January 03, 2004

The Pursuit of (Carnal) Knowledge

Whether or not it's smart, plenty of professors I know, male and female, have hooked up with students, for shorter and longer durations. (Female professors do it less, and rarely with undergrads.) Some act well, some are assholes, and it would definitely behoove our students to learn the identifying marks of the latter breed early on, because post-collegiate life is full of them too.

-- Laura Kipnis, "Off Limits"

I have to say, I'm not much persuaded by the above line of reasoning in support of faculty-student "hook-ups." Sure, students will encounter any number of bad actors and sharp dealers in any number of arenas as they make their way through the big wide world beyond the gates of the Tower. But that hardly seems a good enough reason for college faculty to offer advanced practicums in unsavory and unethical behaviour.

Anyway, it's scarcely an adequate response to one of the main concerns underlying the move to implement policies regulating faculty-student relations: namely, the concern with professional standards in the treatment and evaluation of students (grades, letters of recommendation, and so on).

Now, Kipnis does realize that this is one of the issues at stake, for she notes that the University of California's recent ban applies to professors and "any students they may 'reasonably expect' to have future academic responsibility for." But rather than treat this as a serious issue worthy of discussion and debate, she chooses to frame the issue as one of protectionism versus free trade in the marketplace of sexual desire: a grim and humourless regime of regulation and prohibition ruled by earnest do-gooders from the caring professions ("David, an earnest mid-50ish psychologist, and Beth, an earnest young woman with a masters in social works") versus a knowing and ironic openness to the messy complexities of experience fostered by those on the artier side of the academic spectrum (Kipnis herself, of course, along with, for example, the unnamed gay male theatre professor who resists the tidy reductionism of the sexual harrassment workshop).

When faced with a choice between the holier-than-thou or the hipper-than-thou, I need to believe there's another available option. Not that I am prepared to suggest a third way: as I've said before, I really am of two minds on this issue. While I can certainly see the problems with regulation, I think the predictable reaction against the puritanical elements of these new codes goes too far in the other direction, romanticizing the halycon days of unfettered sexual liasions.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at January 3, 2004 06:27 PM

I wonder just how many of these codes were run by the students before implmentation (although I'm sure every one of these was run by a panel of lawyers experienced in cases of sexual harassment). These universities are showing clear cases of CYA. There is no possible justification for this sort of meddling in someone's personal affairs by an employer (not counting military codes of ethics). If I meet someone around town and ask her out, I should not be liable to lose my job if I later find out she is a student where I'm working. Indeed, even if I meet her on campus, under the assumption that I am not violating professional standards for research and teaching, I should be free to conduct myself as I see fit. I am a human being, and I have the right to tell the university to bugger off when it intrudes into non-job-related parts of my life. The university may only be involved if I fail to keep my personal and my professional life separate to an extent that it damages the performance of my job.

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at January 3, 2004 08:09 PM

I'm inclined to agree with IA on this, but to disagree with AM. Faculty members should always remember that her or his employer is who attracted the student into the academic community they share in the first place. That means that the employer has a vital interest in the kinds of relationships employees and students have. I've known instances when faculty affairs with, even undergraduate, students have become mature relationships, even marriages, but the whole enterprize is highly problemmatic. I understand the problems with codifying human behavior, but the risks are so great to all parties that I see nothing to recommend student/ faculty affairs.

Posted by: Ralph E. Luker at January 4, 2004 12:00 AM

I guess the real question is whether or not the professors will treat the students they date any better than they treat the adjuncts or the graduate students.

In some cases, that means full disclosure, ethical and non-manipulative encounters. In some cases not.

However, in most business situations, if you were to insist that you had a right to date the customers, they would fire you without a second thought.

Which illustrates one significant difference in the academic mind-set -- who really thinks of students as customers?

Good, bad or just different? I'm not sure, but it produces some interesting mind-sets.

Also, what is a "student?" Are we talking the 50 year old law professor caught groping a twentysomething who was passed out from drinking or two kids in their late twenties, one an adjunct and one a mature grad student.

Lots of questions from me, no answers.

Posted by: Steve at January 4, 2004 12:47 AM

"I guess the real question is whether or not the professors will treat the students they date any better than they treat the adjuncts or the graduate students."

Why? Shouldnt it be if they treated the students they date any differently from students they dont date? How does this relate to adjuncts?

One interesting question is how do departments handle the kids of current faculty if they are students in the same department? I mean if we are concern about unfairness and bias comming out of a relationship between faculty and students, how about parent-child relationships? Some of the same problems apply.
The kids of professors I know of solve this problem by either not choosing to major in the same field as their dads (most profs I know are male) or simply attend another school.
If regulations for faculty-child relationships and faculty-student romance relationships differ too much doesnt seem very fair.

