A conflict of interest arises when someone in a position of professional responsibility has a personal interest as well as a professional interest in the outcome of a decision-making process. For example, a teacher who is related to a student s/he is teaching will have both a professional interest and a personal interest in the progress of that student. Similarly, a faculty member who contributes to departmental decisions about student financial awards, and is also a close personal friend of one of the applicants, has a conflict of interest: both a professional interest in ensuring that fair judgments are made, and a personal interest in the welfare of a particular student affected by these judgments.
Conflicts of interest can result from all kinds of situations, and do not imply that anyone has done anything wrong. Nor do they imply that a person’s professional judgments will always be different from their personal ones. However, if someone does have a conflict of interest, it is reasonable to anticipate the possibility of unfairness: their professional judgment could potentially be affected by their personal interest, and this in turn gives rise to a concern about bias in their decision-making.
What does University of Toronto policy say about conflict of interest?
The University attaches paramount importance to honesty and fairness in the teaching and learning relationship. University policy emphasizes the need for the highest standards of probity and impartiality in grading and in academic matters. It applies to anyone who teaches or who makes academic decisions affecting students, including Teaching Assistants, and it places an obligation on them to disclose any conflicts of interest they have. This is so that the University can then “separate the interests”: in other words, make the necessary arrangements to safeguard the integrity of academic decision-making and to ensure that students are being treated equitably. In practice this will most often mean ensuring that academic decisions about a student are not left to the sole judgment of a teacher who has a personal interest: by assigning someone else to grade the student’s work, for example, or by placing the student into a different tutorial group.
What happens if a student and a teacher become sexually involved?
University policy does not prohibit sexual relations between consenting adults. However, if a student forms any kind of intimate personal relationship with someone who teaches them or otherwise makes academic decisions affecting them, that teacher has a conflict of interest. She or he should disclose the conflict of interest to their academic supervisor — usually the Chair of the department or the Dean of the faculty — and should ensure that the student’s work is graded by a colleague.
People sometimes feel awkward about disclosure: they don’t want people to find out about the relationship, or they don’t want the teaching relationship to be changed or interfered with in any way. However, the policy is there to protect the interests of both students and teachers, and not in order to pry into people’s private lives: it is concerned only with questions of professional integrity, and not with personal matters. When a faculty member discloses a conflict of interest, she or he is required to supply only as much information as is necessary to enable the Chair to make appropriate decisions about academic matters. The discussion need not go into the character of the personal relationship: it need only establish that a personal relationship exists, and that it thereby gives rise to a conflict of interest. The discussion is also a confidential one, and will not be relayed to other teachers or students. If a teacher does not disclose the conflict of interest, s/he is not simply in breach of University policy: s/he is showing a negligent disregard for the student’s academic interests, and placing the legitimacy of the student’s academic accomplishments in question.
What about sexual harassment?
While University policy does not prohibit or otherwise interfere in consenting sexual relations, it does explicitly proscribe any form of sexual harassment, or unwanted sexual attention. If a University member persists with unwelcome sexual overtures or invitations to another person, their conduct is not mere flirtation or courtship: it is sexual harassment. A student who is subject to such attention from a teacher is entitled to demand that it cease, and can make a formal complaint under the University’s Sexual Harassment policy. This policy also makes provision for alternative grading and academic decision-making, in order to protect students from the threat of academic reprisal.
Where can I go for further information?
In your Department:
- Graduate or Undergraduate Co-ordinator
In the University:
- Office of the Provost 416.978.3870
- Sexual Harassment Office 416.978.3908