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  Cornell University

The University Faculty

Office of the Dean

The “Rationale” FAQ

Below are answers to some of the more challenging questions that have been posed by the community during the course of Committee deliberations.  Most of these concerns were brought to our attention through postings on our website and by various outreach efforts to the assemblies and other groups on campus.

What is wrong with the current policy?

The current policy (a) sends all problems and disclosure situations to the “supervising dean,” (b) has a narrow view of conflict of interest, (c) does not address the harm to third parties that can result from a climate of favoritism, and (d) does not acknowledge special obligations to undergraduates. Furthermore, the current policy is buried in the Faculty Handbook, which works against community awareness and promotes the view that the faculty somehow “own” the issue.

How big is this problem, and what statistics are available?

A: It is difficult to answer this question with precision because of underreporting, institutional reluctance to publish unflattering statistics, concerns for confidentiality, and nebulous definitions of “consent’’. However, what is true is that more and more instances of the problem are being reported by the media as this  collection of recent articles reveals. While we have limited data on consensual romantic or sexual relationships in academia, we do have some surveys on nonconsensual sexual harassment and assault in the academy. The 2015 AAU Climate Survey of Sexual Assault and Misconduct, the  #MeTooPhd Survey, and this 2018 report on  Power in the Academy all suggest that sexual harassment by faculty is a major issue in higher education. Although Policy 6.4 handles the prosecution of harassment cases, we need an effective Policy 6.x to help prevent such cases from happening in the first place.

Why is there  support for the prohibition of romantic or sexual relationships between faculty and undergraduates?

An undergraduate degree involves experiencing the university broadly. This expectation of breadth is manifested in distribution requirements and the foundation of the liberal arts education. As a result, any faculty member is a potential course instructor, research supervisor, or academic mentor. This is amplified by the common practice of delaying or changing the selection of one’s undergraduate major(s). A ban on faculty-undergraduate relationships helps ensure that all undergraduates have full access to any study they choose, based on academic ability and inclination alone, by eliminating the conflicts of interest that arise from past or ongoing romantic or sexual relationships with an academic authority figure.

Undergraduates have had, on the whole, less experience with the structure and culture of the academy, and consequently have less developed understandings of power imbalances and hierarchies within the university. Whatever their life experience before matriculating, undergraduates by definition have not had prior experience successfully navigating this specific system. This hinders their ability to calculate the extent and duration of academic authorities’ influence on their degree and professional progress.

Why is there  support for the prohibition of romantic or sexual relationships between faculty and graduate or professional students when both are affiliated with the same graduate field or degree program?

Graduate and professional students apply and are accepted to specific fields of study. Unlike undergraduates, their degrees rarely require unforeseeable coursework outside of their chosen field, and they are not expected to change fields. While coursework and research outside of their fields may augment their studies, neither is usually a precondition of successfully completing the program. In addition, graduate and professional students are experienced members of academia and can more accurately gauge the extent of conflicts of interest. Therefore, a blanket ban is unnecessary outside of the field, although more limited restrictions are nonetheless advisable.

Within their fields, graduate and professional students must take courses from and are subject to formal and informal evaluation by field faculty, even when those faculty are not teaching required courses or directly supervising the student. For graduate students, any field faculty member may challenge the validity of a student’s dissertation defense to the Dean of the Graduate School. Despite varying practices by field, graduate students enter the university without having formally assembled their special committees; prior or ongoing relationships with faculty members restrict the student’s potential opportunities for that committee. While special committees, primary investigators, laboratory supervisors, and so forth may not be part of the graduate student’s field, those roles are significantly more likely to be filled by faculty within the field.

Professional students lack many of the formal structures of the graduate field and special committee, but as professional faculty are overwhelmingly selected for expertise in a specialized area, relationships with faculty members in the professional field would preclude a student from pursuing certain careers. Graduate and professional students apply to programs with a reasonable expectation of being able to access faculty based on their academic merits.

Isn’t an undergraduate/faculty relationship ban age discrimination?

Age discrimination is a specific legal term but is not relevant here because the policy applies to undergraduates regardless of age. The policy does take into account “academic age” in that commitment to a graduate or professional program assumes a nuanced understanding of how students depend upon faculty, informed by the applicant’s (anticipated) completion of an undergraduate degree. Enrollment in an undergraduate program does not.

Why not eliminate the ambiguities of disclosure and recognize obligations to students’ education by banning all faculty-student relationships?

To maximize total positive impact, the policy must land somewhere in between “total free for all” and “total ban”. We worry that a total ban would increase the potential for coercion because so much would be driven underground. To make an analogy, the University could ban all fraternities as a way to solve the hazing problem. But that gesture would just distance bad behavior from the University and diminish the chance of real risk reduction that can be realized through education and awareness.

What does this policy say to individuals who are now in successful relationships that came out of power imbalances that are now prohibited?

There once was a time at Cornell that it was not deemed necessary to have a Policy 1.7 (financial conflict-of-interest) or a Policy 6.4 (prohibited bias, discrimination, and harassment). However, acceptable standards of behavior change with times and that includes how we think about romantic and sexual relationships in the workplace. While there are certainly many examples of student-faculty relationships that have played out happily, there are also many examples of those that did not. Moreover, society has a heightened awareness of the negative effect that such relationships can have on workmates. As to being judgmental, would we condemn the 1955 driver-parent who let their kids sit in the front seat without seatbelts? By today’s standards that would be irresponsible and we can act on that without insulting past generations.