Posted by: Passing_through at January 4, 2004 02:22 AM

"I guess the real question is whether or not the professors will treat the students they date any better than they treat the adjuncts or the graduate students."

Err, I was trying for a bit of irony there, given the general topic of this blog.

Yes, there are a lot of faculty-child issues, as well as faculty-spouse issues (I've an aunt and a grandmother who both got their PhDs from institutions where their husbands worked. Not that the scholarship was bad ...) and I had a friend who dropped out of Econ (she already was an M.D./PhD but was interested in her husband's field) because every time she made a comment or asked a question people saw it as a pronouncement of her husband's.

Well, guess I should have known better than to push for humor.

The real problem is that in some cases you have predatory faculty. I'm especially thinking of 50+ year old profs and eighteen year old freshman students.

That bleeds over into rules that afflict (afflict, not affect) the twenty-two year old adjunct and the twenty-three year old they want to date.

The constant stream of abuse and manipulation, misc. suicides and drop-outs (probably not more than one every couple of years, but enough to sear them into institutional memory at large schools) can lead to protocols and rules that burden everyone.

But still.

The students are customers. No where else would employees feel that they had the right to date the customers (outside of topless bars).

The real issue is the manipulation and abuse of students from graduate students down to the freshmen and the fiduciary duty owed by the institution and the school.

You don't see that sort of overreaching outside of universities, at least not without repercusions.

The rules aren't much different from rules against dating the interns at a job site, or not dating co-workers or subordinates. Or patients or clients (for doctors and lawyers).

Except that in an academic setting the rules are a good deal looser (no one is saying faculty can't date each other).

Well, I've posted more than enough on this subject. Heck, I could start my own blog with this many posts.

Posted by: Steve at January 4, 2004 09:51 AM

Quoting from another blog:

Student-Faculty Relationships
Amanda Butler at 11:54 AM

(caveat: take what follows with a grain of salt. This is the gospel truth about a certain prestigious midwestern university's English Department, as revealed to me by a gossipy, disgruntled grad student in the program. I feel relatively sure that if you found that student, or a similar one, and pressured him or her for information, possibly with a few free drinks, you'd get this story confirmed).

At one point not too long ago, there were eleven people (grad students and faculty) involved in relationships with each other. It may not have been a great status quo, but it worked until one night when some member of the department sent out a drunken email to all grad students and profs listing those eleven names, but not naming the pairings. The situation demanded an official response (why, I don't know). Now, if a grad student and a professor in that department wish to sleep with each other, they have to tell the chair of their intent to do so.

Not all departments on campus have such rules. I've heard Anthropology has no restrictions, far more relationships, and manages them just fine.

(gossip over for the day. I still don't understand why my disgruntled grad student source of rumors, who had dreams of publishing a book of sarcastic caricatures of many of the department's best known professors present and past, kept asking me why I didn't plan to attend English grad school. Insufficiently neurotic?)


more ...

But, as you can see from the good confessor's response, it's an overstatement to say that this professor "took advantage of," or "had" this student as she "is in full possession of herself" as many people in sexual relationships that have a power component are. Yes, it is possible to have sex with a professor without being coerced and public universities should by no means ban consensual sex outright.

However, a professor or anyone on the power end of one of these relationships should be required to walk a thin line. Ethical codes of any university should have provisions that if there are complaints from lovers/harassees, the professor faces consequences. This would hopefully not interfere with those truly consensual instances (unless a jilted lover decides to seek revenge in a nasty way-- but even then, a professor should be aware of this possibility and swim at his own risk) and would serve to deter and punish those professors with more sordid, coercive agenda.

A group of students and I spoke about this with a professor once and he was of the opinion that undergrads are strictly off-limits and sex with grad students is more acceptable, but professor beware! Although the undergrad-grad line is a somewhat arbitrary distinction, it might be a good guideline for professors to follow if they just can't stay away from students (which is what I recommend).

In class, especially my first classes with a professor, I prefer him to call me Miss and I to call him Dr. I have no problem with friendship that develops between professors and students. Some of my greatest experiences in college were the results of friendships with professors. But move beyond friendship, and that's a recipe for disaster.


There is a lot of humor, some of it aimed at both sides, currently on the site.

Obviously I don't have enough background to have the final say or even make serious conclusions, just to raise and ask questions.

Posted by: Steve at January 4, 2004 10:08 AM

More ...

The Student Body
Will Baude at 06:09 PM

"Yes the winters are bad, but the students are friendly."

An interesting Slate article on teacher-student relationships. As I write this, I have several friends who are currently sleeping with professors-- some in their departments and some out-- and having a variety of reactions. My own sense had always been that this was the sort of thing that ought to be tactitly permitted except when it ran the serious risk of mucking up jobs and learning. In other words, I was sort of generically middle-of-the-road.

