Conflict of Interest and Close Personal Relations Protocols for Chairs and Academic Administrators

April 8, 2002

University of Toronto policy on Conflict of Interest addresses the matter of intimate relations between academic staff and their colleagues or their students in the section on activities requiring the prior written approval of the Chair of the department. Academic administrators are thus pivotal to the administration of this part of the policy, and to effective communication of the University’s expectations. These guidelines are intended to provide a framework for addressing situations that come to your attention.

The Purposes of the Conflict of Interest Policy

The Conflict of Interest policy safeguards the disinterested disposition of specific resources within the University; it also more generally safeguards the University’s reputation for fairness and meritorious decision-making; most importantly, it safeguards the entitlement of students and employees to equitable treatment. Academic conflicts of interest arise when anyone who is making decisions that affect the academic welfare of another person has a personal interest in that decision — for example, because they have a current or previous sexual or familial relation with that other person. Where a conflict of interest exists, it gives rise to a clear apprehension of bias, and it is that apprehension of bias, as much as any actual bias, that needs to be addressed.

Relations Between Faculty Members

Where a close personal relation exists or has existed between faculty members — where they are in a marital relation, for instance — there will be a conflict of interest in any circumstance where one of them is involved in making a decision that affects the academic prowess of the other. Examples of this include decisions about PTR or tenure. A conflict of interest will not arise simply because both faculty members are on a committee, or where they are otherwise each contributing to decisions that affect third parties.

Teacher-Student Relations

Any intimate relations between a teacher and a student s/he teaches will create a conflict of interest. A faculty member may genuinely believe that a personal relation with a student has not clouded her or his professional judgment of that student’s ability — this may, indeed, be manifestly true — but the appearance of bias will nonetheless persist, and any decisions the faculty member has made about that student will be open to question. The deleterious effects of this extend to the faculty member as much as to the student.

Policy Requirements

The relevant section of University policy states:

“Where the funds involved are administered by the University, the hiring, supervising, or evaluating of, purchasing from, selling to, engaging in any personal transaction with, or conferring or denying any financial or commercial benefit on any member of the faculty member’s immediate family or a person with whom there exists, or has recently existed, an intimate personal relationship; “the academic evaluation of, or the conferring or denying of any academic or administrative benefit on, any member of the faculty member’s immediate family or a person with whom there exists, or has recently existed, an intimate personal relationship.” [Policy on Conflict of Interest — Academic Staff]

Where a faculty member has, or has had, some kind of intimate personal relationship with a student in the department, she or he is in effect obliged under policy to seek your written approval before participating in any decisions affecting that student’s academic life. This includes grading, of course, but also extends to decisions about financial awards, about references — indeed, about anything that may be construed as a “benefit” to that student. A faculty member will be in conflict of interest if she or he exercises any influence — direct or indirect — in decisions which may affect the student. In other words, the faculty member will almost inevitably be in conflict of interest and must declare this conflict to you. Your discussions are confidential, and the faculty member is not required to apprise you of any details of the personal relation in question; nor should you seek them elsewhere.

A faculty member who has a close personal relation with another faculty member is likewise required to disclose this to you before making or participating in any University-related decisions that affect the other faculty member.

The requirement of University policy is for prior disclosure to the Chair of any circumstance in which a faculty member’s professional judgment may be called into question because there is a conflict of interest. The policy is silent on the question of what action you should then take; situations vary considerably, and the decision about how best to address each conflict of interest is left to your discretion. These protocols are intended to offer you a guide in making such decisions.

Separation of Interests

In effect, conflicts of interest are resolved by effecting a “separation of the interests,” such that any person who has a personal interest in the outcome of a decision is relieved of her or his professional responsibility for that decision. That professional responsibility is then assumed by a disinterested third party. Where decisions are being made by a committee, a faculty member with a conflict of interest can simply remove herself or himself from the committee.

