The Ethical Professor

Thinking well and doing good in academia.

The Case of the Suspect Sale to Students

This dilemma helps us explore professor-student boundaries

[This post was co-written by my colleague Sharon K. Anderson, who is a professor at Colorado State University and writes the Ethical Therapist blog.]

Here’s a case to ponder:

Chester Drawes is a professor of psychology. He has some old bedroom, kitchen, and living room furniture to sell.  He’s told his colleagues on the faculty about it.  But now he wonders, “Is it OK to advertise to students?  Would there be a conflict of interest, a boundary violation, or a multiple relationship?”  His immediate intuition (Kitchener & Anderson, 2011) tells him that it’s not a good idea to sell his furniture to students.  As a therapist he would never dream of saying to a client, “I have an old bed for sale—maybe you’d like it?”  But the boundaries between students and teachers are more fluid, and he wants to do some thinking about it—what’s his problem with it?  What are the elements of his choice making (Anderson, Wagoner, & Moore, 2006), and under what conditions might such a sale to students be OK?

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Think a bit about the questions Dr. Drawes has asked.  Then read on and see if we’ve covered what you’ve thought of.

Here are some of the factors that Dr. Drawes considers (in no particular order):

The level of students. Would it make a difference if he were advertising to graduate vs. undergraduate students?

The level of interaction with students. What’s the likelihood that Dr. Drawes would have students in courses?  In terms of sexual interactions, the APA (2010) Ethics Code says that you cannot have sexual relationships with students in your department, agency, or training center.  But in terms of selling furniture or other good, would it matter if the students were in the Psychology Department or in other departments?  What if he were just to sell to non-psychology students?  On the other hand, would it be unfair to say, “I’m not going to sell to you because I know you?”

The culture of the institution. Does the college have a tradition of such teacher-student interactions?  In some large universities there are notices of sales up all the time, and the likelihood of a psychology student even seeing the notice, let alone pursuing a purchase, is pretty low.  At some small colleges there’s lots of non-academic teacher-student interactions, such as students going over to professors’ houses for dinner. 

In addition to Dr. Drawes considering the culture of the institution, he’s also going to consider:

His own culture of origin.  Dr. Drawes has learned (Anderson & Handelsman, 2010) to explore his own ethical culture to see how that might be influencing his decisions.  He remembers that when he was growing up people in his neighborhood had garage sales all the time, and he remembers buying his first college furniture from his own dentist.  He got a lot of cavities in college, but that’s another story.  In college, though, he remembers always calling his professors by their last names (to their faces), and the relationships were pretty formal.

His own professional identity. Dr. Drawes has taken some time to think about how this possible action fits with who he is at his core (Anderson, 2013), how he sees himself as a professor. Does extending this type of boundary in a professional relationship fit with the integration of his highest professional and personal ethics and values? (Anderson & Handelsman, 2010; Handelsman, Knapp, & Gottlieb, 2009)  How would selling furniture to students change how they see him? Would they see him as more ethical or cheapening his ethics?

The nature of the sale and the advertisement.  Related to the last issue:  Would Dr. Drawes put a notice up in the Psychology Department?  Elsewhere on campus?  Just Craig’s List?  Would he have a garage sale?

The value of the furniture.  If he’s charging a lot of money, the advertising might appear (or be) exploitative and constitute a conflict of interest.  But students can always use cheap furniture, so if he weren’t charging that much he might be doing a service to students.

The nature of the furniture.  Is it a little creepy for Dr. Dawes to sell his bedroom set to a student?  Does it make a difference?

Possible bad outcomes.  It’s good to take a positive approach to ethical decisions (Handelsman et al., 2009), but you still have to look at what might go wrong.  If the student is dissatisfied with the purchase, does Dr. Dawes really want the hassle?  To the extent that he has other relationships with the student, the problems may expand exponentially and the deliberations about some of the previous issues changes. 

Perceptions of favoritism. Dr. Drawes does not want students in his class to say, “What does a student have to buy from this guy to get an A?”  (Let alone, “Why did Drawes give his bed to her?”)  This consideration runs directly counter to Dr. Drawes natural inclination to offer the furniture to his lab assistants or his best students.

What else can you think of?

References

American Psychological Association. (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/index.aspx.

Anderson, S. K. (2013, August). Utilizing ethics autobiographies and narratives to foster professional ethical identities. In E.Welfel (Chair), Making graduate and continuing ethics training, engaging, relevant, and inspiring. Symposium conducted at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Honolulu, HI, August 2013.

Anderson, S. K., & Handelsman, M. M. (2010). Ethics for psychotherapists and counselors: A proactive approach. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.

Anderson, S. K., Wagoner, H. & Moore, G. K. (2006). Ethical choice: An outcome of being, blending, and doing. In P. Williams & S. K. Anderson (Eds.), Law and ethics in coaching: How to solve and avoid difficult problems in your practice (pp. 39–61). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Handelsman, M. M., Knapp, S., & Gottlieb, M. C. (2009). Positive ethics: Themes and variations. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (2nd ed., pp. 105–113). New York: Oxford University Press.

Kitchener, K. S., & Anderson, S. K. (2011). Foundations of Ethical Practice, Research, and Teaching in Psychology and Counseling (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

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Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).  He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2013 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

Mitchell M. Handelsman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and a Colorado University President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver.

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