But the article has made me wonder whether a little more action isn't in order. This wouldn't be action of the current zero-tolerance or grudging-tolerance variety, but rather some actual harm reduction. I like the idea of having workshops (as the author suggests) on "10 Signs That Your Professor Is Sleeping With You To Assuage Mid-Life Depression and Will Dump You Shortly Afterward." or, "Will Hooking Up With a Prof Really Make You Feel Smarter: Pros and Cons."

Of course, these workshops would probably be totally worthless and tell nobody who was willing to listen anything they didn't know already, but the simple existence of workshops with these titles would at least remind students to ask those questions to themselves, and remind them that alternatives exist to puritanism and libertinism.

In fact, forget the workshops themselves. Why not just advertise them everywhere with flyers, then cancel them at the last minute, to get the meme going?

////btw, the slate article he links to is at http://slate.msn.com/id/2093351/

And, again, I'm quoting from others who I think have some input, and yes, I realize that the quotes don't all agree, but that is because I don't know all the answers, just appreciate perspectives.

Posted by: Steve at January 4, 2004 10:12 AM

I think it's ok for lecturers to date students, just as long as they will never have an academic contact with them.

However, as I always told my friends when I was an undergraduate, what kind of intelligent girl falls for a sad old man who can't handle mature women his onw age?

Posted by: Duckling at January 4, 2004 10:13 AM

My own experience on the subject is weird. I entered college in 1964. I soon found that there were several gay faculty men in the foreign language and music departments who involved themselves with students. I was regarded as eligible, but wasn't interested. Heterosexual relationships in both directions (mostly male faculty) were also fairly common. Two faculty-student married couples showed up at the 35-year reunion.

This was a very hip school, but it was pre-Sexual Revolution and initially it was all "don't ask , don't tell". Homophobia was "out" and gay men were closeted. (In 1969 the whole school exploded in several different ways, but I was long gone by then,)

I tend to feel that the whole thing was more good than bad. I might actually have had a better time there if I had wanted to play that game, but it's not like I was being asked to trade sex for grades. (One of the gay men was the best teacher I had there, but I had no real musical talent. Once he found out I was not sexually interested, he remained a great teacher.) In multiple ways I felt socially uncomfortable in that school, and failed to bond with the key faculty in my fields of interest.

I think that the issue of predation and coercion is real, but there's also too much paranoia. People can be made miserable by celibacy too, and by relationships with someone of the same age and status.

Several of the things I most dislike about the university show up omn this issue. CYA bureaucratic legalism is one. Obsession with gender politics, etc. is another. Excessive deference to heierarchy, status, and reputation is the third. Some of the big research scientists where I used to work did seem to abuse their power.

So I'm glad I'm not involved. Though I did earn a whopping $1200 as an adjunct last year!

Posted by: zizka at January 4, 2004 10:30 AM

I'm pretty vocal about the unethical behavior that occurs among faculty, and while I don't date students and believe such relationships ought to be discouraged, I don't think these overly broad policies work. They're clearly crafted by lawyers, and they won't change the minds of the many professors who think that the often disturbing and inequitable faculty-student relationships are somehow cute or thrilling.

I think it's very telling that the university rep (i.e., the Mouth of Sauron) in that Slate article either couldn't or didn't want to answer the question, "How do you know an advance is unwanted unless you try and the person says 'No'?" Does the policy really mean "unsolicited" advances? If the bureaucratic liaison can't explain the meaning or implications of a policy, and if the university has no sense of the words it's chosen, how can anyone expect hundreds of professors and a couple thousand grad students to understand and comply?

All of this raises a question, and I'm curious for people's thoughts: Are poorly paid adjuncts--who receive no benefits, sit on no committees, and enjoy little professional prestige--required to conduct themselves according to the exact same code of ethics as full-time, tenured faculty who play prominent roles in university bureaucracies and in their respective fields?

Posted by: J.V.C. at January 4, 2004 02:52 PM

Perhaps I should add something. I was reacting to university policies making students verbotten under all circumstances. What I was thinking was along these lines: Why should I not be allowed to pursue a liason with someone whom I will never have academic or supervisory power over? I've discussed this with friends, several of whom I have taught. One is especially vocal about students and their profs/TAs not dating, and for the most part I agree (although this rule should be looser in the case where the student asks you out). Perhaps I should have emphasized the "code of professional conduct" line more, because I thought it was clear that this excludes relationships with some sort of power imbalance. If I, being in physics, meet a music student in the campus choir, I obviously have no power over her because of her or my university affiliation; this sort of possibility shouldn't be forbidden by fiat.

On the other hand, it is shocking how much some of the above posters are willing to let an employer dictate their personal affairs. This should not be.

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at January 4, 2004 05:38 PM

And re Steve's comments in post 3, you can't apply the "students are customers" argument unless you are willing to cede the point that universities are businesses before they are academic institutions. Is Steve willing to do so?

