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Comments on the Section “Rights and Restrictions”

Last Updated: March 9, 2018 at 3:11 pm


  1. This policy is nonsensical in the distinction in draws between grads and undergrads.
    Graduate students are also allowed to take courses throughout the university. To allow them to have relationships with faculty when there is no direct conflict of interest, but not undergrads makes no sense. This is just age discrimination in disguise.

    A meaningful policy should make no distinction between undergrads, grads, staff, and faculty, and restrict relationships to only when there is a direct conflict of interest, and only during the existence of that direct conflict of interest, not the vague possibility of a future conflict of interest. The policy also should emphasize relationships between junior and senior faculty in the same field where the real conflict of interest lies, especially if they are married, and one is hired because of the other.

    Our obsession with age is not consistent with the interest of the institution, but reflects only our latent bias and discrimination against age.

  2. The policy is reasonable and well crafted. However, the actual policy (as opposed to the scope, rationale, etc.) should be clearly identified. So many of our policies have an extensive preamble and background so that it is difficult to actually find the policy text. Here the policy itself should be clearly identified as such (rather than “Rights and Responsibilities”) and should be easily extractable so that it can have wide distribution and quick reference.

  3. The line between a consensual or a non-consensual relationship between people with very different power or authority levels is blurred. Consent requires complete freedom not to consent, and when power is unequal, that does not necessarily exist. So I would prefer that the word consensual be left out of the policy. Just say that the relationships are prohibited.

    Secondly, professional students, such as 4 year students achieving a DVM degree, are more like undergrads than graduate students in their relationship to the power of their faculty. Professional degree students need to be clearly included in this policy document. There have been a number of relationships between faculty and DVM students during the past 16 years that have had to be addressed by the college and university.

  4. I find these sentences ambiguous: “A romantic or sexual relationship between a faculty member and a subordinate who is either a graduate student or post-graduate is prohibited under this policy if the faculty member has authority to make decisions that can affect the academic progress or professional advancement of the subordinate. This includes faculty members who hold administrative positions in the subordinate’s department, school, college, center, field, laboratory, or research group. ”

    Suppose that a department requires the faculty member to recuse themselves from all decisions directly affecting the graduate student they are involved with. Such an arrangement seems possible for at least some administrative positions they might hold. In that case, they would explicitly lack “authority to make decisions”. I think the policy should make clear whether such arrangements can be allowed — and I think it should allow them.

  5. The current draft appears to pursue two goals: (a) to make a broad and public statement that signals awareness of and sensitivity to the problem and (b) to provide an actual policy that is actionable in our everyday lives. At the moment, the conflation of the two results in a rather convoluted text (including seven or so attachments), which is difficult to understand and communicate. My concern is that despite the very good intentions the current draft looses a lot of its intended power by wanting to achieve too much at once.

    Would it be possible to disentangle the two elements and arrive at a clearer and better crafted version of the /actual/ policy, maybe with the help of a person experienced in drafting policy and legislation?

  6. One can claim that the proposed prohibition is ​anti-feminist, but many feminists, including ​the two senators from the law school, would ​strongly ​disagree with that claim. The “right” of faculty and undergraduates to have sex with one another necessarily creates an environment in which sex and romance between students and faculty are always a possibility. ​College should be a place where professors serve as educators and mentors for students, a role that is comparable to that of other sorts of professionals with fiduciary obligations to their clients, including doctors, therapists, and attorneys. Part of the fiduciary obligation is an understanding that the fiduciary–the professional–will not look at the client as a potential source of sexual gratification.

    Status-based prohibitions against sex are sometimes protective ​of agency ​and beneficial​​.​ That may be why all six undergraduates on the committee came to the conclusion, after careful study, that they did not want the “right” to have sex with their professors. ​ One example ​of a protective status-based ban ​is the incest prohibition between parents and adult children. There is a reason that people become upset when they hear the President of the United States seemingly expressing sexual desire for his daughter. ​We​ view parent-child relationships as healthiest when sex is simply not a possibility​, even in adulthood​.

