A4. Assembly/Senate/Committee Voting and Commentary
A4.1 CRP-A and CRP-B
A4.2 The Student Assembly
A4.3 The Graduate and Professional Student Assembly
A4.4 The Employee Assembly
A4.5 The University Assembly
A4.6 The Faculty Senate
A4.7 The CRP Committee
As an institution where any person can find instruction in any study, Cornell demands ethical behavior from all who are engaged in its mission of teaching, research, service, and outreach. It is the responsibility of the institution to guarantee that every student has the freedom to pursue their academic and professional interests in an environment without preferential or unfair treatment, discrimination, or bias. Romantic or sexual relationships between instructors and students can jeopardize the integrity of that mission for the individuals involved and also for those around them.
The Consensual Relationships Policy (CRP) Committee was charged by President Pollack to develop a policy, dubbed “Policy 6.X”, that addresses this issue. The policy is to be concerned with relationships where one individual (the authority) can influence the academic or professional progress of the other (the subordinate). It is to apply only in those situations where the subordinate is either a student or a postgraduate. The authority can be a member of the faculty (broadly construed), an employee, a postgraduate, or a student. The proposed policy must identify conflict-of-interest situations that require prohibitions and it must include a plan for effective disclosure and enforcement.
After extensive research and broad consultation, the CRPC recommends three prohibitions:
P1. Any member of the Cornell community who has, or has had, a sexual or romantic relationship with a current student or current postgraduate is prohibited from exercising academic or professional authority over that student or postgraduate.
P2. Sexual or romantic relationships between faculty members and undergraduate students are prohibited regardless of department, school, or college affiliation.
P3. Sexual or romantic relationships between faculty members and graduate or professional students are prohibited whenever both parties are affiliated with the same graduate field or degree program.
The proposed policy requires the creation of a “Policy 6.X Office” (located in central HR) that serves as a resource for both subordinates and authorities. The Office would work with department chairs, degree program directors, college deans, the dean of faculty, and others to ensure that effective recusal plans are put into practice and that enforcement procedures are properly executed. An effective Policy 6.X Office is essential to our proposed policy.
Across all constituencies there is universal support for P1 and broad 4-to-1 support for P2. (The Faculty Senate rejected a version of P2 in 2015.) The community is clearly divided on P3 based on votes in the Assemblies and the Senate. However, the Committee was ultimately persuaded to support P3 based on what it learned from the on-line postings and the associated commentary from the Assemblies and the Senate.
The Undergraduate/Faculty Prohibition
P2: Sexual or romantic relationships between faculty members and undergraduate students are prohibited regardless of department, school, or college affiliation.
An undergraduate degree involves experiencing the university broadly. This expectation of breadth is manifested in distribution requirements and the foundation of the liberal arts education. As a result, any faculty member is a potential course instructor, research supervisor, or academic mentor. This is amplified by the common practice of delaying or changing the selection of one’s undergraduate major(s). A prohibition on faculty-undergraduate relationships helps ensure that all undergraduates have full access to any study they choose, based on academic ability and inclination alone, by eliminating the conflicts of interest that arise from past or ongoing romantic or sexual relationships with an academic authority figure.
The undergraduate members of the Committee collectively requested the undergraduate/faculty prohibition. The undergraduates also urged further attention to non-romantic relationships. The Student Assembly registered support for P2 by a 17-5 margin and the undergraduates on the CRPC were unanimous in support of P2.
No one who articulated opposition to P2 offered practical suggestions for navigating disclosure and recusal in such situations: Who would determine sufficient academic distance between authority and subordinate? Who would monitor the Recusal Plan? Apart from the reasons given above, we came to support P2 because we could not develop satisfactory answers to these questions.
Graduate Field or Degree Program Faculty/Student Prohibition
P3: Sexual or romantic relationships between faculty members and graduate or professional students are prohibited whenever both parties are affiliated with the same graduate field or degree program.
Graduate and professional students apply and are accepted to specific fields of study. Unlike undergraduates, their degrees typically only require coursework within their chosen field(s), and they are not expected to change fields. While coursework and research outside of their fields may augment their studies, neither is usually a precondition of successfully completing the program. In addition, graduate and professional students are experienced members of academia and can more accurately gauge the extent of conflicts of interest. Therefore, a blanket ban is unnecessary outside of the field, although more limited restrictions are advisable.