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at January 4, 2004 05:41 PM

Actually, in a lot of businesses employees CAN date customers. Retail, bars, restaurants. Professional-client relationships are different, especially counselors, M.D.'s, and lawyers, but I doubt that a dentist dating his patients would cause a scandal.

Posted by: zizka at January 4, 2004 07:04 PM

I'd just like to remark that between the reduction in pay and job security, the increased teaching workload of many professors, the extreme pressure to publish constantly, and the increasing prohibition of sexual relationships with students, I truly don't understand why there's such a huge glut of people trying to get in on academia.

Maybe the outright prohibition of professor-student relationships is exactly what we need in order to rationalize the academic job market.

Posted by: Adam Kotsko at January 4, 2004 09:40 PM

Of course Steve is willing to cede the point about universities as businesses. But Steve's BA was in econ and his current degree is a JD ... he hasn't taught that many classes (see http://adrr.com/smu/ ) but he has litigated enough EEOC and related cases and seen enough abuse ...

BTW, because of the sexual arousal issues with nitrous oxide and its use in dentistry, dentists dating their patients, especially with any age difference at all, raises quite a bit of attention.

The problem "the Mouth of Sauron" had was that if you have enough power or differential, you can't tell if an advance is unwanted -- not that much different from dating the members of the typing pool in the old days. To quote an old client of mine "sheesh, its getting to where you can't slap someone on the but and finger them just a little without someone mistaking it for sexual harassment."

As for:

as I always told my friends when I was an undergraduate, what kind of intelligent girl falls for a sad old man who can't handle mature women his onw age

I think that is the whole point -- the implication that the only person who enters that kind of relationship is either damaged (and therefore being overreached) or manipulated (and therefore being overreached).

I appreciate Aramis Martinez's comments, but I need to ask if he is talking about dating students who are within his age range (within +/-5% of his age) or out of his age range (and only -10% or more)? Does it matter if they are 18+ or 17-?

Reminds me of state legislators and the rules on whether or not they could date their pages. A number of them had a lot of 16- girlfriends, and had the same thing to say about it as academics do about dating undergraduates.

On the other hand, graduate students in different departments should not be in the same category as 17 and 18 year old freshmen.

Anyway, interesting posts.

Posted by: Steve at January 4, 2004 10:50 PM

The brother of a friend of mine was teaching at a bottom-level junior-college. The class was accepted by several practically-oriented licensing programs so he had a very practical bunch of students. He allowed "projects" to be substituted for research papers, etc. One guy was a professional remodeler and they made a deal to put down new linoleum in the prof's kitchen.

When my friend told me the story I said something like "Geez, that's corrupt, like asking for sex for a good grade".

My friend said, "Well, really it's worse, because some people enjoy sex but nobody enjoys laying linoleum."

Posted by: zizka at January 4, 2004 11:26 PM

Steve, I wasn't sure if you which point of view you were using; thank you for clearing that up for me. In that case, I would agree that university policies should be more in line with that of other employers, which then broadens the issue to what part of someone's personal affairs an employer should be allowed to dictate.

The +/-5 years is a good idea. In fact, it's pretty much my rule of thumb anyways. Fortunately this has turned out to match the sorts of people that attract me anyways, as anyone more than 4 years one way or the other seems to involve too much of a mismatch in maturity and goals in life. I don't think that this will change, since the gulf between me and the average 18-and-below will only increase as I get older.

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at January 5, 2004 04:27 AM

Steve, I wasn't sure if you which point of view you were using; thank you for clearing that up for me. In that case, I would agree that university policies should be more in line with that of other employers, which then broadens the issue to what part of someone's personal affairs an employer should be allowed to dictate.

The +/-5 years is a good idea. In fact, it's pretty much my rule of thumb anyways. Fortunately this has turned out to match the sorts of people that attract me anyways, as anyone more than 4 years one way or the other seems to involve too much of a mismatch in maturity and goals in life. I don't think that this will change, since the gulf between me and the average 18-and-below will only increase as I get older.

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at January 5, 2004 04:28 AM

My friend said, "Well, really it's worse, because some people enjoy sex but nobody enjoys laying linoleum."

Thanks for the quote ... that is well worth remembering.


As for Aramis, it looks like the bottom line issues we may agree on -- that dating should be allowed where there is no mismatch and where it does not lead to exploitation -- it is the cases of mismatch that seem to offend the public and cause administrators problems (and get them sued, lead to suicides that sear themselves into the institutional memory, etc.). Predators (like a seriel rapist at one institution) tend to be strongly in the mismatch category.

Anyway, I'm back to bed. My wife got home late (i.e. five o'clock a.m.) and then got called back in (i.e. at five thirty) which woke me up just long enough to make this post, get sleepy and head back to bed.

Appreciate what I've learned and the help everyone has been in helping me come to conclusions.

