Glencora Borradaile

         Associate Professor & College of Engineering Dean's Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Oregon State University

December 30, 2010

Looking a gift horse in the mouth

When I was a grad student, I was in a professor’s office when an undergrad stopped by to give the professor an art card as a thank you for writing a recommendation letter.  The professor kindly turned down the gesture.  At the time, I thought that, as the offering was little more than a greeting card, such a denial was not worth the effort.  The professor pointed out that a line has to be drawn somewhere.

I agree.  But I’m unsure of two things: where to draw the line and how to explain the line to students, particularly when cultural differences may play a role.  I’ll describe a few situations that have come up.

I am on the graduate committee for a Ph.D. student along with 3 other faculty.  This involves sitting in on qualifiers and exams and helping to make decisions on their course of study and progress.  Immediately after a qualifier exam some time ago, the student came to my office with a puzzle – having seen that I have a small collection of puzzles on my bookshelf – and offered it to me with a thanks for the exam.  I turned down the gift, explaining that it is not appropriate for me to accept such gestures when I am in a position of authority.  This week, I came back from a week’s vacation to see a gift bag hanging from my office door.  The gift bag contained a card from the same student and alluded to the fact that the bag must have recently contained (a thief in our midst!) the same puzzle.  The student thought it would be ok for me to now accept the present.  I have emailed the student and explained again that I should not receive gifts.  Unfortunately, this time, there is no gift to return!

The Ph.D. qualifier exams here are 2 hour oral exams.  Not the most exciting thing.  It seems to become tradition that the student bring food for the examining committee.  This seems to vary from a few cartons of cookies to full-on home-cooked meals with catered coffee from our building’s coffee shop.  Some may argue that bringing your committee a few doughnuts and coffee may be a nice gesture, and this, apparently, is how this tradition started.  However, it seems to have gone much too far.  Of course, I don’t feel that the committee’s decision would be swayed by the quality of the food provided – if anything, better food may draw a failure from the committee so we might enjoy such a spread once more.  A line should be drawn, but how?  I would argue that nothing should be brought.  As faculty, sitting on such committees is part of our job.  We know that the meeting will be 2 hours and are perfectly capable of bringing our own sustenance.    Any line above zero is particularly strange.  ‘A student may provide no more than $10 worth of sustenance purchased at the building’s coffee shop.’  So is a student expected to spend $10?  Now a student has to bring coffee for the lofty professors?  Any line above zero should be funded by the department, not the student.  That would be great, but I don’t see it in the budget.

Finally, my own Ph.D. student and I have an interesting relationship.  We are very close in age, live around the corner from each other and have a fair amount in common.  We also both enjoy baking, although I don’t find I get to as often as I once did.  We’ve exchanged various food items in small quantities, usually eaten during meetings – neither of us can go more than an hour without eating like constantly foraging squirrels.  On the recent occasion of my entering old age, she brought me a small batch of (delicious, creamy, homemade, peppermint, white-chocolate) fudge.  Perhaps I should have declined the gift, which I felt a little over that ill-defined line, but I didn’t.  I have to say – it made great fuel for a recent bike trip.

What do you do in such situations?  Am I too strict, not strict enough for your taste?

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  1.   pythagoras — December 30, 2010 @ 8:18 pm    

    I think that it is a bit extreme to not accept a card or a puzzle from a student. Obviously, they are not necessary, but to refuse the token of appreciation could be quite offensive to the student (even one who is not from “another culture”).

    When I read your post, I gathered that you have a much better relationship with your PhD student than with the (stalker?) puzzle giver. In any context, it seems inappropriate to try to re-give a gift that was refused. In fact, it seems creepy. In general, I would refuse gifts if I felt the giver is using the gift to get something or to send a message that I do not want to receive–it is something like refusing to let someone pay on a date if you know you are definitely not interested.

    Also, I don’t think the excuse about being in a position of authority is a good one. It sounds quite arrogant, actually. And in this case, there are many other things that are perhaps inappropriate: a student sending you an email complimenting you on a lecture. That would make most professors feel much better than getting a thank you note. But now you might favor the student more.

    This is not to say that there are not some gifts, some email messages, some comments, that are inappropriate from a student to a professor. Whatever signals sincere appreciation (or constructive criticism) is okay. Whatever goes beyond this is not okay.

  2.   Chip Klostermeyer — December 31, 2010 @ 10:35 am    

    I think small trinkets can be accepted without any issues. Many foreign students will routinely bring a number of such from their country for these type of situations; I have enjoyed receiving them over the years.

    I can’t ever recall being offered a gift from an American student, though several have given a thank you card.

  3.   Jeremy Barbay — January 2, 2011 @ 1:55 pm    

    A very good question. What is expected and/or acceptable is obviously cultural, yet it is nice to discuss which kind of rule(s) would be reasonable.

    (I think that) it goes with presents as for tips at the restaurant (in France, or as tips over 15% in Canada): I give them (and accept them) when I feel that some work *beyond duty* has been made, and appreciated. It is not so much about a hierarchical relation as about a relation when one perform a job for the other (client or not).

    For instance, as the last term ended, I offered a box of chocolates to the 4 TAs of my algorithmic course as they were especially helpful (replacing me on short notice when I got hospitalized, among other things), beyond the description of their job. In the other direction, I gladly accepted a thank you email from a former student and some chocolates from his home country from a current student: those are means of communication, not “bribes”.

    Of course, I agree to disagree about what present actually means in each one’s culture: my comment is only on what I would like it to mean 🙂

  4.   Glencora — January 4, 2011 @ 4:50 pm    

    Yes, perhaps my ‘rules’ such as they are are too strict – I am concerned about repeated occurrences of the first situation (of my post) leading to expectations such as in the second situation. I definitely don’t want to insult a student by refusing a gift, but I certainly feel that I must in some situations – in that situation, what is the best way to decline a gift?

  5.   Jana — January 6, 2011 @ 4:09 pm    

    I agree with what Jeremy says.

    I think there is nothing wrong in appreciating a lecture/ talk by a speaker — one may feel that as their duty/work, but students who enjoy the lecture/talk and learn more from teacher/speaker feel that the speaker has put in some extra effort to present the material in a easily understandable manner. It is a different case with a speaker who is doing it for his own benefit, e.g., an invited visitor or a job talk or a conference talk etc. I personally observed that most non-tenured faculty these days don’t put a lot of effort in teaching and are more interested in research, writing papers, getting grant money etc. to get tenure. In spite of tenure pressure, if a junior faculty is putting a lot of effort in his/her teaching, as a student I cannot stop appreciating.

    There is a different between a normal student taking a professor’s course and his/her own Ph.D student — there is a little more to the relationship than just student-professor hierarchy. The additional dimension of culture and country also comes into picture, e.g, in our country a teacher is considered equivalent to God. If my advisor comes to his office to meet me on a Christmas day or New year eve, because I’m stuck with a problem, then he/she is doing more than their duty. In this case, it is important to send a thank you note complimenting their effort. I feel most Ph.D students know the boundary line and even if they do cross that occasionally, it may not be intentional, e.g., to get a favor.

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