In the academic environment, however, complete separation of interests is often simply impractical: members of a department make decisions on a collegial basis, through discussion and over time, rather than at discrete points, and removing a faculty member from any discussions concerning the evaluation of a student, in particular, may have adverse impacts on that student, especially at the graduate level. Often a specific faculty member may be the only academic in the department who is fully competent to assess a student’s intellectual prowess. Your decision about how to resolve a conflict of interest should thus be informed by the following considerations:

  • The integrity and legitimacy of academic decisions concerning a student must be manifest;
  • The integrity and impartiality of academic and employment decisions about faculty members must likewise be incontrovertible;
  • Academic evaluations of students must be conducted by members of the academic staff who are conversant with the relevant research and who are at the same time not vulnerable to charges of personal bias;
  • Academic and professional evaluations of faculty members must be conducted by members of the academic staff who are familiar with the faculty member’s work and qualified to assess it and who at the same time are not in a conflict of interest;
  • Any conflict of interest should be dealt with in a manner which occasions least adverse effect on students and faculty members;
  • Where an academic decision has been made by a person who has a conflict of interest, that decision must be formally reviewed by a person who has the authority to change it. Under the Code of Behaviour on Academic Matters, it is an offense for a faculty member “to evaluate academic work by a student by reference to any criterion that does not relate to its merit, to the time within which it is to be submitted or to the manner in which it is to be performed.”

Disclosure of a Conflict of Interest

You should remind faculty members and students about the requirement to disclose conflicts of interest on a regular basis. You should also make it clear that University policy requires only that the fact of a conflict of interest be disclosed: there is no need for faculty members to provide any details about the personal relation in question, and the disclosure itself is confidential. When a faculty member does discuss a conflict of interest with you, you must refrain from questioning her or him about personal matters, or from discussing the matter with others. You should document the discussion, but your record will be of the disclosure of a conflict of interest, and of the steps you took to address the matter.

Undeclared Conflicts of Interest

The University’s Conflict of Interest policy is not punitive in character: it depends on voluntary disclosure and is informed by a spirit of collegial co-operation. However, if you do learn about a faculty member’s conflict of interest indirectly rather than directly, you will need to take appropriate remedial action. These situations are again various; the character and origin of your information will be more or less reliable, and you may not learn of an issue until long after the fact.

You must discourage people — faculty and students alike — from providing you with information “in confidence.” If you learn about a serious violation of University policy, you cannot honour such confidences; nor can you make any kind of employment-related decision based on allegations which have not at minimum been disclosed to the person named in them.

Where you do receive information suggesting that a member of the department has an undisclosed conflict of interest, you should in the first instance discuss the matter with that person and attempt to resolve it. You will not be seeking information beyond what you need in order to resolve the conflict, and you should explain this at the outset of any discussion. You should then take whatever steps you deem necessary to separate the interests and to ensure that academic decisions are being reached by disinterested decision-makers.

Complaints of Sexual Harassment

In some cases you will hear about alleged conflicts of interest in your department in the context of a broader allegation of sexual harassment. A student may report to you that she or he became intimately involved with a member of the academic staff; that this intimacy has now come to an end; and that she or he views the situation as one of sexual duress.

This can present fairly complex issues of interpretation. The University does not seek to regulate consenting sexual relations, as such, but only the conflicts of interest that may arise from them. Further, a person cannot retroactively withdraw their consent to sexual activity. Prima facie, a student’s complaint about coercion in the context of a sexual relation to which the student (at the time) consented, is no business of the University’s.

The notion of “consent,” however, is a creature of the criminal law of sexual assault; sexual harassment law focuses on the question of whether sexual conduct is “welcome”; and a person can — under duress — consent to conduct that is unwelcome. Recent court rulings have established that a sexual relationship between consenting adults may constitute sexual harassment where one of the individuals involved exercised authority over the other, and teachers who become sexually involved with students thus leave themselves open to allegations of sexual harassment.

If a student comes forward with a complaint of sexual harassment, she or he should be referred to the University’s Sexual Harassment Office. There may remain some issues of conflict of interest for you to deal with, and indeed if the student makes a formal complaint of sexual harassment under University policy that may in itself give rise to a conflict of interest: where the respondent in such a complaint has any responsibility for grading the student’s work, the Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment requires that alternative grading arrangements be made. In such a case, the Sexual Harassment Officer will consult with you in order to resolve the conflict of interest.

Communicating Policy Requirements

With any University policy, prior communication and prevention are the hallmark of our approach to implementation. You should remind academic staff in your department about the requirements of the Conflict of Interest policy at the beginning of each academic year, and you should in particular ensure that new faculty members and new teaching assistants are informed of it. You should also ensure that students are familiar with the provisions of the policy, along with the University resources available to them.