In looking at it all, I think the core issue is whether or not there is exploitation or overreaching, and that the exploitation of students (either graduate students as adjuncts or freshmen as toys) is the core issue, with the sexual question just one flavor of the issue.

Much of it driven by a sense of entitlement by professors who feel otherwise bypassed or exploited themselves.

The whole of which I don't have any solutions for or cure, just a lot of sympathy for those trying to make the world a better place.

Posted by: Steve at January 5, 2004 06:46 AM

Clearly, relationships between faculty and students are problematic. And quite common. I have a number of friends, male and female, who have dated students. A number of these relationships were initiated by the students. In one case, a student sent my adjunct friend a picture of herself topless.

These relationships were complicated and there were issues of fair grading. However, having written policies about teacher/student affairs is a bad idea. They would be ignored by most. And I fear the linch mob committees that would be formed to investigate activities.

I think social pressure by peers is the best way to curb extracurricular activities.

Posted by: Laura at January 5, 2004 09:48 AM

Wow....guess if I had followed either the "don't date undergrads" rule, or the "+/- 5 years difference" rule, my life would have taken a drastically different course. I never would have been able to go out on a first date with the woman who is now my wife.

She was an undergrad, 20 years old, working in the English writing lab where I taught as an adjunct English prof, then age 30. We met at a departmental social event, hit it off, and started dating. 2 months later she moved in with me, 3 & 1/2 years we got hitched.

And yes, she made the first move. Who "preyed" upon who, I wonder?


Posted by: DocG at January 5, 2004 10:04 AM

I'm increasingly tending toward the libertine faction here. First, statistically we're mostly talking about male-professor -- younger-female-student student matches. So then the whole boatload of feminist/puritan/sexist cliches comes into play (on both sides of the question). The fact that young ladies are not pure flowers of innocence and often initiate contact themselves has to be considered. And the fact that some young women, impossible as that may seem, are attracted to older men. (Perhaps because we're less likely to get into chugalug contests and puke on their rug, for example, or because we can actually spend our own money sometimes instead of always trying to borrow theirs. Looking at the average 20-year-old guy, aren't we older men duty-bound to try to rescue as many pretty young things as possible from them?)

You do see a lot of "Mr. and Mrs." research teams. There should be a study I suppose, but it seems to me that that might be a good thing in the big picture. One of my own teachers had what seemed to be fond memories of a studly Sinologist at Berkeley. There is a considerable literature, starting with Plato, about the pedagogical uses of eros.

The likelihood of bullying, extortion, and favoritism is the real one. These are already there in spades,though, so the sexual angle just intensifies it some. And relationships of all kinds can end disastrously.

Maybe schools should establish computer dating systems, with profiles: "Willing to date full professors only", "No undergrads", "No engineering majors", "B+ average or better", etc. I happen to know that the women will mostly be looking for a tall, financially secure guy who doesn't drink or smoke.

Posted by: zizka at January 5, 2004 11:18 AM

The place where I did grad school put in a set of official policies about this while I was there. As I recall, they were fairly sympathetic to the fact that junior faculty in arts and sciences were the age-peers of grad students, law students, med students, and the like. The form that I took home with me was never to get involved with a relationship involving vertical power structures - grad students don't date the students in your teaching sections, faculty don't date grad students in your own department, and so on.

That same vertical power relationship rule works for other hierarchical organizations as well - they may have stolen ideas from the military's policies on fraternization.

Ted K.

Posted by: Ted K at January 5, 2004 12:22 PM

I was involved in such a relationship a few years ago. I was 34 and a research faculty member and my girlfriend was a PhD student age 33. In the same department. It certainly wasn't something I planned on getting into intentionally as harassment policies were very strong. It just gradually happened on both sides. The aftermath was not good for a few months - but just because we ahd to continue to deal with each other on a day to day basis, but we are now good friends (she is married to some guy she met at a conference... ).

If anything had come up where I would be asked to make a decision about her (which I wasn't being a non-tenure track junior staff member) I would have just excused myself from the decision. I don't think there is any difference here from the cases of professors whose children or spouse are students at their university (common because colleges often pay the tutition). Or spouses who are also employees in the same department etc.


Posted by: David at January 5, 2004 12:36 PM


My parents are 15 years apart - so I wouldn't have been born if people followed that rule. Maybe that would be a good thing :P

BTW I find American academia more heirarchical - a bigger gap between professors and grad students than in Australia or Britain. One reason at the PhD level is perhaps that PhDs are examined by outside examiners in those countries rather than by the committee itself. But I think there is more to it than that.


