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I'm a faculty member, and my department chair's son is enrolled in a course I'm teaching. Actually, this happened twice during the past academic year and is slated to happen again this fall.

I'm uncomfortable with being placed in this position; my point of view is that the situation is improper if an instructor feels in any way threatened or influenced by the fact that a student's parent is the instructor's boss.

However my online searching failed to bring up much discussion relative to this type of scenario. May I ask the Academia Stack Exchange community for opinions on the ethics involved here?

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5 Answers 5

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Teaching your chair's child presents a minor conflict of interest for both the instructor and the parent/chair. Consult your university's conflict of interest policy.

Fair grading and a positive evaluation are in conflict for the instructor. This is a minor conflict because most instructors have little interest in their chair's evaluation as it is not in doubt.

Fair evaluation and obtaining a good grade for the child are in conflict for the supervising chair. This is a minor conflict because most chairs would see fair evaluation as more important than helping their child fraudulently get a good grade.

Ideally, the student's parent should not be permitted to evaluate the teacher's work. Someone else should be assigned to do the evaluation, such as an assistant chair or dean. This would eliminate the conflict of interest.

In practice, I would guess most people just ignore these situations to save time and money. It is perfectly reasonable to decide the cost of changing the faculty evaluation process outweighs the disadvantages of a minor conflict of interest.

Off topic clarification: Conflicts of interest are not unethical. They are situations. Decisions may be unethical, but situations cannot be. A conflict of interest is a situation where a decision-maker may benefit from two different choices.

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The ethics are simple, actually.

For you, ethical behavior is to treat the student exactly like any other.

For the department head the ethical behavior is not to apply any pressure, even implicitly, to get you to behave other than as suggested above.

For the student, ethical behavior is not to try to exploit their relationship with their parent to get any advantage.

Not everyone behaves ethically, of course, but most places provide some procedure to address unethical behavior, though they can be difficult to bring to bear if you are vulnerable and pressured.

But, act ethically, hope for the best, and evaluate your options if the best doesn't occur.

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Background: I am a former department chair at a large university, and also served for several years on my university’s conflicts of interest committee.


The situation you are describing can indeed reasonably be categorized as a type of conflict of interest, specifically one involving nepotism, but it is not your conflict of interest; rather, it is the department chair who will be said to be in a conflict of interest, or at least a potential conflict of interest, in this situation.

Moreover, this is a relatively weak or indirect sort of conflict, in the sense that between the holder of power (the chair) and the family member whom they might be inclined to favor (the son/daughter) there is at least one intermediary level of decision makers (you, the instructor). This makes it less likely for nepotism to occur, but does not altogether eliminate the possibility for it.

I found one US university that covers this situation in its policy on nepotism. The University of Minnesota defines a class of situations that are considered prohibited nepotism conflicts, and another class of situations that are considered potential nepotism conflicts. Your situation falls into the latter class, precisely because of this indirectness I mentioned above, see this quote (bold formatting added by me for clarity):

Nepotism is a prohibited conflict of interest that occurs when:

  • a University member directly influences the University employment (e.g., hiring, promotion, supervision, evaluation, and determination of salary) or academic progress (e.g., grading and advising) of a University member with whom they have a personal relationship (e.g., a relative, romantic or business partner, or close personal friend); or […]

The following are examples of nepotism:

[…]

  • when an instructor grades the work of an individual with whom the instructor has a personal relationship;

[…]

Potential nepotism situations occur when University members in a personal relationship interact in their University roles in a manner that does not constitute nepotism, but that gives rise to a reasonable possibility or perception that nepotism may occur. Examples of potential nepotism situations include:

[…]

  • when a parent faculty member and child student are members of the same academic department and: 1) the parent faculty member does not currently advise, instruct, or evaluate the child student, but reasonably could do so in the future; or 2) the parent faculty member’s status or relationships with other department members are reasonably likely to influence, or be perceived to influence, those department members to provide favorable treatment to the child student.

Despite making the distinction between nepotism and potential nepotism, the policy goes on to say that both of them must be treated in the same way:

These and other potential nepotism situations do not constitute a prohibited conflict of interest. However, to prevent prohibited conflicts of interest from occurring in the future, and to prevent the perception that a prohibited conflict of interest exists, potential nepotism situations must be addressed in the same manner as nepotism.

The policy then refers to a companion procedure document that explains how these sorts of situations need to be addressed. You can look up the details in the link, but I’ll emphasize one important point that touches on a surprising and counterintuitive aspect of conflicts of interest: in academia, conflicts of interest are not considered an absolutely unethical thing that must be avoided at all costs. Of course it’s good to avoid them when it is practical to do so, but at other times, the discussion will be about how to mitigate or manage the conflict. This is the case here: your situation certainly warrants a healthy dose of caution and awareness on the part of the involved parties, and compliance with university policy and fairly obvious ethical principles. But, since you ask about the ethics, I wouldn’t say that the situation (based on the few specific details you described) is necessarily evidence of any unethical behavior.

