Avoiding Conflict of Interest

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Below are some of the important policies, guidelines, and resources that govern student behaviour and academic conduct at the University of Toronto, as well as the professional conduct of all instructors, teaching assistants and faculty members in relation to avoiding conflict of interest.

A friend of mine enrolled in a course which I am teaching. Can she join the tutorial that I am teaching?

I’ve hit it off with one of my students. There are still two months to go in the term. Is it OK to start a relationship?

I’m tutoring for money a student who is enrolled in the course in which I work as a TA. Am I allowed to do this?

RELEVANT UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO POLICIES & OFFICES

GENERAL POLICIES, PROCEDURES & GUIDELINES

The Provost’s statement on Conflict of Interest and Close Personal Relations addresses situations like these. This memorandum outlines the obligations placed on faculty members under University of Toronto policy on Conflict of Interest. 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.

Any close personal relationship with a student whose work you’re responsible for assessing – whether they are a family member, a friend, a colleague, or a romantic or sexual partner – creates a conflict of interest. As a TA, you are bound to immediately disclose such conflicts of interest to the Course Instructor or supervisor. Furthermore, you cannot be responsible for any part of the student’s grade: all grading of this individual’s work must be transferred to another TA or to the Course Instructor. And so, if you become involved with a student in your tutorial, you have to disclose this information to the course instructor as you cannot be marking the student’s work (including assignments, tests or tutorial participation).

DISCLOSING CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

If you become involved in a romantic relationship with a student or notice that a student in your class/tutorial is a colleague, friend or family member, do not hide this information. Make sure to disclose this information immediately to the Course Instructor. In disclosing it to the Course Instructor, you do not need to feel ashamed or compelled to share significant personal details. The Provost’s statement stresses that there is “no automatic opprobrium” (i.e., very strong disapproval) associated with a conflict of interest. Nor does university policy prohibit sexual relations between consenting adults. 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.

TUTORING FOR MONEY

The University of Toronto doesn’t prohibit students from tutoring students for money. However, you are not permitted to tutor for money students who are in the course in which you work as a Teaching Assistant as this constitutes a conflict of interest.

SEXUAL VIOLENCE

It is also important to recognize that a close relationship with one student has the potential to disrupt the classroom dynamic or create an imbalance in your interactions with other students. As a TA, your relationship to your students is above all a professional one, and you should strive to keep your conduct beyond reproach. Also, as the Provost’s statement points out, becoming romantically or sexually involved with a student can leave you open to allegations of sexual harassment and sexual violence. TAs have authority over students, and thus any intimate overture can readily be interpreted as coercive. You should give careful consideration to your physical conduct with students. Many of us touch one another in conversation, or greet friends and colleagues with a hug. This is fine when the recipient is familiar to us and we are peers, but it may not be fine with your students. Because of the possible overtones of such gestures, you should ask yourself how they might be understood. Is my conduct welcome to this student? How do I know?

Sexual violence is defined as “any sexual act or act targeting a person’s sexuality, gender identity or gender expression, whether the act is physical or psychological in nature, that is committed, threatened or attempted against a person without the person’s consent”. A defining feature of sexual violence is the absence of consent. This means that the behaviour has not been discussed or agreed to by all parties, and that there is at least one person in the situation who has not said yes, either verbally or through physical gestures and behaviour, to the act in question.

If you or your students have experienced (or are experiencing) sexual violence, you can reach out to the Tri-Campus Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre to disclose or report sexual violence.

For more information and training, please review the University’s Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment as well as the various safety programs and resources. For further advice and support, please contact the Tri-Campus Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre. You can complete online sexual violence education and prevention (SVEP) training or explore a variety of programming offered through the Centre.