Posted by: David at January 5, 2004 12:44 PM

I have been involved in relationships in both directions - as an undergraduate, I dated a professor I met socially who taught in an area outside of my interests (age gap ca 10 yrs, but at the time I tended to date guys 5-10 yrs older, precisely to avoid the beer-chugging 20 year-olds). As a grad student, I dated an undergraduate (non-traditional student slightly older than I was) who had been in my class a year before (again, I ran into him in a social situation), and who was just about to graduate and would not take any more classes in my area. Neither of these were exploitative, and in both cases the initiation of the relationship was mutual. I think I would have missed out on a lot had I not dated these men, especially the prof I dated while I was an undergraduate, who was caring and respectful and who taught me a lot about grown-up relationships. There are certainly common sense rules to follow - for instance, profs who are serial daters of undergrads and grad students are probably not being very smart legally or ethically, and students who date these profs run the risk of allowing themselves to be treated poorly. But navigating this stuff is part of adult life, and beyond making sure that no one dates anyone over whom they might exercise some authority, prohibitions seem to be an overreaction. Anyway, I'm glad I'm married now(to another academic, but we were both grad students when we got married) and won't have to worry about this stuff.

Posted by: Calicajun at January 5, 2004 01:58 PM

In re Zizka's #16, linoleum is a better lay than some people I know.

Posted by: Ralph E. Luker at January 5, 2004 03:28 PM

Some really good posts here, making the case that reality is rather complicated.

Posted by: Steve at January 5, 2004 08:16 PM

Quick, either we need to make an exception for David's parents, or else we should drive the evil spawn from our midst!

Posted by: zizka at January 5, 2004 08:26 PM

"However, in most business situations, if you were to insist that you had a right to date the customers, they would fire you without a second thought." -- Steve

I guess what raised my hackles here was "most".

I really don't think "most" employers care one way or another. Nor would it be enforceable at all. Think over some hypos: A bus driver -- not able to date a passenger? A Barnes & Noble clerk, and a frequent reader? A programmer at Microsoft -- with 90+% of US computer users as customers?

And the "+/- 5 years" thing... I tend to hate all strictly age based criteria like that. I've known perfectly mature and well-adjusted 16-year-olds. I've known 40-year-olds who were trembly virgins. I know the appeal of such a rule -- it gives standing to a knowable variable. It's just meaningless when it comes to any reasonable attempt at differentiating personalities.

Posted by: Hal O'Brien at January 5, 2004 11:01 PM

I think the vertical rule is a good one. I also like the one where you don't date people for whom you have responsibility -- or people who have responsibillity for you. As I see it, there are really two issues -- the possible abuse of power and the real or perceived favoritism that can arise from such relationships. That said, most people tend to meet their friends and partners in their social circles, and academics live lives that tend to revolve around the college or university where they work, eat, and often go to the gym, play intramural sports, etc.

I think that, to avoid the possible abuse of power (sometimes unwitting), faculty should not date undergrads, especially not those in their fields -- at least while they are students at that institution. This includes adjuncts (the crap way adjuncts are treated does not entitle them to lower their ethical standards -- that's like saying it's ok to steal from an employer if he doesn't pay you enough!). When it comes to grad students, it's a bit iffier. Again, we're talking peer groups. Ideally, I'd say never -- grad students are supposed to be faculty in training. Realistically, I'd say not while the undergrad is likely to take any classes in the grad student's department.

As far as prof-grad student? Not if they work together. I know of a situation where a visiting professor got involved with a grad student while she was in her class, and the department chair (same field) graded all her work, but it was divisive and made things uncomfortable for other students and faculty. The fact that they were not particularly discreet was part of the problem though, and that's down to maturity and personality.
On the other hand, it's not surprising that people with lots in common should be attracted to one another. I still think that, especially with older male prof-younger female grad student it can be debillitating for the student, especially, but if there are no complaints and arrangements are made to remove the professor's giving preferential (or vengeful) treatmeant to the student, why not?

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at January 5, 2004 11:16 PM

"A bus driver -- not able to date a passenger?"

Surely. That is why they fire them for hitting on the teenagers.

The whole purpose of it is to avoid the employees from hitting on the customers and distorting the experience.

The biggest difference is that it is easy to meet people outside of work for non-academics and that the predators in a non-academic setting stand out more or move in places ("that kind of bar" -- to quote from a song) where they are expected.

On the other hand, one of my old profs was stalked and eventually married by someone twenty years younger than he, and they are both happy. So it is definitely a two-way activity and the issues aren't as simple as they might be in a normal commercial situtation.

I don't have the answers, just observations.

Posted by: Steve at January 6, 2004 08:44 AM

"'A bus driver -- not able to date a passenger?'

"Surely. That is why they fire them for hitting on the teenagers. The whole purpose of it is to avoid the employees from hitting on the customers and distorting the experience."

Wait, distorting the experience of riding a bus? Umm ... I didn't realize people were so entrqanced by the expereince of riding a bus. Whenever I ride the bus I pray that someone will come along and hit on me. *sigh* But alas, the dating deities have seen fit to deny me my desire.

