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Q6. What About Faculty-Ugrad Relationships?

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Review of Terminology

Talking Points

  1. Some universities have outright strictly prohibit relationships between faculty and undergraduate students. Is that advisable?
  2. If relationships between faculty and undergraduate students are not prohibited, then should there be specific language calling attention to the enhanced vulnerability of that group of students?
  3. Are there strategies to follow that would guard against the formation of relationships between faculty and undergraduate students?

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Last Updated: December 5, 2017 at 2:56 pm


  1. Outright prohibition (such as Brown’s) needs some exceptions, my spouse become an undergrad at CU some years after we were married.

    1. I believe that an outright prohibition is the best thing. In the case of a married relationship, the spousal couple should not be in the same program. I think it is fine to have an exception to allow the undergrad to come to Cornell, but it must be in a different program that their spouse. The same dynamics exist regardless of the pre-existence of the relationship.

  2. I oppose an outright prohibition. Relationships between a faculty (or staff) member and an undergraduate student situated clearly outside the faculty (or staff) member’s “radius of authority” should be okay. I know, for example, of a staff member in one college who entered into a consensual relationship with an undergraduate in another college when the undergraduate was a sophomore. The student has now graduated and the relationship continues happily.

    I concur with the apparent consensus at the Faculty Senate meeting in 2016 (I think) that it infantilizes students to prohibit consensual relationships between adults that don’t violate the current policy (or an enhanced version thereof) on power relationships and radii of authority.

    1. Part of Cornell’s mission is “any person, any study.” Undergraduates have the freedom to move about fields during the time at Cornell thus entering a romantic relationship with any faculty could limit their academic freedom seeing as a conflict of interest could arise if they wanted to suddenly take specific courses or volunteer in a certain researcher group.

      1. My suspicion is that relatively few undergrad students would be interested in a romantic or sexual relationship with a faculty. Those few who are would have to understand that at least one avenue of instruction is closed to them (and presumably they would not consent to a relationship with any faculty close to their major). Undergrads are adults and they too need to take responsibility for their actions. I’m increasingly concerned that infantalizing them concedes that their actions carry less weight than other members of our community.

  3. An undergraduate has a relationship to the institution not just to their college or department. The faculty and staff act as agents of the institution in the delivery of the mission to the undergraduates. This agency relationship should preclude faculty or staff from being in intimate relationships with undergraduates.

  4. It is my strong belief that due to the power differential, romantic and sexual relations between ANY undergraduate and a faculty member should be prohibited. As described below, my own experience leads me to this conclusion. We can’t forget that the purpose of the University is education. It is not infantilizing students to establish policy that supports that goal.

    Nearly 50 years ago when I was an undergraduate geology major at Boston University I had a sexual relationship with the chairman of the department. I was seduced by the flattering attention of this powerful, charismatic man. I felt special, though in hindsight I am sure that I was not the first nor the last undergraduate woman whom he propositioned and with whom he had sex. In addition to the seduction of power, perhaps the intrigue of secret meetings in hotels also was alluring to me at that age, though it is now something that fuels my disgust.
    That affair has been the event in my life over which I have felt the most shame. I felt such shame, that I told no one about it until this past year.
    I knew his lovely wife and sweet eleven year-old daughter and I had a boyfriend. I have asked myself how I could have done this? Obviously the proposition was so compelling that I betrayed these people and was complicit in this affair.
    Because an 18 year old is of age to give legal consent does not mean that an 18 year old is mature enough to make a good decision regarding saying yes to a respected person in a position of power.

    1. I agree. I support prohibiting faculty-student relationships, including graduate students and staff. When I was a student, a fellow student dated and had a sexual relationship with a dining hall employee. The employee and other male dining hall workers were too friendly to students and made a lot of us feel uncomfortable.

    2. I completely disagree. To the extent that we are discussing consenting behavior between adults who are permitted to engage in the behavior under Federal law, Cornell has no right stepping in and trying to impose some sort of moral stricture or policy dreamed up by a set of faculty members who themselves are driven by a puritanical world view.

      Whatever people enjoy, if it doesn’t harm others, shouldn’t somehow be legislated by Cornell. And harm should mean harm in a meaningful sense, not some sort of vague notion of offending some individual person’s idea of morality.

