Conflict of Interest and Close Personal Relations

This memorandum outlines the obligations placed on faculty members under the University of Toronto Policy on Conflict of Interest. In particular, it discusses the implications of University policy for sexual and otherwise intimate relations between faculty members and their students or colleagues.

A conflict of interest arises when your personal interests conflict with your responsibilities to the University. In particular, if you are charged with making or participating in decisions as part of your professional undertakings, and you have any personal interest in the outcome of those decisions, you will be in a conflict of interest. For example, if either you or someone with whom you have a close personal relation stands to gain — financially or academically — as a result of a decision to which you are contributing, you have a conflict of interest.

University of Toronto Policy

The Policy on Conflict of Interest safeguards the disinterested disposition of specific resources within the University; it also safeguards the University’s reputation for fairness and meritorious decision-making; most importantly, it safeguards the entitlement of students and employees to equitable treatment.

If you are in a conflict of interest, you are required to disclose this to your Chair before you make any material professional decisions. The following activities undertaken by a faculty member require the prior written approval of the Chair of the department:

“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]

The requirement of University policy is for prior disclosure to the Chair of any circumstance in which your professional judgment may be called into question because there is a conflict of interest. The existence of a conflict of interest does not inevitably lead to professional bias; it does inevitably give rise to apprehensions of bias. Any professional judgment exercised by a faculty member who has a conflict of interest may be impugned and, indeed, overturned, on the basis of such apprehension.

Close Personal Relations With Colleagues

Where you have, or have recently had, a close personal relation with a colleague who is your peer — where, for example, you and a faculty colleague are in a conjugal relation — you will be in a conflict of interest in any circumstance where you are involved in making a decision that affects the academic prowess of your colleague. Examples of this include decisions about PTR or tenure. A conflict of interest will not arise simply because both of you are on a committee, or where you are each contributing to discussions about third parties.

Where you have a close personal relation with a junior colleague, or with a member of the administrative staff, you will be in a conflict of interest whenever you are involved in decisions that affect the professional welfare of your colleague.

Close Personal Relations With Students

If you have, or have had, a familial, sexual, or otherwise close relationship with a student, you will be in conflict of interest if you exercise any influence — direct or indirect — in decisions that may affect the student. In other words, you will almost inevitably be in a conflict of interest.

Sexual Harassment

You should also be aware that if you become romantically or sexually involved with a student or a subordinate, you leave yourself open to allegations of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is defined in law and in University policy as sexual attention which 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 where that person’s conduct — although consented to — was “unwelcome” to the other.

Disclosing Conflicts of Interest

If you are in a conflict of interest, you must disclose this to the Chair of your department immediately. You are not required to provide any details of the personal relation that gives rise to the conflict of interest; you need not answer questions about it, and you are entitled to confidentiality. It is the responsibility of your Chair to take appropriate steps to “separate the interests”: to relieve you of your professional duties in respect of a person in relation to whom you have a conflict of interest, for example, or to ensure third-party oversight of any decisions you make. These steps are taken in order to safeguard the interests of your student or colleague, but also to protect you from unfair imputations about your professional judgment.

Supervising Teaching Assistants & Research Assistants

If you supervise TAs or RAs, you are responsible for ensuring that they know about and comply with the requirements of the Policy on Conflict of Interest. TAs, in particular, are often unmindful of their professional role in relation to the undergraduates they teach, and are unaware of relevant employment policies. You should discuss the issue of conflict of interest with them before the start of the academic term; you should emphasize that disclosures will be confidential, and explain clearly that you will not seek information from them or from their students about personal matters. You can also assure them there is no automatic opprobrium attached to conflicts of interest. Where you do learn that a TA or an RA whom you supervise is in a conflict of interest vis à vis a student, you should transfer the responsibility for academic decisions about that student to another TA, or assume it yourself.