Posted by: Chris at January 6, 2004 11:01 AM

Frankly, I'd far prefer having literal sex with the professors to the metaphorical sex that far better characterized my graduate school experience.

Posted by: Charlie at January 6, 2004 11:50 AM

I am trending further toward the "no rules" position. First, whatever the rules are, schooling is heierarchal enough that a "fix" is always most likely if the accused is high up on the ladder. Further, differential enforcement is likely to be used against people disliked for other reasons. Also, once formal procedures are in place and the administration goes into full CYA panic mode, the teaching environment is chilled and the possibility of gaming the system by fake victims arises.

This all makes it seem that have skeletons in my closet. I don't, but I guess I wish I did.

Posted by: zizka at January 6, 2004 12:16 PM

I do have skeletons in my closet, but agree that sexual/overly-attached-nonsexual relationships between persons who have a supervisory/supervised relationship (note that this does not include relationships between students and faculty that do not have such a relationship) is generally undesirable.

The question to me seems, when is it appropriate to interfere in the private lives of others?
Much discussion of this topic is colored by paternalism (we must protect students from consenting to relationships we feel are not appropriate for them). I tend to regard paternalism as a rather weak justification to impose sanctions on private actions. However, there is in my mind a more compelling reason to sanction (penalize) some student/faculty or supervisor/supervised relationships, by assessing the risk for harm to other parties.

I myself tend to think the line for where interference from the group is appropriate should be drawn when there is a threat that persons other than those consenting to the relationship are in danger of harm. In particular, the more the professor has in their power to confer scarce favors to their lover at the expense of other students, the more inclined I am to think that interference by the department/firm/group is necessary. (By my criteria, the graduate student/powerful faculty member relationship would be the most likely to be sanctioned, as the powerful faculty member is a position to confer more scarce favors to the graduate student than an undergraduate.) Rather than making the relationship itself illegal, the appropriate remedy/sanction would be to remove the faculty member from any role that would allow such favors to be confered. Just my two cents.

Posted by: Matilde at January 6, 2004 01:17 PM

I read a book by Mordecai Richler (the Saul Bellow of Montreal, except that Saul Bellow was born in Montreal) once, in which the (sleazy, unreliable) narrator explains that he slept with the A students because they were A students -- he didn't give out A's because of sexual favors.

Maybe he's the Philip Roth of Montreal. He does the grumpy, funny Jewish guy very well.

Posted by: zizka at January 6, 2004 03:59 PM

First screech, now Richler? If you're not careful, I'm going to declare you an honorary Canadian (though I can't promise this would make you eligible for socialized health care).

Alas, Richler died in 2001. But yes, he did the grumpy, funny Jewish guy very well. He really got into it with the Quebecois separatists.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at January 6, 2004 08:10 PM

My best friend lives in Montreal, though his Likud sympathies have seriously stressed the relationship. My brother actually is a citizen now. I'd be quite happy to emigrate.

Posted by: zizka at January 6, 2004 09:37 PM

In "The Barbarian Invasions", centered around an unnamed but francophone university in Montreal, the protagonist, Remy, denies the accusation he slept with his undergraduates. Everyone else, yes, but not the undergraduates.

Posted by: jam at January 6, 2004 09:59 PM

"I'd be quite happy to emigrate."

Maybe we should start a Send-Zizka-to-Canada initiative. The Zizka Project, for those in the know: the vagueness of the title, with its suggestion that there was indeed an in-the-know quality to the whole thing, would generate interest and, more importantly, generous donations.

The money could be used to take out ads in the personals columns of major Canadian newspapers. And then we could fly you up for dates with prospective Canadians. But you'd have to submit to a "Queer Eye"-type makeover (hey: maybe we could even get the Fab Five in on the deal?). And then of course you'd have to report back (in triplicate, and in detail) on your escapades up north. What say you, Zizka?

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at January 6, 2004 11:10 PM

Hm. Well, my brother has made it clear that he loves me dearly, but does not need a live-in gardener. The makeover will be a problem, but aren't women in Canada more tolerant about that kind of thing? Couldn't I just be Tommy Chong, or a McKenzie Brother?

In November, I might seriously get serious about this.

Posted by: zizka at January 6, 2004 11:56 PM

My advisor seems to flirt sometimes with a younger female graduate student that he advises and is working for him. She is very pretty but young enough to be his daughter. While I do not necessarily think there is anything really going on between them, it does seem that he favors her over his other advisees. I think it does make me, as another female advisee of his, a bit resentful. I am not sure if this flirtation is typical of older male faculty.

Posted by: grad student at January 7, 2004 04:46 PM

A few years ago, I was a member of the Undergraduate History Society at my university. The great gossip that year was that the young woman who had been president of the Society the previous year, was this year the wife of a professor who had been named Chair of the History department. I wasn't all that agog about it myself...my view was that they were both adults, and that if it were truly exploitive, she wouldn't have married him in the end....

