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Policy bans profs from teaching relatives

Davis Rhorer, Jr. | Monday, February 18, 2008

Besides major and class restrictions, students registering for classes this fall will also have to consider blood ties to the instructor, as a new policy prohibits students and professors who are related from being in the same classroom.

In a letter to University faculty and staff members, the Office of the Provost announced last month a policy that will go into effect beginning with the 2008-09 academic year prohibiting professors from teaching relatives.

“We think its better not to put faculty in that position,” Vice President and Associate Provost Donald Pope-Davis said last week.

Pope-Davis referred to the “perception of bias” that might come up among students in a classroom if they knew their professor was teaching a direct relative.

The new policy is part of the complete re-evaluation of academic policies the University’s Academic Council conducts every 10 years. Pope-Davis referred to the review as a chance to “update with the times.”

While he said no particular incident triggered the new policy, Pope-Davis referred to the change as “proactive,” common among other universities and the product of a council of Notre Dame faculty members.

The new policy will affect several students. In one case in the fall 2007 semester, entrepreneurship professor Gerald Frieling had his grandson, senior Grant Frieling, as a student in one of his classes.

“It was obviously different than a normal class,” Grant Frieling said.

As an entrepreneurship major, Frieling was required to take his grandfather’s course to get the degree. He said that before the semester began, he and his grandfather decided to keep a strictly professor-student rapport in class.

“I was more attentive,” Grant Frieling said. “I didn’t want to go through the motions.”

Professor Martine DeRidder, who teaches an introductory public policy course, had to make a decision about how to handle her relationship with her daughter, who is currently taking her class.

On the first day of school, DeRidder introduced her daughter to the rest of the class to avoid any misunderstandings.

“I thought that was important. I didn’t want people to think I was playing favorites,” DeRidder said.

She said that when she started working at Notre Dame, she asked about the University’s policy regarding professors teaching their own children – a policy she said is good to have to avoid problems.

But it is also important schools remain flexible in certain cases, she said.

“The policy shouldn’t be you can’t [teach relatives],” she said. “You should do it only if there is no other way.”

While Pope-Davis emphasized the practice of rotating professors in and out of courses – in such a way that it wouldn’t be difficult to maneuver around a relative – he said that under “extraordinary circumstances” a student could apply for an exception to the rule.

“The student must have a compelling set of reasons. He can’t wait until senior year,” Pope-Davis said, meaning that students should appropriately plan their schedules with enough time to avoid such conflicts.

But Grant Frieling said that rather than a conflict of interests, his experience in his grandfather’s class was enjoyable.

“If you can learn a lot, I don’t think it matters that it’s a family member [teaching the course],” he said. “We’re here to be educated and to learn so if we can get something out of a class, we should.”

The new policy will apply to professors and teaching assistants alike.