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Is it ethical to accept small gifts from students? In past years I have one or two students have given me small gifts, generally a box of chocolates. I judge the size of gifts on my international beer scale, where things that cost less than 4 beers, (maybe 10 USD) are small token gifts. These have always fallen into the small token gift category. I have typically either left these in my office and shared with people or in bountiful years brought them into the lab or school office. This year I have received over a dozen boxes of chocolates from undergraduate students. Individually each box is still small, but in total the gifts are no longer small. All but two of the gifts were from graduating students. I realised I don't have a well defined personal policy about accepting gifts and I am not sure the university has a policy either.

What should you do when students offer you gifts?

  • 11
    IANAL, but the beer scale seems like as valid a measure as any. I would not be overly concerned about boxes of chocolate, as long as it's not of the Swiss variety (spruengli.ch). Those can easily blow the beer scale wide open, and move into Single Malt territory :) – xLeitix Jun 24 '14 at 8:32
  • Related: On giving gifts to LOR writers – Nate Eldredge Jun 25 '14 at 4:11
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    Please.. As a student, I really wish my advisor could accept the small gift, as it is just a sincere appreciation out of my heart. :) – Sibbs Gambling Jun 26 '14 at 4:29
  • This surely depends on where you are. I guess it is common in China and Korea for students to give gifts to their professors. – GEdgar Apr 7 '16 at 1:02
  • UK: strongly not accepting. If I would get a gift, even if I would be able to keep it because it's small, I have to fill a declaration form, no matter how small it is. It's extra work and any pleasure it would give turns into displeasure. Even before the rule was introduced, I was not particularly comfortable with receiving anything even after my interaction with students was complete - this rule now makes it natural for me to refuse. – Captain Emacs Apr 7 '16 at 3:50
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In the general case, professors/lecturers/TAs should not accept gifts from students, as these things can lend themselves very easily to accusations of conflict of interest. This falls in the same general category as dating one of your students, or grading your kid's exam.

That said, I can think of three situation where gifts are acceptable.

(1) a graduating student gets you something nice after graduation (e.g., in the department where I did my PhD, it is normal for students and advisors to exchange gifts after a successful doctoral defense).

(2) a current student makes a "collective gift", e.g., a student brings a cake to class to celebrate his/her birthday and offers you a slice.

(3) you go through some major life event and students pitch in to get you something, e.g., when I came back to work after having to get major surgery, the grad students in my department got me a nice coffee machine to celebrate that I hadn't died.

  • 12
    I think it is very different from dating and grading. You can gracefully decline a invitation for a date or recuse oneself from grading. Turning down a gift is often seen as rude. – StrongBad Jun 26 '14 at 8:59
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    @StrongBad And accepting a gift can be seen in a negative light as well. Perhaps not by the person giving the gift, but by others. – earthling Jun 26 '14 at 23:23
  • 1
    (1) sounds nice in theory, but isn't very practical in settings where (typically found with Bachelor/Master graduation theses in my experience) the student meets the supervisor for the last time on the day of submitting the thesis, or on the day of a final presentation, and the grade is only decided upon afterwards and sent to the student by mail, often after the student has moved away from the city or even the country. – O. R. Mapper Apr 7 '16 at 20:55
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    Th' good news is that some institutions, including mine, prohibit faculty from accepting gifts from students. That makes declining gifts easy, and any rudeness can be deflected toward the institution itself. "I appreciate the thought, and thank you for it, but the rules of the university prevent me from accepting gifts." – Bob Brown Jun 6 at 3:00
20

I will disagree slightly with some of the previous answers. I come from a health-care perspective. A great deal of papers discuss the ethical/moral ramifications of accepting gifts from patients and subordinates and students/trainees. I will say up-front that I believe accepting valuable gifts from students is a problem and should be avoided in the vast majority of circumstances. In contrast, I do not ALWAYS see a problem with accepting small gifts from students/patients. Offering a gift is typically a way to express some appreciation and accepting the gift is a way to express your appreciation of the appreciation. Rejecting the gift can be slightly insulting and harm student-teacher rapport. Coming off in a stand-offish way to one student can have long-lasting implications.