Within their fields, graduate and professional students must take courses from and are subject to formal and informal evaluation by field faculty, even when those faculty are not teaching required courses or directly supervising the student. For graduate students, any field faculty member may challenge the validity of a student’s dissertation defense to the Dean of the Graduate School. Despite varying practices by field, graduate students enter the university without having formally assembled their special committees; prior or ongoing relationships with faculty members restrict the student’s potential opportunities for that committee. While special committees, primary investigators, laboratory supervisors, and so forth may not be part of the graduate student’s field, those roles are significantly more likely to be filled by faculty within the field. While professional student programs lack many of the formal structures of the graduate field and special committee, faculty in professional programs are overwhelmingly selected for expertise in a specialized area. Accordingly, relationships with faculty members in the professional field would preclude a student from pursuing certain careers. Graduate and professional students apply to programs with a reasonable expectation of being able to access faculty based on their academic merits.
The Committee considered compromises between CRP-A, with a field ban, and CRP-B, without; differentiating direct and indirect authority; a ban within department confines; and a field ban only up until the A exams. We found these compromises to either not meet a sufficient threshold or to be too ambiguous and complicated. We considered more stringent bans, such as one on minor fields, and discarded those. Typically, those in favor of a field ban were concerned about the most vulnerable. Many comments against the field ban did not account for the academic environment or misinterpreted the proposed policy.
The Policy 6.X Office
Central to our proposal is the creation of a new office, the Policy 6.X Office. We propose that this be housed within Human Resources and closely aligned with the Title IX Office. For the following reasons, we do not believe this policy or any functional consensual relationship policy can succeed without a dedicated 6.X Office external to the academic hierarchies
- Students, particularly graduate students, do not trust faculty to act impartially in enforcing policies against one another and guarding against retaliation.
- Faculty rightly value their workplace privacy and dislike the prospect of Chairs or Deans possessing lists of personal relationships (as demonstrated in the 2015 Faculty Senate discussion).
- A central office can minimize the number of academic or workplace colleagues who need to be informed of a relationship.
- Authorities found to be in violation of Policy 6.X deserve review of the investigation’s decisions, enabled by keeping Academic Deans separate up until the implementation of sanctions.
- Chairs and directors of graduate studies (DGS) are not trained in handling sensitive matters of this nature.
- A central office is better equipped than faculty to direct subordinates to appropriate resources on campus, especially in complex situations.
- A central office ensures consistent and fair application of the policy, as opposed to variation by department/field and Chair.
- A central office is the only way to guarantee a violation of the policy is dealt with only once, and to ensure that repeat violations of the policy are taken into consideration when determining sanctions.
- A central office better ensures even application of the policy across authorities of varying academic ranks, including undergraduates and graduate students.
- A central office is better equipped to safeguard and provide privacy for LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities.
The Policy 6.X Office should have these attributes
- It should support anonymous reporting similar to that already available for bias, harassment and hazing.
- It should respect the wishes of the reporter as much as possible.
- It should provide explicit online documentation indicating the timeline and process of what happens when a report is filed.
- It should respond to the reporter in a timely fashion with information about resources and, as matters progress, steps that are being taken.
- It should support multiple avenues of reporting.
- It should support the intelligent sharing of information among relevant staff.
- It should be able to handle intra-departmental tensions.
- It should provide guidance to Chairs, degree-program directors and others involved in the process.
We envision the Office’s role as a central disclosure and recordkeeping location; a custodian of resources for all parties; a partner for unit leaders on campus; and a repository of expertise in investigation, mediation, and navigating personal relationships in the academic/professional sphere. The investigatory component of its work suggests alignment with the Title IX Office, as does the possibility of cases that appear to belong to the purview of one office and end up concerning the other.
It is difficult to predict the cost of maintaining an effective 6.X Office. The caseload may vary depending upon reception and utilization of this policy. We believe that the Office can “pay for itself” if it has an effective educational agenda that builds Policy 6.X awareness across campus.
We recommend that the Policy 6.X Office maintain and publish anonymized statistics on the number and type of violations of Policy 6.X. These will help assure community members that the policy is actively utilized and raise awareness among current and prospective Cornell affiliates of the university’s commitment to fairness and accountability in personal relationships as in other areas.
We propose a thorough review of the policy and the 6.X Office three years after their implementation. It should review 6.X violation statistics and related data, respecting confidentiality from start to finish. The review process should include fully transparent interactions with the community in the same style as practiced by the CRP Committee.
