Help! My students want to friend me! Boundaries, relationships and the “yuck” factor in professor—student interactions

The semester ended a week ago, with the usual flurry: exams, grading crunch, and anxious seniors making sure they passed my section of their capstone strategy course. But this semester, the end of the semester also brought something new: Facebook ‘friending’ requests from my soon-to-be ex-students. They want to keep in touch, they say, and Facebook (FB) has become the default mechanism to do so. I got friend requests this semester for the first time because I QUITE belatedly have created my own FB page. At the time of Facebook’s IPO, the site had about 845 million users. I was probably number 844,999,000 to sign up, just opening my page in January of this year. Getting on Facebook has been a true event for me, having easily resisted the pull of FB since its inception about eight years ago. Do I need another thing to do, really??

I am still leery of FB, being the “digital immigrant” (Prensky’s 2001 book) that I am. I get easily shocked by what others (theoretically my BFFs according to FB) post, but it is not only the content about which I am apprehensive but the people FB finds for me to friend. The handy algorithm has already suggested I friend some of my students, even prior to the semester ending. Would it ever be appropriate for me to send a friend request to a student? Under what circumstances? And conversely, what should faculty do when students, both prior and current, request to friend us? Personally, I have not ever friend-requested a student, but I have responded both positively and negatively to friend requests from students. While plenty of colleagues and (real) friends offer advice, I checked into the literature to see what might be out there informing this newest of boundary-blurring activities. What are the new frontiers of ethical behavior here?


FB represents an unprecedented toggle between public and private—our professional and personal roles. Back at the end of 2007, Sara Lipka wrote “The old guy in the corner at a college party can come off as creepy. The same goes for a faculty member on Facebook, the online hangout first populated by students.” Although recent FB user information notes that college age users (from 18-24) are now less than half of the membership, and the fastest growing demographic group is adults 30 and older, FB retains some of its identity origin from when it was first created and available only to select college students. The initial question of whether professors should join, however, was quickly dispensed with in favor of the current conversation: how to appropriately manage this new virtual relationship that we are able to craft with students. While I might view my friending as a hip new entrée into the social networking world, my students might think I am crashing their party. Just as in the real world, even if students invite me to join their group, they may regret it once the party activities just this side of verboten start!

FB presents multiple ethical issues between faculty and students. Since I started my own FB account in January and experienced some of FB’s unique student-instructor challenges, I have been periodically discussing these challenges with a variety of colleagues. Let’s talk about a few of those issues.




Meyers rightly cautions about navigating the line between ‘instructor’ and ‘buddy,’ and helps us see that boundaries facilitate learning. Is it appropriate pedagogical caring when professors let students drive their cars, or routinely use their homes as study halls? I see FB as an extension of boundary-setting in the real world. Boundary issues are by far the most prevalent in the few articles addressing instructor use of social networks with respect to students.


What seems clear among everything I have read is that students should be the ones making requests. Some researchers have surveyed students about appropriate and inappropriate instructor-to-student behaviors, and found that sending ‘pokes’ or FB nudges to say hello and engage, is considered the least appropriate faculty behavior.  The next least inappropriate behaviors included all the “comment” functions that FB provides: commenting on status, photos, links, etc. Students appear to want to keep those boundaries clear from instructor interaction. And, women were statistically significantly less likely to find professor—student interaction on FB as appropriate. Thus, with respect to boundary-crafting, we need to be cautious of intrusion in what Teclehaimanot and Hickman (link above) call “active” behaviors like commenting or sending pokes. There may be an implicit power-based threat for women, so navigating that line, particularly with male faculty and female students, will deserve extra attention and vetting, including backing off completely when requested.


Additional attention has been paid to the potential legal issues surrounding faculty—student social networking site (SNS) interactions from a boundary perspective. For example, Jones and colleagues note potential problems such as defamation, harassment, administration surveillance, and privacy breaches as serious issues. A few states, most recently Missouri, have tried to ban student—teacher friending, but those laws are coming under fire. Indeed, Missouri repealed its law only months after enacting it.


SNS has lots of dimensions to consider: who ‘owns’ the social space in which interactions take place? When is a posting free speech, and when is it defamation? When does protecting students become an inappropriate invasion of privacy? Many of the cases Jones notes seem to be occurring at an institutional, rather than individual, level. However, when students ‘evaluate’ a professor negatively on FB, or conversely, when a faculty member gripes about some student’s work on FB, the problems become very personal very quickly.


Roles & expectations


A key question we should ask ourselves is from what vantage point are students experiencing us when using FB? Who is the “who” that is responding in FB? When I’m using FB, I am firmly out of the real world realm. My FB friends are my real friends, many who hail from high school and undergrad days thanks to the relentless connective algorithm. When I do FB activities, my vantage point is “non-work Kathy” not “Dr. Kathy.” Roles and expected correlative behaviors can become muddled on FB and it’s smart to consider from what role we’re responding. For example, Karl and Peluchette studied what happens when instructors want to friend students (but sort of curiously, not the other way around..) and found that students reacted most negatively when professors of two certain types friend-requested them: their worst professor and new professors. Using descriptors, those researchers found that friend requests from the worst and new professors engendered suspicion more than irritation… and interesting finding that would mirror the real world. Why would students continue a relationship with professors they suspect of having some kind of ulterior motive in doing so? Get through the semester, and make a break for it! Ethically, we should be honest with ourselves about our motives for friending.