Won’t the policy set up a Big Brother network of informers who are driven by puritanical concerns?

The current Title IX reporting system and the current hazing reporting system are staffed by professionals and maintain a respect for privacy and due process. Those reporting systems do not give voice to spurious accusations thanks to their robust procedural safeguards. A well-designed 6.X reporting system could work just as well. The system would guard against degradations of the learning environment that result through favoritism, something that is not generally regarded as a puritanical concern.

The goal of the policy is to inspire ethical behavior not through the threat of punishment but through a heightened sense of awareness of the underlying issues. Such is the goal of the University’s Code of Academic integrity and the Campus Code of Conduct. A formal process can ensure better protection of all parties than informal systems such as whisper networks. Furthermore, the policy does not turn community members into mandatory reporters. In contrast, most employees are required to report anything they learn about incidents of sexual harassment and assault to the Title IX Office.

Why single out romantic and sexual relationships? There are any number of conflicts of interest, and this seems like moral policing.

Romantic and sexual relationships are not singled out by University Policy. One can say that Cornell has no business “policing” the outside financial activity of the faculty. After all, the faculty have the right to make a decent living. Nevertheless, it is in everybody’s interest that these activities not undercut faculty commitment to the University mission of teaching and research. Thus, we have Policy 1.7 that deals with financially-based conflict of interest and an office that assists faculty and others in navigating these waters

By analogy, one can say that Cornell has no business “policing” the romantic activity of educators. After all, educators have the right to choose their relationship partners. Nevertheless, it is in everybody’s interest that these activities not undercut faculty commitment to the University mission of teaching and research. Thus, we need Policy 6.X that deals with romantically-based conflict of interest and an office that assists faculty and others in navigating these waters. We have modeled the disclosure component of Policy 6.X in part after the Financial Disclosure apparatus

Why is there  the need to address indirect authority?

A policy that underestimates the power of indirect authority underestimates the potential for damage to third parties. It is not enough just to protect the academic freedom of the subordinate via a disclosure mechanism. The policy must ensure that those who are in the vicinity of the relationship have their academic freedom protected against the undermining force of favoritism. Moreover, in tight-knit disciplines indirect authority has significant influence over students.

Why talk about power imbalances instead of just conflict of interest?

The type of conflict of interest that the policy addresses is made possible by the power imbalance that naturally exists between (say) a faculty member and a student. It is impossible to disentangle the two concepts.

Why is it necessary to restrict young women’s sexual agency?

Although we have received a number of questions regarding young women’s sexual agency, it must be stressed that 6.X applies to members of the Cornell community regardless of gender, gender expression, or sexuality. As an educational institution Cornell values agency with respect to academic decisions over agency with respect to romantic and sexual relationship decisions in the workplace. The feminist movement has brought about many positive changes in higher education; however, there remain major shortcomings—voiced especially by female graduate students—and this policy is trying to do something about it

As we began drafting guidelines in Fall 2017, the undergraduate students who were on the committee studied the issue, discussed it amongst themselves, and asked for these guidelines for conduct. Compared to existing policy, this one consulted the relevant parties, especially those from student female communities.

What protects authorities from angry ex-partners weaponizing this policy?

If the relationship was prohibited and/or undisclosed, then the policy ensures that there will be a fact-gathering process followed by a fair and transparent adjudication, rather than a leap to premature judgment. Grandfathered relationships and certain others will still have to be disclosed, which gets some protection for the authority. If the ex-partner alleges coercion, then the situation falls under Policy 6.4 (as it would absent this policy) rather than the Consensual Relationship Policy.

Wouldn’t the rationale behind the ugrad-faculty prohibition also require that we ban children of faculty from attending Cornell?

There is an exception for people whose relationship predates their affiliation with the university and another to ensure that the ban does not impede a student’s educational opportunities. Analogously, if a professor’s child applies to Cornell, the relationship should not impede their educational opportunity so long as there is disclosure and recusal insofar as possible. Such a situation is already covered by Cornell’s policy on nepotism.

Is this policy driven by fears of legal action and by an overreaction to national events?

The committee has been mindful of the changing legal realities in light of incidents at the University of Rochester and other peer institutions, which have shown that weak and ineffective policies cost universities millions of dollars and the respect of their peers. However, while this is a very legitimate concern, it has not been the primary factor in the Committee’s work or decisions

With respect to the policy being an overreaction, it is important to review the timeline of events on-campus and off-campus. The Faculty Committee on Academic Freedom and the Professional Status of the Faculty proposed a revision of the existing policy in 2015. Another call for a more systematic revamping of the Cornell Policy emerged from the Graduate and Professional Students association in the spring of 2016, reiterated in the spring of 2017. President Martha Pollack charged the Consensual Relationship Policy Committee in September 2017. Thus, local interest on the issue of consensual relationships between faculty and students—as well as our formal assignment—predates the fall 2017 high-profile episodes and national discussion of sexual harassment and sex in the workplace: Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar, the #MeToo movement, and the University of Rochester case.

What about online relationships and online dating?

We do not distinguish between online and in-person relationships. Where you are aware that a fellow user of a digital system is in a prohibited category, you are advised not to contact them. Where you are aware that a fellow user may be a Cornell student or postgraduate in close proximity to your academic role, we advise exercising caution and prudence. Should you become aware that another party was in a prohibited category after initiating a relationship, contact the Policy 6.X Office.

Last Updated: May 2, 2018 at 11:40 am