    Another reason to prohibit faculty-student sex is that it creates an uncomfortable state of affairs for the many students who know about the relationship but are not themselves involved. They may come to think of themselves as potential sex partners for the professor or may wonder why they were not chosen​ and whether this could hurt them in some way​. None of this is good. If ​a student truly wants a relationship with a professor, he or she can wait until graduation.

    Eliminating the possibility of sex between faculty and undergraduates does not deny anyone agency. It recognizes instead that not all consensual relationships are truly voluntary​. Consent simply means that the relationship is not rape. It does not mean that there is no coercion. Sexual harassment at the workplace, for example, can involve an exchange of sex for some benefit. ​This is called “quid pro quo sexual harassment.” ​The sex is consensual, and yet it is nonetheless abusive and correspondingly unlawful. Even when a student is not in a professor’s class at the moment, the power disparity is such that the student might well feel unable to refuse an overture, knowing that the professor could potentially retaliate if the student later wishes to take a class with him or her. And again, even if the student is completely comfortable with the relationship, other students who worry about being the next target might not be.

    The students have spoken through their representatives and do not want sexual access to the faculty. To reject the prohibition that the undergraduate students themselves seek will not empower students. On the contrary, it will look to all like a faculty move to preserve its own carnal prerogative.

    Sherry F. Colb
    Law School

  7. Age is relevant to issues involving sexual consent. Yet age is not the only difference between undergraduate and graduate students. Graduate students have achievements and responsibilities that can put them on a par with faculty while, at the same time, these graduate students have significantly less authority, income, and security than faculty. The possibility for abuse remains significant with graduate students, also.

    The idea that undergraduates might have the “right” to have sex with faculty strikes me as unfounded. Faculty have the right to set their own professional and ethical standards. Such standards do not insure that all faculty will abide by them; they help to establish a faculty culture that respects students, that does not condone using students as objects for emotional or sexual gratification.

    Additionally, about power differentials and consent: it is not just the threat of future retaliation that’s at issue. It’s that our context predisposes students to be trusting, open to, and interested in faculty. Learning can be a stimulating, intimate, and profound experience. In another context, any given faculty member would lose his or her appeal as a potential romantic interest. Because the institutional, professional relationship makes students more likely to accept faculty’s romantic or sexual overtures, the consent is not genuine: it’s structurally predictable. Faculty who cross the boundary and enter into romantic or sexual relationships with students are taking advantage of the access and attractiveness supplied by their institutional role.

    Joanie Mackowski
    Assoc Prof
    English/Creative Writing

  8. I support the ban on undergraduate-faculty relationships, but I wonder, would the spouse of a faculty member therefore be ineligible to enroll as a Cornell undergraduate? Nowadays academics get jobs where they can, and spouses often come along looking for something useful to do. I don’t see any value in reducing their options, in a small town where there are not so many.

    Steve Ellner, E&EB

    1. In response to Steve Ellner’s question about faculty spouses enrolling in undergraduate courses: the policy should not affect a faculty spouse’s ability to enroll in undergrad courses. I think that this situation could even be less awkward than that of a faculty spouse who enrolls as a graduate student. There are fewer professional expectations involved with being an undergraduate, and there wouldn’t be a question of whether or not the two are a “dual-career” couple (or at least not until the spouse completes his/her graduate degree).
      Joanie Mackowski
      Assoc Prof / English / CW

  9. People above are making political statements. University policy should not be used to advance your political agenda. It should serve university interests without impinging on students’ rights. It is nonsense to say that any undergraduate might take a course from you, or age difference automatically creates a power differential, so any relationship is a taboo. Somebody even mentioned incest, for God’s sake! Our students are adults; they are not our children. The policy is paternalistic, prudish, and intrusive. I have exchange students in my class from 8 different countries. Theoretically any undergraduate anywhere in the world could take my course, and they are all younger than me. So, should we ban any relationship with any undergraduate anywhere in the world. Take your political agendas elsewhere. Stick to strict and direct conflict of interest in policy, involving only your own students or people you supervise. That includes especially junior faculty, and spouses in the same department.

    An additional problem is enforcement. These are consensual relationships. So, the parties will not complain. You have to rely on complaints from third parties with political agendas to file complaints. Then you have to create a whole bureaucracy to investigate allegations, and snoop around with detectives, or rely on hearsay to investigate people’s sex lives. Is that what a university is for?

