#metoo and Power Imbalances in Academia

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Hello, Miss. I’m Dr. Monster.

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.

University policy

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.

Consensual relationships

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.

Conclusions

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?

6 thoughts on “#metoo and Power Imbalances in Academia

  1. In theory, I don’t think direct supervisors should be having relationships with their mentees and the supervisors should bear the brunt of preventing those relationships because *power dynamics*.

    In practice, my best friend started dating one of our managers at work within a couple months of starting that job and now they’re happily married. So, I don’t know. I felt bad about that relationship because of the power dynamic, but after a while realized my personal ethics in that case were getting in the way of being a supportive friend. Honestly, once they stopped working together, I felt a lot better about the whole thing.

    That workplace was very supportive of employee relationships, by the way. As in the president of the company was like, “I’m all for it!” which I found really strange.

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    • I totally agree with you about the theory versus practice. I get really conflicted when I’m discussing the situation with my colleagues – most of us are against advisor-student relationships, which I totally agree with, but they don’t know my friend personally, so I also feel obligated to somewhat defend my friend. In my friend’s case, it was hard for me to reconcile my feelings about the situation because there was a large age gap of ~25 years, which felt more predatory on the supervisor’s part. Whereas I imagine in tech, supervisors and supervisees might be closer in age.

      That sounds like a strange workplace. I would’ve thought industry was more strict about these things with proper HR departments and so on.

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  2. i was never a grad student but dated a supervisor once when i was in my early 20’s. what is sad to me is eventually there will be consent forms to sign, practically. if i were the one in the higher position i think i would try to avoid it just because of not wanting any potential hassle. just sleep with somebody else.

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  3. Like YAPFB, I’m generally of the opinion that people in supervisory roles shouldn’t be having romantic relationships with people who are junior to them. (It just seems like something that needs to be avoided because even the appearance of impropriety must be avoided.)

    In actual practice though, it’s actually not especially uncommon for law firm partners to, er, get in a relationship with an associate (and it tends to be someone in their own practice group/over whom they have some authority). It’s not common enough for me to personally be friends with anyone in that situation, but it is common enough for many people to be aware of gossip about it happening at their firm or a friend’s firm. In general, it actually doesn’t seem to cause real problems. By the time it becomes public knowledge at the firm, the couple has generally already decided that the associate will resign and plan to work elsewhere, and that pretty much solves the problem.

    It does sound like the power differentials in academia are far more likely to lead to abusive situations. I don’t think law firm partners have power over associates in quite the same way as a professor could potentially have over the student. A single powerful and vindictive partner who is very pissed off at an associate (this usually only happens in a more normal work situation where the partner was angry at the associate after working with them on something) may have the power to fire an associate or ensure they can’t really make partner at that firm, but it’d probably take a few months. An associate usually sees it coming and can find another job in that time…

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    • Oh, that’s interesting that the associate has to move. I suppose because it would take a long time for the associate to move up to become equal rank with the partner, when such a relationship would be more acceptable (?). In academia, since there’s a faster timeline for graduation, the couple can just wait a reasonable amount of time after graduation to publicize the relationship (and claim that the relationship started after graduation….sure…).

      Hm, I think you’re right that advisors have lots of power over a student. Academia is a very very small world. In one of the cases I mentioned where the attentions were non-consensual, the student ended up changing research fields within the department. If the student had wanted to stay in the same research field and apply for academic positions, it would’ve been difficult because *everyone* knew the prof, and people in the community had differing views on the prof and student’s behavior.

      In general, yeah advisors have a ton of power over students… probably too much. I have heard real horror stories of profs delaying student graduations, taking their passports, screaming matches… and the closer the student is to graduating, the less likely he/she is to complain, as graduating quickly is the goal at that point. Complaining will just result in changing advisors (assuming there is a suitable and willing advisor available) and cause further delays. This is not common, but sadly a few of these advisors do exist.

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