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Q5. What About Pre-existing Relationships?

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Talking points

  1. How might the following situation be managed. PhD student X and undergraduate Y are romantically involved at another university. X becomes a faculty member at Cornell and Y becomes a PhD student in the same Cornell department.
  2. How  might the following situation be managed. Faculty member X and PhD student Y, both new to Cornell and in very different fields , become romantically involved. Over time, Y’s research area has increasing overlap with X’s research area to the extent that a close colleague of X is now a member of Y’s Special Committee.
  3. If you do actually think that both of the above situations are manageable, then what makes pre-existing relationships (as in 1 or 2) different from comparable relationships that do not involve physically moving to Cornell or  academically moving into a new research area or professionally moving into a new position of employment?

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Last Updated: December 5, 2017 at 2:54 pm


  1. I think 1 and 2 are manageable through policies like those at Northwestern or Stanford as cited above. Some kind of reporting and, as deemed necessary, recusal.

    What makes them different is that, first of all, they are likely to be rare. “Case by case” and heavy procedural burdens that require great care are always manageable solutions if the incidents that require them are infrequent. So case #1 above can happen, but maybe once every few years across the university. Whereas the “comparable relationship” (PhD student and faculty in same department) might happen numerous times. So that relationship (case #1) gets special treatment because:
    a) the participants didn’t violate any existing Cornell policy, so they deserve something more than regular faculty-phd relationship participants
    b) the university can probably afford to provide that special treatment to them

    As for #2, it seems that allowing this kind of exception is the cost of having a realistic social community in Ithaca, particularly for single people. Also, this would be very similar to any large organization where people can date if not in the same direct area.

  2. It strikes me that pre-existing relationships undermine any possible policy. No matter what rule the committee dreams up, the moment that two individuals show up who already have a relationship of that nature, federal hiring law will force us to carve out an exception. Our rule is then revealed to be a sometimes-rule, applied unevenly.

    We should only legislate a policy if that policy would also apply equally to preexisting relationships. And this in turn says that if the relationship was legal under US federal law, Cornell has no business at all interfering.

    One more comment, though: by definition, such a situation would differ from one in which a Cornell faculty member uses a power differential to force unwanted behavior on a subordinate. You could not have a preexisting relationship of that kind, unless a couple moves here but then one member suddenly accuses the other of a pre-existing inappropriate behavior, which strikes me as sufficiently bizarre to not worry about. So we could have a policy on coercion (namely: “thou shall not”) and it would not run into contradictory handling for faculty and students arriving from other institutions.

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