... That may be from your POV of avoiding every perception of COI. But he might not know the other grad students as well as he knows the grad student in his own department. Renting his furnished home for just a year is a very vulnerable thing to do. You need to be able to trust your renters a great deal. – robert bristow-johnson May 8 at 21:00
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    As a side-note, I find this heuristic often does not work well: a) lots of people whom I wouldn't trust to be able to separate issues and deal fairly tend to not perceive any conflict of interest. b) OTOH, people who worry whether there may be a conflict of interest tend to be the ones whom I'd trust to be fair. – cbeleites supports Monica May 9 at 10:52
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    @cbeleites -- just because some people don't get it doesn't mean you shouldn't behave the right way. – Wolfgang Bangerth May 9 at 16:42
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    @WolfgangBangerth: of course not (and I wholeheartedly agree both with renting outside dept being better and already possibly perception of conflict of interest being bad). What bothers me about that saying is that our own feeling of comfort is known to be a frequently used but bad surrogate for truth/reality/knowledge [e.g. Kahneman]. IMHO for such ethical questions (like for many other questions), different people will be anywhere between Dunning-Kruger and Impostor syndrome. OP is obviously in the camp of people who do think beforehand that a conflict of interest could arise in future. – cbeleites supports Monica May 9 at 17:03
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    @WolfgangBangerth Ah, gotcha. Not sure why I didn't see that parsing, given that it's the one that makes the sentence true! – David Richerby May 9 at 21:38
5

If there is no supervisory relationship and you won't be teaching them while you are gone, I see no issues with this other than the possibility for misunderstandings over money.

One way to avoid some of the problems is to work through an agent as long as that doesn't restrict you to offering it to the public first. It also helps if the student has to leave mid term and you need to find another tenant quickly.

Another issue you should be sure to deal with is a damage deposit. Again, working through an agent would help avoid conflicts. A rental contract is a good idea as it can lay out expectations explicitly.

4

There's no conflict -- now. That doesn't make it a great idea. Let's say you go ahead and do this, and the rental goes well. Now, let's say your department needs someone to serve on the examination committee of the student. There would be an argument to be made that you have a conflict with that student, having received thousands in income by way of that student. The conflict might be an inconvenience for your department, even if you do the cautious thing and recuse from the examining committee, as they have to dig up another faculty member who might not be as appropriate.

Again, nothing wrong, but you might not be so happy with the decision to do this in the future. Personally, I would post the sublet opportunity, and see if I can attract somebody from a different department. If I got into a bind, and couldn't find someone, I might look into the department.

2

If you are not actually working with the student, there shouldn't be much of a conflict. There's a slight caveat in that if the renting student annoys you, it could potentially damage the student's reputation among faculty. But then non-professor landlords might happen to know some faculty too, and most universities expect students to conduct themselves well with people unaffiliated with them.

I would have noted that it can be difficult to predict that you won't interact with the student. Courses and committee memberships can sometimes be surprising. But you say that you will be on sabbatical the whole time, so sounds like there's not much of a risk in your case.

Still, there might be an alternative that largely takes care of all such potential concerns. Simply ask another, wholly unrelated department if there are any interested students. The tenants you get will still be trustworthy as students of your university, but nobody could reasonably claim that there is a conflict of interest if they are not even in your department.

I have checked my university's regulations and they do not address this situation.

Do you mean that you asked them, or that you read their policy documents and found no clause covering this? If latter, it might be worth trying to ask the HR department if your university has one (in addition to asking your supervisor like you already intend, which should also be fine).

1

I agree with @strongbad that there is no conflict of interest right now, it is all about the possibility of one arising in future - which may not happen at all.

In the case of the students taking a course with you, I'd say attending your lectures is not the point of trouble. Possible conflict of interest arises only in the context of the course exam/grading. But then actually in various ways: in case of a negative experience with the rental you may be biased against them and/or they may be afraid of this. Other students may be afraid [jealous] that you prefer them (more with a positive rental experience, but in practice probably independent of how/whether the rental experience works out).

I'd say the overall level of conflict of interest would be similar to e.g. a colleague's child or a relative of yours attending one of your courses (which is maybe a scenario for which established ways/guidance is available)

Depending on how your courses are graded, there may be comparatively easy ways to resolve any conflict of interest in case it arises:

  • In case of oral exam, maybe a colleague could examine them.