Posted by: Dr_Funk at January 7, 2004 06:20 PM

Hmmm... Since I'm the product of a relationship between a high school student and a teacher (my mother was the teacher BTW), I suppose I ought to keep to myself on this one.

But, I do recall a scandal some years ago when a prof - don't remember where - was asked what his sexual preference was and he said "Graduate students." I'm not sure this is really a good idea either, but I'm pretty sure that suppressing it won't work. As long as the student isn't in any of the prof's classes, I'm ill-inclined to view it as the end of the world. I realise an attachment to the appearance of academic integrity is a bit old-fashioned, but I think that's only thing actually being threatened.

Posted by: Scott Martens at January 8, 2004 12:03 PM

As Matilda said, the interests of all the competing students also come into it. I think a clear no-vertical-entanglements rule is a defensible one, though.

For one thing, the most exploitative relationships are the ones most dependent on happening right then. The most beneficial ones - that lead to research partnerships, the paedegogocal uses of Eros, etc etc - do well enough if postponed. (The inspiring force of sublimed Eros is most powerful of all.)

Posted by: clew at January 8, 2004 08:32 PM

Interesting that most parallels to other areas of employment in this discussion assume that the employee (the bus driver, etc.) is hitting on the customer (the rider, teenaged or otherwise). In this, I guess, people are replicating the structure of the academy: the prof is the one with more power -- and, conventionally, the one doing the soliciting. In most sexualized work situations I've been in, though, it's as the employee that I felt put on the spot and relatively less empowered. As a waiter, for example, my job is -- in part -- to be nice to the customers. And since they're paying me directly, I'm screwed if I piss them off. Same thing in virtually every customer service position (although few outside of the actual sex industry have the direct pay-for-personality feature of waiting tables).

Posted by: Ruth at January 8, 2004 10:33 PM

I have some concerns that I haven't yet seen addressed. It's quite possible that there are reasonable answers to them - I'd like it if there were, because this is about the sort of harm I've seen come from professor/student relationships.

The professor isn't just in authority over the student they're having a relationship with. They're also in authority over all the other students. And in my experience, how you perceive the rest of a group shifts when you're being intimate with one (or more) of them. You may overcompensate out of a sense of fairness, or you may end up adopting some of your partner's views, but the very fact that you do have a partner in the group changes your perspective on the rest. And depending on how discreet you are in handling things, the others may not even realize that your views have changed, or why, but I think the odds are very good indeed that your views will change if you're dealing with your partner as anything but a living RealDoll.

I feel a little strange feeling the need to remind a largely academic audience about what seem to me like very basic facts about power.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh at January 8, 2004 11:43 PM

Ruth - In my parents case, it was very much the student hitting on the teacher. But then, Dad never would do things the usual way if he could them the other way around.

I'm not sure the majority of relationships between profs and students are initiated by the prof, although it seems possible. But, I'm also not sure that it's somehow less reprehensible when the student initiates it. There were enough stories in my university of students offering oral sex for a passing grade and the prof refusing.

Posted by: Scott Martens at January 9, 2004 06:19 AM

Power. You know, I got hit on several times by faculty as an undergraduate, and I can't say that I ever felt like the faculty had any power over me. I mean, really, what could they do to me? Give me a B? Yeah, that would be a fun little meeting with the dean. For the college undergrad, the most at stake is the grade in one class, the tiniest fraction of their GPA. For the faculty hitting on undergrads - their career and reputation. Who has the most power here, really?

In graduate school the stakes are higher for the student, less high for faculty. All my friends who were hit on by their advisors in graduate school experienced a serious blow to their graduate career. If they refused his advances, they usually had to switch advisors, at a huge cost. If they accepted, they paid a huge cost when the relationship failed (they all did, in my experience), as no one wanted to be the advisor of a fellow faculty member's ex-lover.

The fact that most people are willing to condone relationships between faculty and graduate students but not between faculty and undergraduates, tells me that this discussion isn't really about power, but about our feelings regarding the appropriateness of older faculty boffing their undergraduates. If the concern is about the abuse of power, you must face the fact that graduate students are far more easily abused by faculty power than undergraduates, despite the fact that graduate students are older. Otherwise, we're just talking about prohibiting activities many of us think are icky.

Posted by: Matilde at January 9, 2004 04:26 PM

I for one do see precisely the same issues with grad students.

I mean, I'd like to say that people's personal relationships are purely their own thing, but in that kind of environment there are consequences to work and study. And like I said, I'm as much concerned about how this skews the authority's interactions with the peers of the object of desire as anything else. It's one thing if I choose to do something that might be wonderful or miserable or whatever but is in any event the consequences of my own choice; I've seen too many offices poisoned because older partner indulges younger partner's biases and whims, though, to feel comfortable saying that it is just between the two of them.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh at January 10, 2004 03:51 PM