    Finally, this issue came before the Senate last year. We voted against the undergraduate ban overwhelmingly. How many times will you bring this issue to the Senate? How many times do we have to argue that it is nonsense and vote against it, before you stop? You are damaging the university environment by making it a tool of your political agenda and making a political statement about sexual prohibitions.

  10. I agree with the comments of Sherry Colb and Joanie Mackowski above.

    In order to foster a genuinely supportive a and equitable educational environment, faculty ought not to view any students, at any level, as “potential sources of sexual gratification.”

    Indeed, faculty ought to view their students as similar to their own children in this regard, and should view romantic relations with students in the same light as incestuous ones, i.e. with revulsion.

    The alternative is to create poisonous learning environments in which the students who are groomed are put into doubt as to the source of their teacher’s attentions, and the students who have to watch the grooming are both cheated of their right to equal attention, and also react against the teacher’s favorite.

    So it seems to me that the simplest policy would also be the best: faculty should not have romantic relations with any students, at any level. This should be the uniform, blanket, policy, without exceptions. If further provisions need to be made for violations of the policy (notifications, recusals, etc.), then these should not be couched as exemptions or carve-outs to that blanket policy.

    People who argue that we must allow for human nature because students are incapable of resisting the attractions of faculty are 1) kidding themselves about their own attractiveness and 2) denying those students the agency of being able to control their own romantic feelings. It is a fairly transparent condescension that claims that we must accommodate the poor lambs because nothing in human nature could resist a skeevy old man in a tweed jacket.

    As Professor Colb says, “If ​a student truly wants a relationship with a professor, he or she can wait until graduation.” It should also be said: if you truly want to sleep with your students, then you can resign your faculty position now. You have already betrayed your vocation.

    There is a larger context to this, even beyond the #MeToo movement. Higher education is under a very general political assault now in the nation. A very large majority of one party claims that universities are bad for America:

    One of the most common slanders alleged against university faculty is that they treat their student body as a source of sexual gratification. This has never been true of most faculty, but it has been all too true of some of them. It’s time that we show the world that universities are not backwaters of sexual predation, but rather at the forefront of more just and equitable sexual ethics.

    Tad Brennan
    Professor of Philosophy and Classics.

  11. Because graduate students also take courses across campus, the terms of the restriction against faculty/grad relationships should be the same as they are for faculty/undergraduate relations. Otherwise it’s just age discrimination.

    I support a prohibition on *all* faculty/student relations with the possible sole exception of pre-existing relationships, in which case a recusal plan should be formulated that ideally imposes greater burdens on the faculty than the student.

  12. The policy as proposed is eminently sensible (not to mention long overdue; when I was hired 7 years ago, I was shocked to find out that we didn’t already prohibit faculty-undergrad relationships). The issue is not age discrimination, but power imbalances and conflicts of interest.

    I respectfully disagree with those who suggest that undergraduate and graduate students should be treated as equivalent. Yes, graduate students can theoretically (though seldom actually) take classes across the whole university. However, their funding and advancement are dependent primarily on faculty from their own department and graduate field. Accordingly, sexual relationships with those faculty should certainly be prohibited. However, it’s harder to see how a relationship between, say, a PhD student in Physics and a faculty member in Comparative Literature would cause a serious conflict of interest. Obviously, both parties should be required to disclose the relationship to HR at once if any subsequent conflict of interest were somehow to arise. Under ordinary circumstances, however, such a conflict would not be expected to occur, and there would be little meaningful power differential between the two individuals.

    With undergraduate students, it’s a very different story. Undergraduates genuinely do take courses across the whole university, and in fact our distribution requirements oblige them to do so. Additionally, faculty from across the university may participate on committees (or, for that matter, vote on Faculty Senate resolutions) that affect all undergraduates. Accordingly, *all* faculty members can be said to hold a position of authority over *all* undergraduates. Faculty interactions with undergraduates are thus qualitatively different from faculty interactions with other members of the university community.

