Professional Conduct

The following text was approved by the Faculty Council for distribution to the full Faculty, not as a codification of official institutional policy but as a "discussion document" to be used as a point of reference. An earlier version of this text was discussed at the Faculty Meeting of October 17, 1995.

The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. −Emerson

The importance of professional conduct within the academic community is self-evident, but what precisely is meant by the phrase is not. For "professional conduct" covers a multitude of situations. No single style or method of teaching guarantees it; a teacher may be appropriately professional whether meeting students at a café or in an office, whether by nature gregarious and sociable, or shy and reserved. Yet there are principles underlying the concept, that allow it to be honored when present and deplored when absent. In a university setting, professional conduct rests upon an enduring respect for fellow human beings and for the vocation of teaching, and a recognition that a teacher’s powers and responsibilities must not be abused. The basic principles may be easier to appreciate abstractly than to apply while teaching.

The list that follows is designed to bring these principles into focus as a basis for discussion among and between faculty, teaching fellows, and other instructional support staff.

Issues for Consideration


By virtue of their authority within the academic community, teachers have the power to influence thought and behavior, and the concomitant responsibility to recognize the potential weight of their verbal and nonverbal expressions. As leaders in the classroom, teachers have the responsibility not only to impart the excitement of ideas and the challenge of academic debate, but also the importance of courtesy and respect in intellectual dialogue.

Fair Treatment of All Students

Students should be treated even handedly. Equity is not necessarily achieved, however, by treating all students in precisely the same way. For example, some students respond positively to hearty, well-intoned criticism while others are discouraged by it. Some students welcome public comments about their work, while others are embarrassed by them. Genuinely even-handed treatment of students depends upon making a conscientious attempt to recognize and appreciate such differences. Teachers (and students) should guard particularly against ethnic, religious, sexual, and other discriminatory stereotyping.

Interpersonal Relations

The power teachers exercise over students to penalize or reward in the form of grades and recommendations requires caution in interpersonal interactions, and the need to avoid the kind of familiarity that compromises objective and fair evaluation of a student’s work. In particular, sexual advances towards or liaisons with one’s students are inappropriate. Within these limits, however, intellectual mentoring and friendly interaction are important elements of the learning and teaching process.

Clear Communication

Because the evaluation of students partly depends on their understanding of the requirements of a course, course heads should be clear in their articulation of expectations, assignments, and the rules of collaboration and citation. Providing written explanations of assignments and requirements reduces the risk of misunderstanding. Students have a right to expect prompt return of papers and exams and a clear justification of evaluation, just as instructors have the right to expect that assignments will be thoughtfully completed on time.

Classroom Engagement

The classroom is frequently the site of intense intellectual debate—or, alternatively, unbearable silence. Maintaining an environment for a constructive contest between ideas and their supporting evidence is primarily the responsibility of the teacher. Teachers should be aware of any tendency to favor one mode of argument over another, in which only certain students thrive; of the importance of listening attentively and with respect; and of the significance of nonverbal clues (nods, frowns, gestures, etc.).


Criticism of Work

Comments should be directed at the work, not the person; and they should contribute to the refinement of both thinking and presentation. Peremptory dismissiveness is not appropriate.


Professors are responsible for the oversight of all grades given by teaching fellows.

Letters of Recommendation

Students depend on instructors for letters of recommendation. Honesty and fairness in responding to requests for recommendations are essential.


Access to advising should be offered and equally afforded to all.

Confidentiality and Discretion

Teachers are privy to information (and opinions) about students that ought to remain confidential. Exceptions should be made only as necessary, e.g., in Title IX situations or emergencies such as threat of suicide or other harmful behavior, when confidentiality is secondary to a student’s welfare. Beyond such exceptions, talking with colleagues or other students about confidential student information is inappropriate, as is any form of public embarrassment or shaming of a student.

Confidentiality regarding Title IX *

As noted in the Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment Policy and Procedures for the FAS, “Consistent with University Policy, the FAS officers, other than those who are prohibited from making such notifications because of a legal confidentiality obligation, must promptly notify the relevant Title IX Coordinator(s) about possible sexual or gender-based harassment. This means that if those FAS officers learn about a possible incident of sexual or gender-based harassment, they need to contact an FAS Title IX Coordinator, who will know what steps, if any, to take next (including which other Title IX Coordinators should be notified). Such FAS officers include (but are not limited to): deans; administrative and professional staff; those responsible for residential life (for example, House Masters, Resident Deans, Resident Tutors, Resident Advisors); coaches and assistant coaches; other personnel who work directly with students, such as those who work with student clubs and organizations, career services, academic support, and others; and faculty, instructors, teaching assistants, and others who teach students, including graduate student teaching fellows.”

For more information, please see section V, “Information Sharing and Confidentiality,” in the Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment Policy and Procedures for the FAS.

* This section on confidentiality regarding Title IX, while not part of the original document approved by Faculty Council, is provided here to reflect the FAS’s current policies on sexual and gender-based harassment.

Collegial Conduct

Status differences exist within the teaching staff of every university. Awareness of the relative positions of colleagues in the academic hierarchy may avoid placing them in awkward or compromising situations. The implications of making particular requests of one’s juniors ought to be considered before making them; the right to refuse, for reasonable cause, without consequence, ought to be guaranteed every member of the community. Professional and research opportunities should be awarded with equity and fairness.

In addition to the Faculty Council’s text above, please note:

Interactions with Minors

Members of the Harvard community who interact with minors (i.e., individuals under the age of 18) in any official capacity are expected to foster and maintain an appropriate and secure environment for minors. Please see Harvard University’s "Policy for the Safety and Protection of Minors" for more information.

Other Sources of Information