Skip to main content
  Cornell University

The University Faculty

Office of the Dean

Q2. What Constitutes Risky Behavior?

Read What Other Schools Have to Say
Review of Terminology

Talking points

  1. How can ethical behavior be promoted without chilling the normal friendly socializing  that attends academics? (E.g.,  after-seminar get togethers, lunch, dinner at a conference, holding class in one’s house, etc.)
  2. What should the policy say about authority that carries forward in time? For example, letters of recommendation can be an issue for several years. On the matter of letters of recommendation, is there  a distinction between academic versus non-academic career tracks?
  3. What should the policy say about authority that extends far beyond the “home department”? (E.g., given interdisciplinary work, graduate students may have contacts “far away” from their departmental base. )
  4. What should the policy say about indirect authority?  (E.g., the relationship is with a close friend of the thesis advisor.)
  5. Is it possible to characterize situations where the power differential not a factor?
  6. What should the policy say about risky behavior that is exhibited by the student?
  7. What should the policy say about risky behavior that is exhibited by the authority?
  8. Are there contexts in which it is never acceptable to initiate a relationship that involves romantic or sexual interactions?


Rules About Posting Comments

Last Updated: December 5, 2017 at 2:49 pm


  1. I suspect that the policy will have to establish a set of bright lines as to how long it will be enforced, and with whom — after the student no longer requests recommendations, or after graduation, I’m not sure which is most workable and preferable.

    However, I feel quite certain that there’s something lost when we use the words “risky behavior” — it seems to center the institution and the supervisor’s risk of punishment, and it means that when the period of enforcement expires, the expectation of humane behavior also expires. It also mimics language that faculty abusers have used to silence their students: he’s taking a big risk sharing his feelings with you like this, you wouldn’t want to do anything to hurt his position, etc. etc.

    Regardless of the enforcement period, I’d rather see relationships across power differentials typified as “unequal relationships” and the behavior of a faculty member who dates recommendees or other people they have professional power over as a repudiation or weakening of their responsibility as an educator. This makes it clearer that although the community’s ability to police relationships has some limits, the consensus is that we should be _teaching_ our students, and that the support and education (rather than enjoyment and exploitation) of students is the express reason we maintain the hierarchies of power and authority that do exist.

    In case this feels too abstract, I had a line-blurring relationship with a faculty member in a writing department, where “risky” intellectual behavior was encouraged and the faculty member’s daring was part of her charm. I wasn’t manipulated or abused over the course of this relationship, but I was _not_ learning what I came to school to learn. When I thought of her as a risk-taker and a line-crosser, what she did seemed ok — who likes rules? When I thought of her behavior as the behavior of a teacher, it seemed clearer that she was, in this particular respect, a bad teacher, and one who vacated some of her responsibilities in pursuit of other goals.

  2. Current policy is perfectly fine. It focuses on conflict of interest which is of concern to the institution, and not moral policing of sexual behavior. Policy should say nothing about indirect contact, but only direct conflict of interest. Indirect contact is not supervisory, and is not a clear conflict of interest. Similarly with alumni. There is no reason to extend the definition of conflict of interest to professional relationships after graduation. Additionally, the real conflict of interest is in relationships between junior and senior faculty, especially when one gets hired to attract the other one. That is where we should focus, instead of students. So many unqualified people get hired, because their spouses are stars, and push them through. Undergraduates present the least conflict, since faculty don’t even grade them, but leave it to the TA’s.

    Relationships between the TA’s and students have the same problems as faculty-student relationships. We should stop focusing on age difference, which is a subjective moral issue for a lot of people, but focus on direct conflict of interest which is the institutional concern.

    1. This policy has nothing to do with age difference, as undergraduates and grad students can be any age, but has everything to do with conflicts of interest and protection of the academic freedom of Cornell’s students and trainees. Students academic trajectory and freedoms to pursue “any study” can be affected if they enter a romantic relationship with faculty. Further, their peers may also be affected by these relationships in their academic endeavors, which is unacceptable.

  3. The resolution of the GPSA does a good job of defining the radius of authority and recognizes that for graduate students and post-docs, the power continues far into the future.

  4. Workplace dating, while common, is problematic, and the problems tend to increase with increasing “proximity” within the workplace of those involved.

    I would encourage broad discouragement of workplace dating within some set of “spheres of influence”, some education about the consequences and conflicts of interest involved in workplace dating, and the provision of more opportunities for single Cornellians to meet people outside those “spheres of influence”.

Leave a Reply to Cancel reply

All comments are completely anonymous.