I had two experiences where a student offered me a small basket of cookies and another offered a decoration with a value of 10$. I kindly told them no thank you, but they insisted. I insisted no thank you again, and they re-insisted. I know if I said no once again, she would have been insulted. It alienates the student and puts me in an awkward position of being an authoritarian person who cannot participate in typical activities (i.e., doing/accepting small favours). A teacher is not a friend, and that should be clear, but a teacher can still be warm, and approachable.

In essence, the benefits of accepting a gift (e.g., increasing approachability, seeming nice/human) can often outweigh the potential costs (which are often negligible if the gift is of nominal value). This is, of course, on a case by case basis. It might be appropriate in some contexts (e.g., very small class, clinical supervision) but not others (e.g., very large class). As is often the case, judgment is needed.

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    I mentioned this in another comment; I tell students that it is the policy of the University that faculty not accept gifts. That way, it is not I who turned them down. – Bob Brown Jun 25 '14 at 22:05
  • Yes if that is the case then its a very easy solution! – Behacad Jun 26 '14 at 0:18
  • To me it is a balancing act between me feeling uncomfortable accepting the gift and making the giver feel uncomfortable rejecting the gift. This year it was the number of gifts that made me feel uncomfortable. – StrongBad Jun 26 '14 at 9:10
19

I have students bringing me gifts quite often. Like Stephan Kolassa, I am quite uncomfortable with it. I am made even more uncomfortable by the fact that in the local culture (not my native culture) it is common for subordinates to bring gifts to their boss, which seems to me like a continued corruption to keep ones job.

As should be obvious to anyone in a position in power, people subject to that power think it is great to be able to buy preferential treatment. Some of my students get chauffered to school in very expensive cars (>$100,000) so I am sure they have the money to give as expensive of a gift as they feel.

However, as the one in power, I must keep this tendency in check. I, therefore, simply do not accept gifts from individual students. Period. I do, however, accept gifts if they are from the entire class and presented by the "leader of the class" which all classes here have.

There are limits on what I would accept from the class but that has never been in question. The biggest gift I've received would set each student back $1. And to be clear, I would never accept cash or something very similar to cash.

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    +1 for I do, however, accept gifts if they are from the entire class and presented by the "leader of the class" which all classes here have. I'll forward this answer to my local friends here. – scaaahu Jun 25 '14 at 4:37
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One of the circumstances when I see no problem in accepting a gift is when the gift has no monetary value.

I was offered once a polystyrene toroidal earth at the end of a geometry class, whose cost was only a little time and effort. I accepted it as a token of gratitude and see no problem with that. I was sort of a TA, and I was not grading the students (not that it would have affected my grading, but still an important note). It sits in my office from then, and reminds me that teaching well can be well-appreciated.

6

I'm surprised that so far noone mentioned that the acceptable ethics are possibly spelled out as legally binding rules.

Giving something to a university teacher is totally unusual here (Germany). It is less unusul that a school class (or the parents) gives something to a teacher they had for years when the teacher will not teach the class any longer. But this is actually a situation where the legal rules can be more strict than what many people would intuitively consider OK (see also this poll.)
Which is why I mention this here.


E.g. I live in Thuringia, Germany. Rules for employees of the state of Thuringia are in general are that anything above 25 EUR always needs explicit permission. And anything that is close to money is always inacceptable (including e.g. entrance tickets, gift cards/vouchers). Rules can be more strict for certain types of employees, e.g. School teachers in Thuringia need to obtain permission for anything with the exception of gifts that are of idealistic (?) value only.

Anti-corruption rules are something that every employee has to sign. Also, the TVL trade agreement I signed with my work contract states as "default value" that I'm not allowed to accept anything that is related to my work without permission. However, "automatic permissions" can be granted for small things. (e.g. the 25 € in the paragraph above).

Some universities (in other states) have spelled out lists of what they consider so small that the permission is granted automatically such as: "collective" flowers from your colleagues for birthday, or the evaluation copy of a book that you review, pen with an advertisement on it.

5

Fortunately for everyone involved, I am not a professor. I would be very uncomfortable even with "small" gifts (what's small for a professor with a salary could make quite a dent in some students' budgets).

There is a slippery slope involved here, and I personally would rather avoid even having to think about this by laying down extremely simple rules. For instance, I kind of like this:

If I see you out on the town or at a sports bar, and you want to buy me a drink, you cannot currently be in my classes or ever take any of my classes again. Then probably you can buy me a drink.