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As noted in the comments, the children of departmental chairs and administrators who have matriculated at an institution have a right to the services that are provided by that institution. Someone has to teach these students. Assuming that everyone is committed to behaving ethically, there is no problem here.

Some practical considerations:

  1. If you are in the US, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requires that you keep your educational records private, and that you do not share those records with third parties. How this interacts with college students is a little complicated, but the long-and-short of it is that (in the US) you are not generally required to share educational records with parents, and there are circumstances under which you may not share such records. If you are worried about your boss demanding information about their child, you might have a conversation with someone else in the hierarchy (e.g. a dean if you are teaching the chair's kid; your chair if you are teaching the VP's kid; etc), a union rep (if you have one), an institutional ombud (if you have one), or someone in your legal department.

  2. My general policy is to grade everything anonymously. There are services out there which make it much easier to do this, e.g. I have used both GradeScope and CrowdMark in the past (I don't necessarily want to drive traffic to those sites, but a quick Google search should give you the information you need). Grading anonymously makes it much easier to defend a claim that you are not giving any particular student any special treatment (either positively or negatively).

  3. Generally speaking, the expectation is that everyone is going to behave ethically. One hopes that you are an ethical instructor, that your boss is not going to attempt to exert influence upon you, and that your student is not going to attempt to exploit their relationship with your boss. You really should not have any reason to fear teaching your boss's children—this happens all the time, and is rarely a problem.

    In the highly unlikely event that things go wrong (e.g. your boss attempts to influence your instruction of their child), make sure to document everything. Keep contemporaneous records, add some narrative, and make sure that your behaviour is impeccable. Should your relationship with the student and their parent rise to the level of formal proceedings (e.g. a grievance is filed), you are going to want to make sure that you have covered your ass.

    That being said, I must reiterate that it is very unlikely that this will be a problem. Teach the class, treat your boss's child like any other student, and don't sweat it.

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Firstly, I have no personal experience of this one.

It seems this is more frequent in the USA/Canada due to children of faculty getting some advantages at the institution employing their parents. With this benefit available, scenarios of faculty children being taught and examined by colleagues becomes much more likely. Yet universities have the right to use benefits wisely to recruit the best faculty at the least cost. And students have the right to go to whichever college they matriculate for and select for themselves - regardless of family ties. At the same time, there are serious potential moral - and educational - conflicts here.

But similar - maybe equally hazardous - conflicts arise in the case of the children of personal friends of a faculty member who undertake studies in the latter's department. A common scenario might have a child of a friend (or close neighbor who over the years became a family friend) to a professor winning a place in that professor's department. That professor simply wouldn't be human if he/she didn't have an additional concern for that student. And everybody wants academics to be human, have personal friends outside of workplace colleagues and participate in the community, of course.

I doubt if any student or academic (least of all, a Chair) would want to find themselves in this sort of situation. It is simply how the cards were drawn for them: what they want to study, where to do it, how much they save and so on.

So to me it looks like an eminently predictable eventuality has not been given adequate reflection by those drawing up universities' regulations. (Maybe those faculty whose task is to interpret the limited existing regulations might be more vocal on this.) I fear that taking the approach that a serious conflict is very unlikely, all parties will show sensitivity and any situation arising will be immediately referred to senior faculty - while humanly understandable and convenient - does not address the real anxieties here. OP has not once but twice and now possibly a third time been stuck with the child of his/her Chair. This is clearly unfair on OP (the academic fall-guy in this whole process) who does seem conflicted between their need to maintain educational equity and a normal professional desire to avoid friction with the Chair.

My advice is twofold.

  1. Go to Dean or whoever is above your Chair in the college hierarchy and put a human case to be spared a third test of your professional character with the same student child of your colleague and Chair.

  2. Find the university's authority in relation to this type of conflict and request a greater study into the conflicts arising in this type of situation. (Beforehand you might look around other national and international universities' regulations and/or provisions regarding the especial case where faculty children have educational benefits that must be exercised at the parent's employing institution. It would be nice if you found inter-university student-pairing somewhere on this one !)

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  • And, what if the OP is actually the best person to teach the student? Or the only person that teaches a required class?
    – Buffy
    May 30 at 11:52
  • Not sure what's meant by best person to teach. But if OP is the only or best qualified faculty member for that course - we'll say it's a core course or one that this student sees as such and it's their right to choose after all - then this extreme situation must be dealt with. But if this (you and Xander say plausible) scenario is not a wake-up call for all concerned, department faculty, prospective students, deans and university management to change the educational benefits process then I don't know what to say.
    – Trunk
    May 30 at 12:26

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