    I also disagree with the previous commenter who asserted that exchange students somehow present a problem for the proposed policy. If an exchange student from another university enrolls in your class, then it’s a pretty simple matter not to pursue a relationship with that student while they’re here! If it somehow did come to pass that some faculty member’s undergraduate ex-partner from another college happened to spend a semester at Cornell as an exchange student, then the appropriate thing to do would be to disclose the prior relationship to HR in order to devise some kind of situation-specific recusal plan. However, this does not seem likely to be a commonplace occurrence.

    Finally, a note on age: Not all undergraduate students are 18-22 years old. Some students are “adult learners,” a category that the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives defines as students who start college at 24 years old or older. The new policy would – and should – apply to them as well. Again, the issue is power rather than age. Even if the undergraduate student were older than the professor they were dating, that student would still be structurally subordinate to the professor – and the relationship would still be inappropriate.

    Caitlín Barrett
    Associate Professor, Classics

  13. Two points in support of my preferred policy, of prohibiting sexual and romantic relations between faculty and students at all levels:

    Point 1) Lest anyone suppose that a blanket prohibition on sexual relations between faculty and all students is some sort of ultra-modern political correctness gone mad, let me remind you that it is already part of the oldest code of professional ethics in the West, sc. the Hippocratic oath, about 2500 years ago. That oath includes this clause:

    “Into whatever houses I go, I shall go solely for the benefit of those whom I am treating, and keep myself well clear of any voluntary injustice or abuse. In particular, I shall keep myself well clear of any sexual activity with women or men, free or slave.”

    It is part of the vocation of a doctor to see their patients in a certain light, (i.e. as beneficiaries of their expertise and knowledge), and to strictly avoid seeing their patients in other lights–either as marks to con or rip off, or as potential sources of sexual gratification. If the doctor later in their career sees the former patient in some context in which they are not their patient, then this oath does not bind their dealings.

    Likewise, it is part of the vocation of a faculty member to see their students in a certain light, (i.e. as beneficiaries of our expertise and knowledge, and sometimes as future members of our profession), and not to see them in other lights, i.e. as potential sources of sexual gratification. If faculty interact with students after the students’ graduation, when they no longer stand to them as teachers to students, then their vocation does not bind them in the same way.

    Being a professor is a calling at least as noble and elevated as being a sawbones. The ethical standards it requires should not be any lower.

    Point 2) Discussions of sexual relations between faculty and students often elicit anecdotes about cases in which such a relationship did not result in obvious personal catastrophe. And, for reasons that mystify me, anecdotes of this sort are often brought forward as though they somehow decisively justify the preservation of policies that allow teachers to have sexual relations with students.

    But this is not how we usually judge policies, nor is it a good way to judge policies. There are relatively few policies that are so universally catastrophic, that they always and without exception result in harm. Accordingly, the advocates of even very bad policies will typically be able to point to a few cases in which nothing obviously went wrong.

    For instance, it used to be common in many cultures to smear fresh cow-dung on the umbilical cords of newborn infants. And it did not always and without exception kill the child! So whenever someone wants to defend the policy of smearing cow-dung on umbilical cords, they can always point to Susie and Jimmy and say, “but look—they had cow-dung smeared on their umbilical cords, and they lived happily ever after!”. Indeed, it is quite likely that the defenders of this policy will themselves be among the people in that culture who had cow-dung smeared on their own umbilical cords and survived—those who died from the policy will have less to say in later years. This is called survivorship bias.

    Pointing to the survivors is obviously not a good way to assess the obstetric policy of smearing cow-dung on umbilical cords. Pointing to the cases in which no harm was caused is instead an excellent way to ignore the cases in which extensive harm was caused. To assess the policy, we need to look at all of its consequences, not only the lucky exceptions.

    So too in the case of policies concerning romantic relationships. If some individuals did foolish things in the past and survived it, then I congratulate them, and wish them well. I no more wish the happy couple ill, than I wish Susie and Jimmy to die of deferred tetanus. But I do not want their good luck to be used as a basis for setting policy in the future.

    There are reasons why most of us can point to a few cases where teacher-student relationships turned out non-catastrophically, and yet are aware of fewer cases in which they caused extensive harm. The reasons involve secrecy, shame, threats, and a cultural refusal to see. As the #MeToo movement is showing, extensive harm to women has been underreported for decades and centuries, ignored and covered up. We don’t want to talk about the costs of bad behavior. So instead we talk about the cases where they lived happily ever after.