    • When I was a student, for the important oral exams a number of professors could and would do them (say, phyiscal chemistry -> any of the professors for physical chemistry).
    • I once had a student in a minor exam (final oral of a labwork course) whom I failed twice. After the 2nd time, I asked a colleague to do the exam to make sure it was not just me being unreasonable or biased.
    • Who's your backup if you fall ill during exam time?
    • There's a bunch of possibilities that are in between you with possible (perceived) conflict of interest and someone else doing the exam: having someone taking detailed minutes of questions and answers (that was anyways the case for all important exams).
    • Oral exams were semi-public: other students could listen to the exam unless the student to be examined asked to be examined in private (results were always given privately). Under such rules, you could encourage any student that may perceive a conflict of interest against them to bring a fellow student as a witness to make sure there's fair play.
  • In case of written exams (or homework), over here the grading usually isn't done just by the professor. Instead, many people of the professor's group are involved. If that's the case, you could either not participate in the grading or grade yourself only questions that don't give any leeway. As always, detailed grading schemes help.

  • (computer-graded exams are trivial in this respect)

In any case, I'd discuss this with the dean and also state this to the students (in particular, "as a consequence of this lease, you'll have take your final oral exam with a colleague, but not with me: that could be perceived as a conflict of interest").
I tend to trust people who worry about possible conflicts of interest beforehand and take measures to avoid them much further. IMHO it's the ones who don't worry and aren't aware of whom one needs to be wary...


All that being said,

  • there may be other people/students whom you know equally well through other channels like sports club, religious group/church, ...
  • if you do a sabbatical somewhere else, there may be some other professor coming for a sabbatical to your university. Whom you may not know, but in case you consider the population of professors on sabbatical as sufficiently trustworthy in general that may be an option. Plus, that'd be a population that suits very well in terms of time frame of the lease.
1

You want to sublet your house, namely you decided to become a supplier irrespective of whether graduate students were interested or not.

The existence of interested graduate students present an opportunity to you to mitigate the transaction risk. This may not have a direct monetary value, but it is a financial gain nevertheless, in expected value terms: say, lower risk of default or of destruction of assets.

In other words, you are thinking of entering in a supplier-customer relation with a student of your department, because it increases your financial gain.

Once you do that, concurrence or not of professor-student relation with the supplier-customer relation does not matter.

That there was past financial gain will always be a potential factor of corrupting the ethics of the future professor-student relation, or even of the "colleague of a professor who is in a professor-student" relationship with the student that used to be your tenant.

And conflict-of-interest is a matter for the courts, while potential conflict-of-interest is what interests us here.

1

I am wondering if this raises ethical or conflict-of-interest concerns, since those students may be in my courses in the future.

I believe you're asking the question wrong. Try:

I am wondering if this raises ethical or conflict-of-interest concerns, which would be difficult to address since those students may be in my courses in the future.

And then the answer is no. As others have indicated, no foreseeable conflicts during the rental period; and later on - it will not be much different from when you teach a class and one of the students is, say, the child of one of your neighbors, or a friend of a family member, etc. These things happen and are dealt with reasonably. For example, perhaps you might have some teaching assistant handle their grading; or you would find someone impartial to double-check your evaluation of them etc. It's not a big deal IMHO.

Go ahead and sublet your house to them. And - don't overcharge the starving graduate students! Their salaries ("stipends"/whatever) are probably super-low.

0

Advertise at other departments.

If you are a professor in say physics, then advertise at the departments for social studies, law and what not.

If a student-tenant studies a subject completely different than your subject, then a potential conflict of interest is very unlikely.

-2

Bad idea. Don't fish off the company pier. To start with, grad students are not ideal rental customers. Then you complicate any possible future confrontations with being work colleagues.

Just go through a rental agent and have them handle it (maintenance too, you don't want the phone calls when the toilet breaks). You may make a little less money but with much lower risk and hassle.

  • 3
    Why do you say grad students are not ideal rental customers? Professional, educated (and you know how much they make and if it's likely to change) – Azor Ahai May 9 at 19:46
  • Yeah good points. they are fine. – guest May 9 at 21:31

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