I'd probably suggest that if anyone does want to express their appreciation of something I did, an email would be quite enough and would of course be very welcome. If someone does feel the compulsion to spend money, they could always donate to their favorite charity.

  • (+1) for the link to Palmer's blog. My favorite : "If you are failing this course, do not make sly little suggestions about what you might do to earn a passing grade. You are failing the course — why should I think your performance would be better in any other areas? Besides, I'm too old to care." Old age may make it easier to comment on sexual innuendo, but the grace and ingenuity with which Palmer uses it to pass the message "I am here for education and knowledge, period" is formidable. – Alecos Papadopoulos Jun 25 '14 at 19:34
  • That is why I use my 4-beer rule since I believe that all students in the UK can sacrifice 4 beers without making a dent in their budget. – StrongBad Jun 26 '14 at 9:05
  • Do you suggest to preemptively make a comment about your gift accepting policy or only when someone offers you a gift? – StrongBad Jun 26 '14 at 9:06
  • @StrongBad: I think a handout laying down a couple of basic rules along the lines of Palmer's open letter to his students (if maybe not quite so detailed) makes a lot of sense, and an item about gifts fits in well there. – Stephan Kolassa Jun 26 '14 at 9:53
2

I occasionally give small gifts or presents1 to the students in my upper division classes---things like the specialized pads that are common in my field but the students are not familiar with (they cost a few dollars each and the students are unlikely to buy the without having tried them).

So rather than the beer scale, I use my donations to the class as a measure: if I could not afford to give something of similar value to every student in the presenter's class then it represents a problem.

None-the-less I am still a little uncomfortable with anything coming from a single student or small group of students. What is true for Ceasar's wife is still more true for Ceasar.


1 Here I make a distinction between "gift" and "present" that I read somewhere. A gift is something you give because you think the recipient will get enjoyment out of it but would not buy it for themselves. A present is something you give them because you think they should have it.

  • Out of curiosity, what exactly are those pads? – E.P. Aug 15 '14 at 14:42
  • They are often called engineering pads. Low glare so that they are easy on the eyes and the grid from the back shows though so you can use it without it cluttering up your drawing. – dmckee Aug 15 '14 at 20:08
  • Oh, ok, so a technical drawing thing. – E.P. Aug 15 '14 at 21:21
  • +1 for the present / gift distinction – Kelly S. French May 6 at 21:43
1

I think it's ethical, but I work hard never to accept gifts from students, past or present.

Present students

The reason not to accept gifts from present students is multifaceted:

  • It sets up the possibility of a conflict of interest. I want to be as objective as possible in evaluating students and structuring my courses.
  • It might signal to other students that they should consider giving gifts as well.

Past students

I don't accept gifts from past students as well because even past students still have professional connections with faculty:

  • I get often recommendation/reference requests about past students. I have had at least one case where a weak student gave a gift in my name and then asked me for a recommendation letter for a job.
  • There are reasonable and more appropriate ways for students to demonstrate support for their alma maters (e.g. making a donation to the school/college/department).
  • It might set up the expectation among students that they should give me gifts.
  • You are never obligated to write a recommendation. You _are_obliged to discuss things with the student or former student if you cannot give a good recommendation. – Bob Brown Jun 25 '14 at 18:49
  • Agreed ... but if you accept a gift and then write a recommendation, I would argue that your support is tainted. – Ari Trachtenberg Jun 25 '14 at 20:53
  • Agreed... but... You should never write a bad recommendation, so if you wouldn't write a recommendation before the gift, you shouldn't write one after, either. Problem solved. I just tell students it's the policy of the institution that faculty not accept gifts. That way, it is not I who turned them down. – Bob Brown Jun 25 '14 at 22:02
  • @BobBrown we are required by the university to write a "no-liability" recommendation letter for all of our students. The letter, is essentially useless and simply states facts like student X took class Y and received mark Z. – StrongBad Jun 26 '14 at 9:09
  • @BobBrown the issue might be where someone did gift and got a letter (on merit). Later there could be rumours the letter was not on merit but because of that artsy thing the student gifted. I'm not saying this is likely, but it is something that could happen. – JJJ May 6 at 21:56

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