    And there is another reason why we don’t talk about the catastrophic cases in faculty meetings: the people who were driven out of academia, either when they themselves were in bad relationships, or when they were the collateral damage of faculty relationships with other students, are exactly the ones who have less to say in faculty meetings of later years. This is called survivorship bias.

    Please, can we cease to cite as decisive the same familiar anecdotes of Susie and Jimmie who followed a destructive policy but lived happily ever after? As Mill says in a comparable context, people “really ought to leave off talking a kind of nonsense on this subject, which they would neither talk nor listen to on other matters of practical concernment.” We no longer think it clever to argue against smoking bans by citing anecdotes about your Aunt Madge who smoked two packs a day and lived to 100, or argue against the use of seat-belts by citing that guy Ralph you heard about who wasn’t wearing a belt and so “got thrown right out of his pickup and *that’s* what saved his life!”

    People in the past did a lot of foolish, destructive things, and yet some of them survived. We can defend nearly any policy, no matter how backwards, outmoded, and destructive, by citing the people that it didn’t kill. Citing a few happy marriages is no more clever than this, and no sounder a basis for a good policy.

    Tad Brennan
    Professor of Philosophy and Classics

  14. I agree with the ban for professor/undergraduate relationships for all undergraduates in one’s classes and for all undergraduates over whom one has some academic power (e.g. oversight responsibilities, letters of recommendation).

    But Cornell is very large and the ban is total and both students and faculty have lives outside the university. In principle any student from across campus could be in my class, but in practice it does not happen: I don’t get ILR, Hotel, HD students at all, and I’m sure there are other places in the university that are similar and don’t get my Engineering students. Unlike the graduate student ban, there is no mechanism for recusal (one could have similarly said in the case of field member/student relationships that they could just wait until graduation), nor is there a sense that in our small town relationships could develop outside the classroom in other venues in which the academic relationship does not play a role, nor a recognition that there might be students that are older than the faculty involved.

    I am concerned that after banning the older prof/young student from class/major relationships that we should ban as a matter of professional ethics, we’ll end up with some hard cases that are also banned (the older student from one part of campus meeting the faculty member of similar age from a very different part of campus through volunteer work at the animal shelter). And what will Cornell do then? Will the faculty member still be disciplined? Or will it then have to figure out some mechanism for letting such cases go? If the latter, can we figure out the mechanism now? If the former, are we prepared to make the policy look overly harsh by invoking it in cases in which the given rationale doesn’t apply?

  15. The comment above, that prohibiting faculty-student relationships will also ban relationships that violate no ethical standard (for example, “the older student from one part of campus meeting the faculty member of similar age from a very different part of campus through volunteer work at the animal shelter”) relates to issues that Tad Brennan raises. The comment is a form of straw man argument: that this policy will oppress people who are happily minding their own business and causing no problems. The cow dung on their umbilici did not kill Susie & Jamie, but the polio vaccine *might* kill them. Such a perspective underlies the need for the #MeToo movement: that a hypothetical long-shot exception might seem like a valid argument against anti-harassment regulations. It’s not.
    Joanie Mackowski
    Assoc Prof, English / CW

  16. The university must limit efforts to interfere with the private lives of students and employees in as much as possible. Any unnecessary interference would run counter to the spirit of intellectual, creative, and emotional freedom this university is built upon. Policy should make no distinction between undergrads, grads, staff, and faculty, and restrict relationships only to situations where there is a direct conflict of interest, or it is likely that a future conflict of interest will arise. And if something happens nonetheless? It must be reported and addressed, protecting, and helping (instead of “disciplining” ) those involved to deal with the situation.

    Further I’m taken aback by some of the comments that view sexual relationships between students and faculty primarily in terms of “sexual gratification”. The possibility of intimate relationships should not be viewed in such terms – do I have to remind us that intimacy, especially when combining the physical and spiritual, is something wonderful? The fact that sexual exploitation exists and that there are people looking for cheap gratification should not trick us into rejecting our humanity.

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