Disclosure and Enforcement Parameters
We chose to provide enough detail so that the processes set in motion are transparent. The procedures we outline for disclosure, recusal, and enforcement are more substantial and detailed than those of most peer institutions. “Step-by-step” clarity is required if a CRP is to be effective. Lack of clarity and “black boxes” discourage adherence to and use of a university CRP.
A recurring concern from LGBTQ+ individuals and groups was the tension between transparency and privacy. Specifically, people feared that by disclosing, one must “out” oneself or, worse, be involuntarily outed by the authority. This led us to explicitly include the opportunity for either the authority or the subordinate to request that the Policy 6.X Office formulate the recusal plan without involving either party’s academic unit, thereby protecting those who may, for reasons of safety or career prospects, not be “out.” We also narrowed our original radius of disclosure — automatically including deans in disclosure and Recusal Plans appeared too large a trade-off of privacy (without even taking into account the additional workload issues).
It is important that the Policy 6.X Office make contact with the subordinate before notifying any other individual in their department, program or field.
Having an unusually restricted radius of disclosure in sensitive cases poses difficulties for resolving the conflicts of interest. We leave it in as a safeguard for those cases where an individual would face substantial risk of harm to their career, their well-being, or their safety on account of bias. In most cases, we expect the radius of disclosure to be limited to those necessary to ensure adherence to a Recusal Plan (such as a Chair, DGS, or alternative evaluators), and those most affected in the case of failure to adhere to the Recusal Plan (such as other members of a lab).
Other recusal plans have been proposed, but lack comparable safeguards. We have included them in the proceedings.
In enforcement, we wish to ensure that the consequence for an undisclosed relationship (prohibited or not) is greater than that for a disclosed but prohibited relationship, to encourage disclosure, and that consequences scale for repeated infractions. Our primary concern is the amelioration of harm to students.
Over the year, we have come to realize how ill-equipped the campus is to talk about these issues, and how uncomfortable the conversations can be. Where conversations have occurred, there is no consensus on acceptable practices.
As the goal of the proposed Policy 6.X is to inspire ethical behavior, we regard prevention and culture change as key. Accordingly, we recommend adoption of an educational outreach plan that includes these components:
It establishes Policy 6.X awareness.
- During orientation for incoming faculty, staff, postgraduates, and graduate and professional students.
- During Teaching Assistant Orientation.
- During the first week for any operation that has graders who are students.
It maintains Policy 6.X awareness.
- The Dean-of-Faculty start-of-semester announcement.
- The Graduate School’s start-of-semester newsletter.
- A check-box on the Graduate School’s annual Student Progress Report acknowledging that they have read and understand the policy or have arranged a meeting with their DGS to discuss it.
- A comparable mechanism for the professional schools and all masters programs across campus.
- A comparable mechanism for faculty and staff, perhaps modeled after the financial disclosure form.
It promotes Policy 6.X conversation.
- At least once a year in department meetings and degree-program meetings.
- At least once a year amongst the chairs and their colleges deans.
- At least once a year amongst the deans and the provost.
In discussing and implementing this policy, we hope that all offices consider the language we have used. We have put particular thought into gender neutral language, acknowledgement that relationships may involve within themselves more than two parties, “power imbalances,” and “recusal”—an active, volitional step towards a better environment, as opposed to the passive “management.”
We understand “relationship” to mean any romantic, sexual, and/or emotionally intimate contact between or among individuals. Furthermore, it may be of any duration, from a single incident or occurrence to a long-lasting partnership, either continuous or intermittent. It is distinguishable from a friendship or acquaintanceship by its potential to move any person involved to abuse any power imbalance it contains. We suggest continued attention to changing definitions and evolving social norms.
We urge that future work on this policy omit reference to age. While we diverge from peer institutions in this, the CRPC feels that other than the legal age of consent, age is irrelevant for purposes of a consensual relationship policy; it is demeaning to limit the agency of those ages 18-22. Our undergraduate-faculty prohibition stems from the nature of the undergraduate degree and applies without regard to the undergraduate’s age.
We ask that future work on this policy continue to include representation from all affected communities, with particular attention to undergraduates, graduate and professional students, postdocs, and junior faculty.
Where possible, we suggest aligning this policy with existing university policies regarding financial conflicts of interest, nepotism, and academic or research misconduct. The favoritism and bias that can arise out of undisclosed romantic or sexual relationships create issues of academic integrity that mirror or overlap with the issues that those policies aim to prevent. An authority can compromise academic integrity on behalf of a subordinate ignorant of the interference, and such actions (or merely the appearance thereof) can harm the subordinate throughout their career