      Otherwise, we will soon have rules against same-sex relationships, or relationships between people of different skin colors, or physical acts that some people find disturbing to contemplate. Cornell has no business in bedrooms.

      But I do not view coercive behavior as consensual, in any sense. I do see the case for a policy that says “no person at Cornell can ever coerce some other person into unwanted behavior.” To me, coercive behavior is really no different from physical assault. And I do believe a strong policy, with real teeth, could be imposed on that bedrock principle. Notice that rather than some person’s personal strictures being imposed on the community, I’m arguing that if a person doesn’t wish to have a relationship, that single fact trumps all else. For me, this “victim-centric” perspective is appropriate. A “community standards” perspective is just wrong.

      1. This is not about policing morality but protecting the academic freedom of students, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual preference, which is paramount to Cornell following it’s mission of “any person, any study.” Relationships between ugrad-faculty can affect the academic trajectory and thus freedoms of the student involved as well as result in conflicts of interest that affect that student’s peers. The slippery slope analogy is a bit of a stretch.

  5. I am quite surprised that Cornell allows relationships to form between faculty/staff and students. I think that even the involved parties are both adults, such relationships have detrimental effects on other students. I would not feel comfortable attending a class where the professor is dating a fellow student. I don’t think such relationships should be permitted as they inherently have an imbalance of authority/power.

    1. But one could preclude “enrolling in a class in which you will be supervised by a person with whom you are in a relationship, or initiating a relationship while enrolled in a class with an instructor.” You seem to be adopting the view that every relationship starts with the professor.

      Fundamentally, you are assuming that if anything inappropriate is going on, it must be the fault of the faculty member. In reality, the issue centers on force, which can arise from a power relationship, but can arise in other ways too: a student could, perhaps, somehow “force” a professor in their class into a relationship, and to me that would be wrong too — except that the student would be the one behaving inappropriately, if the professor wasn’t keen to enter the relationship and yet felt backed into it.

      Everything centers on control: did the two parties independently and freely consent, or did either somehow exert a form of force on the other? Forced relationships are wrong. But nothing about consensual, legal, relationships should ever be deemed as wrong.

      1. A: I think you’re missing the point of the above comment that the relationship between a faculty-ugrad can affect other students outside of the one involved in the relationship and thus affects academic freedoms.

        B: As faculty are in the senior position, I find it hard pressed that they would be somehow coerced into a relationship unless somehow black mailed? This seems like a stretch since the academic power ( grading, letters, recommendations etc) lies with the authority figure.

  6. I agree with the Committee’s initial proposal to ban romantic relationships between faculty and undergraduates. I understand and appreciate arguments about taking away agency from our undergrads, but the imbalances in “agency” and the risks involved in such relationships are too great for them to be lumped in with the other relationships the Committee has considered.

    We must send an extremely clear message to our faculty about such relationships.

    Relationships are most likely to leave a “bad taste” – or much worse – if there is significant asymmetry in power, expectations, or information/understanding. These asymmetries are generally largest for faculty-undergrad relations.

    Like all bans on human relations that have been enacted over the millennia, I expect this one to be violated. In some circumstances I would hope that such violations would lead to dismissal. In others – e.g., a 25 year old assistant professor dating an undergrad outside her or his field – I would expect accommodation.

    In the event such relationships occur, there could be some consideration when deciding consequences as to whether the relationship was disclosed.

    So I suppose I’m arguing for a ban, with fine print for guidance of those who must determine the consequences of violations.

  7. I posted comment Number 2 above dated 15 December 2017, and I have not changed my mind based on others;’ ensuing comments and the Faculty Senate discussion. I disagree in principle with any blanket prohibition on relationships between consenting adults based solely on their membership in certain groups when “radius of authority” is not an issue. The proposed policy attempts — and in my view fails — to mount an academic argument justifying why faculty-grad relationships can be okay but faculty-undergrad relationships can’t. I’m sorry, but this sounds like a miscegenation law, as someone in the Senate noted. The proposed prohibition is there because of someone’s idea of what’s creepy.

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