We serve in different roles for different students, and social networks may assist in maintaining those. Some roles may be circumscribed by larger institutional or even national culture. A Chinese colleague who works in China noted that student—teacher friending crosses a generally accepted cultural boundary, and that such a relationship is viewed as inappropriate role spanning. In that case, we would probably do well to defer to such norms even if we personally thought friending students was OK.


If we have students with whom we have crafted out-of –classroom relationships, such as with our research assistants, FB offers an avenue to continue some contact that would be mutually agreed upon. If we believe that faculty serve as resources for students in an on-going way (letters of recommendation, networking points, etc), a social network like LinkedIn could be appropriate. Some people maintain both professional and personal FB pages, which is also an option. The key seems to be to make sure students also view us in these mutually understood roles, and have these same expectations of an ongoing relationship.


Are we caring, or intruding, or…


Sometimes, FB may be the most effective and fastest way to get in touch with students who have otherwise disappeared. We may think we are caring about a student by tracking them down on FB and sending a note to see why they have not been in class. However, ‘poking’ was found to be a behavior students found, well, a bit yucky coming from faculty, recalling the creepy partygoer.


FB may be the new communication and relationship frontier, but curious ‘old school’ paradigms seem to remain. While virtually nudging students to get in touch with us is seen is unacceptable, calling their cell phones or sending them an email on their institutional account are viable and expected options. In particular, some of the retention literature in higher education highlights the personal touch that using phone calls can signal. Additionally, while students may not want to interact with us and have us comment on their photo albums on FB, I know of many colleagues who have continued a tradition of inviting international students over to their homes for American holidays, either because they would be alone and that’s a drag, or, to offer international students culturally significant learning experiences like having Thanksgiving dinner or decorating a Christmas tree. Perhaps it’s the longevity of this professor—student tradition that matters, or the transparency of the purpose for interacting? I don’t know.


Increasingly, institutions have policies about participating in SNS activities in general, and FB in particular. My soon-to-be former institution, Idaho State University, has this embedded in its overall Information Access policy statement: I will not publish or disclose any Confidential Information to others using personal email, or to any Internet sites, or through Internet blogs or sites such as Facebook or Twitter. I will only use such communication methods when explicitly authorized to do so in support of ISU business and within the permitted uses of Confidential Information as governed by regulations such as HIPAA. But, as I troll our web site, there are at least 15 groups, including the College of Business, that actively maintain FB pages and that actively encourage faculty participation. There is a FB group one may join called “Faculty Ethics on Facebook” that puts forth 12 principles about faculty activities there; most of these deal with respecting pretty traditional boundaries and keeping choices to participate or not firmly with students themselves. None of the principles seemed earthshattering to me, but what was more interesting was that the group has been going since 2007 but has only 15 current members. FB algorithms are very sophisticated—if people wanted to find this group, they could. I wonder why there aren’t more members that could inform real life practice that brings policies such as the one above to life. Which brings me to my closing thoughts….


Going back to the role distinctions, there are some really important implications there when we lose sight of the blurring of roles that FB can engender. I have heard episodically over the last couple of years of colleagues posting examples of student work that is very poor, ostensibly as a “Can you believe what this student turned in to me?” commiserating moment. Once I started my own page, I have seen some of these posts first-hand. I have without exception found this to be rude and juvenile—and singularly unfunny. When a friend of mine (real and FB friend) engaged in this, and I pressed her for an explanation of how that could be considered at all appropriate, she replied, “My privacy settings would prevent my students from seeing it and besides, we don’t run in the same circles.” Clearly, we are all not interpreting the space represented by FB in the same ways, despite well meaning (and legalistic CYA) policies. The above example seems like a no-brainer “never, ever do this” to me, but other faculty see FB space as their own, as a place in which to share exasperating examples of student experiences to get support or a laugh. They’re professors, but also people who want to share what can be a common instructor experience. I say: when a post is at someone else’s expense, don’t post it. From an ethics perspective, I know we get into trouble with absolutes, but here, I can absolutely say posting this kind of information on FB is troublingly unethical.


Brief resources


Here are a couple of FB resources about privacy settings that look promising and easy to understand (thank you to Lorraine Eden for these):  (YouTube video)  (easy to follow document)


I would also recommend a faculty brownbag on this topic to help articulate and share what your College’s norms about FB use are. Or, if you don’t have FB norms with respect to students, it may be a good opportunity to craft some. These ethical issues are growing in number and complexity, and more faculty transparency here is better than less!

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On a different note, this blog entry marks my last as a member of the Idaho State University College of Business. Beginning July 1, 2012, I will serve as the Board of Trustees Distinguished Chair of Leadership and Ethics at Gustavus Adolphus College, in Saint Peter MN. I look forward to the new adventure AFTER the moving trucks have brought our stuff to Minnesota!

Author: Kathy Lund Dean

I have been a member of the Academy for 15 years, and served in several governance roles including the Chair track for MSR. At Gustavus Adolphus College I hold the Board of Trustees Distinguished Chair in Leadership & Ethics. My family and I moved to St. Peter after 10 years in Pocatello, Idaho at Idaho State University.

2 thoughts on “Help! My students want to friend me! Boundaries, relationships and the “yuck” factor in professor—student interactions”

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