Ethics problem

How to handle a gift that might look like a bribe?

Imagine you’re a public policy professor, and that you get a call from the international programs office at your school asking you to meet with an international visitor, someone with a professional interest in your policy area who is considering applying for the master’s degree program in your department. You agree to the meeting.

After forty minutes or so of conversation, partly about the policy area and partly about the young man’s chances of getting in to your program and what he could do to improve them, your visitor gets up to leave, reaches into the shopping bag you had noticed when he came into your office, and takes out a very handsome gift box. He modestly inquires whether you would feel comfortable accepting a gift, which turns out to be a quite spectacularly beautiful handmade decorative plate about 6″ in diameter, covered in what seems to be gold leaf. The retail value couldn’t well be less than $100, and might be substantially greater.

Your visitor explains that the spectacularly wealthy and politically prominent relative he has mentioned serveral times in the course of the interview is trying to promote craft exports from his country, and that the plate is a sample of that work. You know that gift-giving is an important part of the culture of the country your visitor comes from, and not unrelated to the corruption problem which has formed a significant element of the conversation just ending.

Here, I take it, are your options:

1. Say “Thank you” and accept the gift.

2. Say “Thank you,” accept the gift, and assume that you did so on behalf of your department, school, or university. That means that you tell your department chair, dean, or someone in the campus-wide administration about it, and ask them what they want to do with the item, but without making any further comment to the visitor.

3. Proceed as in (2), but have the chair, dean, or whoever write a nice thank-you letter acknowledging the gift on behalf of the department, school, or university.

4. Say “Thank you,” and explain that you’re accepting the gift on behalf of the department, school, or university.

5. Politely explain that, though you greatly appreciate your visitor’s generosity and the honor he extends you by offering such a very spectacular gift, you don’t think that you, as a potential contributor to the decision-making process, should accept it.

6. Say frostily that you can’t be bribed.

Presumably #1 and #6 are equally no good. Of the other options, #2 is most polite, but might convey to your visitor a false impression about what is, and is not, considered appropriate in U.S. culture. On the other hand, #5 teaches a valuable lesson, but at considerable risk (even if you’re more skilled at this than the average professor) of making your visitor feel extremely awkward, which isn’t a nice thing to do. Options #3 and #4 are intermediate.

I’d be interested to know how my readers would have handled this, and in particular whether someone has a seventh option I’ve somehow missed.

Update My friend the political reporter offers option #7: “Tell him the gift is chickenfeed.” My friend the lawyer offers a variation on that: specifying the minimum size of gift you would accept. My friend the philospher recommends inquiring politely as to when the rest of the place setting will be delivered.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: