I know a professor in my university that I was close to when I was an undergrad, not in a academic setting, but in a social setting (church in my case). I did not take his class, but I do know that he is close to many other undergraduates in the social circle, and many of them do take his class.

While I'm fairly certain that he does not play favoritism, I'm unsure if the professor should withdraw himself from such social circle because he is bound to have his personal friends take his class, and that might be a potential conflict of interest. However, the town is a small college town, and it's unreasonable for him to switch to another social circle (church) since all churches are full of undergrads, and perhaps that is asking for too much.

How should professors behave in this situation? Is it ok for him to be part of a social circle with many undergrads, knowing that some of them may take his class in the future?

  • 51
    What's the alternative, in a small environment? Withdraw from all social activities to avoid present or future undergrads... or their parents... or their friends? May 12, 2017 at 20:42

6 Answers 6


It would certainly be unreasonable to expect professors to leave a church because the church also has undergraduates in it.

What you're describing isn't really what's usually called a conflict of interest: the professor doesn't actually stand to gain in any concrete way by giving the student better grades. What you're concerned about is bias, which is a real, but generally lesser, problem. It's basically unavoidable to have some potential bias involving students - professors will inevitably end up with students who they know from outside school, or who are identifiably the children of a colleague or administrator or donor, or who we just find ourselves naturally liking (or disliking).

It is the responsibility of a professor to avoid letting this bias turn into favoritism, or even the appearance of favoritism, but the usual approach to this is to have clear standards and try to grade blindly (without knowing whose work we're grading), not to try to eliminate all possible sources of bias.

  • 8
    I grew up in a small university town, and I studied the same subject that my dad lectured. When he lectured me, the university had an extra moderation process for our marking. In that case there could have been a conflict of interest (if I got an A, it would have translated into a fee rebate, so, direct monetary benefit). But, my dad is a professional and was fair. The university had systems in place to help eliminate bias/favouritism, especially in the case where children/godchildren/family friends of the lecturer were being graded, but also, there is professional and personal integrity. May 14, 2017 at 5:51

There are plenty of ways for professors to "make favorites" without knowing students ahead of time. It's up to the integrity of any professor to prevent such favoritism from impacting the learning of other students or the grading rigor for a course. Professors have the same ethical obligation with respect to categories such as race, gender, political affiliation, etc.

It isn't reasonable to expect a professor to withdraw from social circles where that professor might encounter students (or, for that matter, the parents of those students).

In some cases, it might be reasonable for a professor to recuse themselves from some other administrative action involving a student closely known to them (for examples: admissions, any sort of disciplinary action, awarding of scholarship money, etc) assuming there are other faculty who can easily fulfill those roles.

  • 1
    I agree. With regard to your last paragraph, though, I think that merely sharing a social circle (or even a few social circles), as opposed to having a close personal relationship alone is not reason enough for recusal. That alone is not (IMO) significantly more likely to bias you in favour of a student than his appearance, classroom behaviour or even gender. That is probably what you meant anyway, but I think it should be said clearly.
    – tomasz
    May 14, 2017 at 17:49

We should assume, unless proven otherwise, that the Professor is professional and therefore he will assess and evaluate his students entirely fairly on the basis of objective criteria.

However, these extracurricular engagements may increase the opportunities for learning opportunities to arise with guidance by the teacher. I would see this as a good thing - the more such opportunities we can give our students the better.


The role of a professor is to teach. Grading is an artefact of the educational system: a necessary evil, if you wish. Grading should be as objective as possible, and ideally a didactic tool. A professor that likes his students is motivated to do what's best for them in terms of learning.

To a see a professor as a referee in a grading competition is a symptom of what is wrong with the current academic status quo, where a university degree is a tool for social and economic advancement. In any case, a university is not the same as military hierarchy, where officers are not to mingle with the ranks. A university is, at least in principle, a place for the free interchange and creation of ideas, not only in the formal setting of the classroom, but always. A professor interaction with students outside the classroom is a good thing.

  • 4
    This doesn't appear to answer the question. May 14, 2017 at 11:08
  • 1
    @BoundaryImposition It counters the premise of the question, therefore an answer it is.
    – Weckar E.
    May 15, 2017 at 9:00
  • @WeckarE.: It's better now than it was at the time. May 15, 2017 at 9:27

While knowing students on a personal level certainly may add a layer of silent delight or frustration (depending on their respective performance), I would expect any significant favoritism to take place is very, very unlikely.

Besides, remember your professor was there first. So I would like to permute the question: Does this makes you (and your fellow students) feel to be expected to withdraw? Probably not :)


"I do know that he is close to many other undergraduates in the social circle, and many of them do take his class." (The bolding is my own.)

The key word here is "close." I don't know exactly what you mean by this, so I will include some specific examples in my answer.

How should he behave in this situation? Is it ok for him to be part of a social circle with many undergrads, knowing that some of them may take his class in the future?

Your university should have a policy posted online about this. But the basic advice, I believe, is generally:

  • The professor should inform the department chair if there are any students on his class roster that are related to him or have a close friendship with him. In other words, if Roger Smith is on his class roster, and he sometimes goes for a hike on Sunday afternoons with Roger, in a small group, and then has him over for dinner -- the department chair needs to be told.

    On the other hand, if he sometimes gives Ellen Jones a ride home after church because he lives in the same direction as Ellen, that's probably not worth telling the department chair about. However, in case of doubt, it's best to inform the chair and let him/her decide if anything needs to be done.

  • If a close friendship starts to develop during the course of the semester, the professor should either back off and put the developing friendship on hold until after the semester is over, or proceed as above. Reason: it's not enough to behave ethically. It's also important to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

Yes, it's okay for him to be part of a social circle with undergrads, knowing that some of them may take his class in the future. However, if the department chair is getting these notifications, semester after semester (i.e. there are a lot of Roger Smiths), the chair might sit him down and ask him to try to expand his social circle to include more people his own age.

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