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Q3. What Needs to be Said About Power Differentials?

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Talking Points

Suppose A and B are in a consensual relationship and that A has the potential to exercise authority over B.

  1. How should the policy assess the magnitude of the A-to-B power differential? Does the magnitude of the differential correlate with the duration of its effect?
  2. How can  the policy discourage underestimations of the power differential by both A and B?
  3. How can the policy sensitize both A and B to the fact the power differential may lead to different definitions of what  constitutes ethical behavior?
  4. How might perceptions of the power differential evolve as the relationship evolves?
  5. How should A respond if B is the one pursuing a relationship and initiating romantic or sexual interactions?
  6. What about the argument that says many relationships in the workforce have a power differential so students better get used to dealing with it?
  7. Different cultures may have different assumptions or standards as to what constitutes a power differential in an academic relationship. How should the policy address this fact?
  8. Is it possible for a relationship be fully consensual when there is a significant power differential?


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Last Updated: December 5, 2017 at 2:51 pm


  1. We should say nothing about power differentials, but focus on conflict of interest. Direct conflict of interest between a supervisor and supervisee is the only institutional concern. The rest is all moral policing of sex lives, and completely inappropriate. More importantly, power is a complex topic and has been completely politicized. It is often used to depict young women as helpless victims, and older men as predators. That is insulting to the intelligence of anyone who studied any sociology, and ignores the sexual power of young women, and their agency to decide their own sexual lives.

    If you decide to include power differential in your policy, I strongly advise you survey the female students, and see how strongly they will be opposed to such a paternalistic control of their sex lives. For an institution that criticizes patriarchy, and encourages women to have freedom of choice and agency, it would be a travesty to have such a paternalistic attitude to adult students’ sex lives and limiting their choices on the basis of age and some politicized and ill-defined concept of power.

    Once again, power differential is relevant, only to the extent that it causes conflict of interest. Otherwise, it is just moral policing.

  2. I am surprised that none of the guideline questions discuss the issue of age differences and how they relate to power differentials. I believe that relationships between faculty and all students, as well as relationships between graduate TAs and undergrads, should be strongly discouraged, but that there may be exceptions made when graduate students, or non-traditional undergrads (over the age of 22) are involved with similar-aged people who are NOT in a position to grade them, nor in the same department or inter-disciplinary program. For example, a 35 year old grad student and a 35 year old faculty member in different colleges might be able to have a relationship where the effect of the implied power differential is minimized. Age must be considered because I think we can all agree that a relationship between a 60 year old faculty member and a 22 year old grad student, even if they are not in the same academic program, is hugely asymmetrical. I’m not sure it’s fair to tell two people who meet outside of a University setting (for example, doing triathlons, or helping at their children’s school activities) that they cannot be friends because they both happen to have Cornell affiliations that differ in power/status.

    1. For discussion, taking your example of the 22 year old student and the 60 yo faculty member from completely different programs: 1) In what way are they “asymmetric” besides age? and 2) Even if the interaction is unwise, why should CU be involved in trying to regulate it?

  3. Please also consider the damage done to employees who are in the same office as a faculty/staff relationship. The damage to the office environment can be substantial, especially when the employee in the relationship with the faculty member receives special treatment and the other employees in the office are treated poorly. Sexual favors are definitely rewarded at Cornell.

  4. When I was an undergrad lab assistant at an institution, I worked one-on-one with a professor who gradually developed a more familiar relationship between us. This person initiated text conversations about unrelated topics, invited me on one-on-one hikes on multiple occasions, and ultimately requested that I help him prepare their home for their impending sabbatical leave, which culminated in their request for explicitly romantic activity. They would also frequently touch me on my head, hands, and neck, in a manner that could be interpreted as playful. I did not wish to upset them by rejecting their requests or telling them I was uncomfortable, due to wanting their approval in an academic setting, but the boundary between academic and personal became very blurry. From my experience, I do not believe a relationship between students and overseeing faculty, such as mentors, should be permitted at all, and believe it is the responsibility of the mentors to be aware of this.

  5. I couldn’t disagree more with the commenter above when she says university should enforce age related restrictions, because “is is inappropriate for a 60 year old faculty member to have a romantic relationship with a 22 year old student”. That is moral policing and paternalistic. It is not any of our business to enforce your moral code, and it is YOUR moral code. University should not be in the business of enforcing personal moral codes, but only concern itself with conflicts of interest that effect university business. University is not a substitute parent!

  6. The term “power differential” calls to mind threats and coercion that are sometimes at play. However, there is also the seduction of power. Having an affair with someone older, respected and admired who is interested in little old me is thrilling.

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