Whew, it’s been a hot minute, what with the quarter starting up, proposals to write, paper reviews to submit, etc… To kick things back off on the blog, let’s start with a very fun and lighthearted topic (not) that’s been on my mind lately: sexual misconduct in academia, particularly in cases where there’s an imbalance of power (e.g., a prof and a student).
The reason that this has been on my mind is that over the past year, there’s been a drama playing out at my former grad school. There was a prof who was put on probation after sexual misconduct claims with his own grad student (inappropriate touching), and later dismissed after discovery of a consensual relationship with another student. This guy was a huge giant in his field. Without him, along with several other recent personnel losses, the department is a shell of itself in that research area.
This incident got me to thinking – how common are these cases? To clarify, I consider a case as consensual or non-consensual interactions between two people of different standing in the same institution (most often a prof and a student). In STEM and academia, these cases generally involve a male prof (age 30-60) interacting with a female grad student (age 30ish)
Frequency in my personal experience
So from my academic career (let’s count it as grad school + recent employment), I’ve personally known of several cases of prof-grad student relationships:
- Several cases where I’ve known first-hand one of the people involved (after the fact).
- Several cases where I’ve known the people involved second-hand, and the incidents occurred at the same time and institution as me.
In total, it adds up to 4 cases over 8 years – isn’t that a scarily high number? And that’s only from my personal knowledge. I’m sure there are tons of other cases out there. Statistics are hard to come by, especially for the prof – grad student relationships that I’m sadly more familiar with. A quick Google search turns up that 8.8% of grad students have experienced sexual assault through violence (source: RAINN). The cases I’m thinking about are slightly milder things like inappropriate attentions by an individual over a prolonged period of time, consensual relationships, or serious flirting/favoritism. I’m sure the frequency of that is even higher.
What are the University’s policies on such things? At my school, we receive sexual harassment training through an online course once every two years. The course walks through a number of grey-area case studies that make the course way less snooze-inducing that say, our cybersecurity course (yes, I know not to give money to Nigerian princes). As faculty, we are obligated to report what a student tells us if we believe it violates Title IX. If the student wishes to say something in confidence, we can point them to other professional resources on campus.
As for the policies themselves, any kind of sexual relationship between two people with a direct supervisory relationship (e.g., thesis advisor, classroom instructor) is a big no-no. Similar rules apply if the two people expect to have a supervisory relationship in the future (e.g., a junior student and a prof in the same department). This seems like a clear-cut and very reasonable policy to me.
For consensual relationships without a direct supervisory relationship, the rules vary across schools. At my current school, those are allowed. At my former grad school, it’s treated as professional misconduct, but not sexual misconduct, and is investigated by a different office on campus. This seems like a way more fuzzy area to me.
The most unclear case in my mind are these consensual relationships. The reason that I’m conflicted is that some of my close friends have been involved in these cases. If people are consenting adults, should they be allowed to have a relationship? What if there’s an indirect supervisory relationship (e.g., same department, but not the student’s advisor)? What if it’s not called a relationship, but it’s some weird limbo “it’s complicated” state of affairs? I find such relationships creepy due to the age and experience differential. However, I somehow still find myself having sympathy for the people involved. Despite the creepiness factor, I think they’re overall good people who were not out to gain favor or abuse power… But maybe I’m biased because, like I said, they’re my friends who I knew for years before any of these stories surfaced. Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
There have been plenty of stories of prof-grad student relationships, outside my personal experience. Some of these cases have resulted in public disclosure and disciplinary action, some have resulted in a quiet departure of one or more of the people involved, and some have resulted in marriage. While there’s a high chance for abuse of power in such relationships, it seems that some of them have worked out.
Opinions in my social circle
I’ve discussed with various colleagues, former labmates, and friends and have seen a range of opinions. Most people are of the opinion that the behavior in these cases was wrong, and the more senior person bears most of the responsibility to limit this behavior. Some of my senior colleagues have a more traditional mindset, believing that that both parties have the responsibility not to act in any way that could cast any doubt on their propriety (for example, not accepting a one-on-one invitation to a non-public location).
Among my close friends, despite disagreement about the specifics, our general consensus is that these things are incredibly sad. It feels unbelievable that things like this could be happening under our noses. The happy veneer? Well, there were dark undercurrents going on the whole time. It’s not good for the people involved, it’s not good for the other students, and it’s not good for the reputation of the department.
That’s it for my mini brain dump! I don’t really have any conclusions, unfortunately, just opinions and open questions. Sorry for being a bit vague about some of the details – it’s a small world, as you know.
One encouraging thing is that there’s been quite a lot of public discussion by our research community in the form of tweets, Facebook posts, public letters, and so on. Some of these debates have gotten quite heated. It’s nice to see that the community is taking notice and discussing these issues. Welcome to the modern world! #metoo hits academia.
What are your workplace’s rules regarding employee relationships? What about consensual relationships? Are these issues are common, in your experience?