To ensure the integrity of our degrees, the Faculty of Graduate Studies endeavors to avoid bias and the perception of bias in student-faculty and student-student relations, and in supervisory and examining committees.
It is far easier to envisage situations in which conflicts of interest might arise than to legislate against them, but the principles we use are clear:
Declaration: Any possible conflict of interest should be declared to the Graduate Program Director who should consult the appropriate Associate Dean in the Faculty of Graduate Studies.
Transparency: Everyone involved should understand the potential for conflict of interest from the beginning.
Independent Academic Decision-Making: Everything should be done to ensure that academic decisions are reached independently and objectively.
Conflict of interest might occur between a student and a faculty member or between two graduate students when personal, financial and/or academic relations exist like: tenant-landlord, employer-employee, husband-wife, and instructor-student where both parties are graduate students in the same program and level. For example, graduate students are not permitted to evaluate other graduate students who are registered in the same program for the same degree. Therefore, in the exceptional case where a student is a Teaching Assistant (TA) in a course that has a student from the same program and degree level, then the TA should not be allowed to grade or in any fashion evaluate that student.
Conflict of interest might occur amongst members of a supervisory committee that, for example, includes: a husband and wife; research collaborators who share a grant or a company; or a Department Head and an Assistant Professor in the same department. In these cases, both parties could provide a student with academic advice without invoking fear of conflict of interest. However, when difficult academic decisions must be made, e.g., examination failure or continuation in a program, it is easier to see potential for conflict of interest. Would a husband vote to fail the student his wife supervises when "successful" supervision translates into career progress, merit increments, etc? Would a research partner fail a student if that might impact grant renewal? Would a junior faculty member fail the Department Head's student when this might impact contract renewal, tenure recommendation and merit increments? In each such case, it is not just a question of whether there would be bias; it is the perception of bias that in fact may be more problematic.
To determine a potential conflict of interest, it is useful to ask, for example, "If the student fails an examination and appeals on the grounds of conflict of interest is there a prima facie case to answer?" or "If the student passes an examination and a faculty member complains about conflict of interest is there a prima facie case to answer?"
The potential for conflict of interest is difficult to avoid and there will always be gray areas. However, to avoid the perception of bias and strengthen the independence of the assessment of a student's program, the Faculty of Graduate Studies recommends:
1. Declaration and Transparency
Everyone involved should make sure that they understand the potential for conflict of interest and take appropriate measures to avoid it. For example, when a serious conflict of interest occurs within a supervisory or examining committee, changes to the composition on the committee should be made to avoid it. If it is felt that the benefits of the proposed committee membership will outweigh the potential for problems, all involved, including the student and the Faculty of Graduate Studies should be made aware of the potential complications.
2. Independent Procedures
Examination procedures should be made more visibly independent and objective by having a strong and independent external examiner for each examination.
Approved by Faculty of Graduate Studies Council: March 4, 2010