Professor gratuities come under fire
Published: Tuesday, February 6, 2007
Updated: Sunday, February 22, 2009 10:02
Last month, the Student Government Association (SGA) raised a concern that has been causing controversy over recent weeks: the custom of paying gratuities to professors after lectures or tests.
Calling on concerns relating to economic imbalances, healthy student-professor relationships and the spirit of the Honor Code, independent SGA senator Hank Walterson '08 raised the issue at the beginning of Tuesday's meeting, sparking an intense debate on the propriety of tipping professors that was left unresolved due to time constraints.
Paying gratuities to professors is a quirk of Davidson culture that is uncommon and even prohibited in most other colleges and universities. Davidson students normally hand gratuities ranging from $1 to $5 to their professors while leaving class or use paperclips to attach cash to papers or tests.
According to Librarian Eldridge Lees '54, a specialist in Davidson College history, the practice of tipping professors began in the late 1970s, when the rising cost of living in Davidson and the surrounding communities began to outpace professors' annual salary increases.
"Most Davidson students seem to believe that the practice of tipping professors is an old tradition reflecting Davidson's southern heritage." said Lees. "However, it is actually a fairly new custom. When the tipping first began, the administration actively spoke out against it, and made moves to ban the practice. However, they soon discovered that the expectation of gratuities from students would allow them to pay professors below their market value, thus saving the college money for its athletic programs. Over time, the tipping of professors became part of the Davidson history, replete with its own lore."
Lees claimed that "the story that calling exams 'reviews' stemmed from professors' reviewing their tips from those tests is apocryphal."
Davidson students have varied views on the tipping culture at Davidson.
"I see no problem with students tipping their professors. It's an important part of Davidson's heritage," said Hannah Leven '08. "The professors all understand that students choose to give what they can afford and what they think the professors deserve, and I'm sure that the amount of tip doesn't affect any student's grade."
Leaven said she considers herself "very generous."
"I normally tip about $10 for a good lecture, $5 for a decent one and $3 for a boring one," Leaven said. "If it's a discussion-based class, I usually tip less because the professor has to do less."
Peter Cliss '07 agreed.
"It's a good incentive system for professors to come prepared with exciting and engaging lectures," he said.
Some students, including Walterson, believe introducing money cheapens student-professor relationships.
"As a freshman, I was extremely surprised to learn of the expectation of leaving tips for professors," said Walterson. "I was amazed and disgusted when my English professor brought out a glass bowl filled with cash and left it on the table for us so we could leave money. Not only is it inappropriate to bring money into the academic sphere, but this custom also highlights economic disparities among Davidson students who can afford to leave extravagant tips and those who cannot. Tipping professors is a relic of the old days of Davidson that should have been ended a long time ago."
Professors also have mixed feelings about the practice.
Sociology professor Jane Arbuckle has long been dismayed by the custom.
"The custom of tipping professors is not egalitarian, unscholarly and unfair," said Arbuckle. "While tenured professors are tipped an average of $8 per class per student, visiting professors are known to be completely stiffed. There are also huge disparities between departments. English professors get tipped a full 40 percent less than Economics professors. It's an outrage."
History professor Lyle Carmichael disagreed.
"Getting good tips is a great feeling and lets me know when I'm doing my job well," said Carmichael. "And when I have a huge stack of papers to grade, it makes it a lot more pleasant to have cash attached to the tops by paperclips with notes thanking me for grading the papers."