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You make some good observations in your post, Marcus. I have a small but important thing to add. I don't think it can be a 'consensual' relationship when it comes to a professor and student within your department. The power dynamic is so disproportional that I don't think it is possible. If anything, it strikes me as more of a case of transference/counter-transference. Considering how many people there are out there, why go after someone your supervising and/or teaching? While there have been some 'success stories,' that is certainly not a good enough reason.

My position may seem harsh, but considering how bad these things play out (even with 'successes', as pointed out by Marcus and the ill feelings and atmosphere) I don't think its fair to the student involved.


I'm sympathetic to all of what you say Marcus---in fact, I think you're quite right across the board. Nonetheless, here is perhaps a case that speaks against the claim that there cannot be a `consensual' relationship between a professor and a student full stop. For what it's worth, I'm not sure what my intuitions are in this case but it seems worth considering so as to clear up some of the conceptual space.

Suppose X and Y are a married couple who have a long and healthy relationship in which both partners have always been equals and treated each other as such. X is a professor in a philosophy department and Y has worked in industry for most of their career. Y has some formal training in philosophy and works in an industry that intersects with Y's interests in philosophy. Y decides at some point to return to do their PhD in philosophy merely out of personal interest (i.e. without aspirations to go on the academic job market) and is admitted to X's department. Y's research interests do not overlap with X's research interests and Y does not take any courses from X.

After writing up the case, it seems to me that some of the concerns that you raised in your post might still hold water. Although, I wonder if Y's lack of professional aspirations in the field might avoid some of the worries. Perhaps this case is a bit extravagant and just distracts from the genuinely important issues at stake, so I get it if no one is inclined to consider it. I can't speak for others, but I know that I'm really only comfortable in settling on an analysis when I understand the conceptual space. What do you think?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Anon: thanks for your comment. I guess my first thought is that the case you mention seems so rare that it's not primarily what I'm interested in. I'm interested in arguing against the standard case: professors dating graduate students that they weren't in preexisting relationships with prior to admittance to the program. This is, I take, is something like 99% of all cases.

That being said, I'm on the fence with your case. On the one hand, I'm apt to say that the case is so different that it's not so morally problematic. On the other hand, a lot of the same concerns arise: concerns about unfair professional advantages, etc.

In short, it seems to me a tough case, and I'm not entirely sure what I think of it -- but it also seems to me so remote of a case as to be mostly irrelevant to the more pressing question: which is whether professors should be permitted to date graduate students more generally.


Anon: I don't think your scenario really has much weight in the scenario described by Marcus. The relationship in that situation was already formed before, and obviously consensual, before Y entered into the department. I still think it is inappropriate for Y to enter into a department where X is a professor--even if they work in different areas and wont be crossing paths. It would create an awkward and unfair situation for all involved. I also think most departments would be weary of taking in a student who is in fact the spouse of one of the colleagues. (I also don't see why Y wouldn't just go to another school close by.) As such, I'm not really sure how your example really adds anything to the problematic situation of professors dating grad students.


Thanks for starting this discussion. My initial reaction is that you move too quickly past this: "For, although institutional rules may exist to prevent romantically-based professional favoritism, such rules are, in my experience, largely ineffectual. Romantically-linked partners can and sometimes do benefit tremendously as a result of romantic liasons."

What do you have in mind here? I am at an institution where at least one Faculty-Grad Student relationship existed. It was a junior faculty member and a relatively senior grad student (so that the grad student was just two years younger than the faculty member). They worked in different areas. The faculty member had never been a grader or advisor of the grad student, and had never read a paper by the grad student. Immediately upon the grad student expressing interest (the grad student was the 'first mover') the faculty member told the grad student that they would immediately have to disclose that they were even considering dating, that all future academic interaction would have to end, and that the faculty member could never grade, supervise, write a letter for, or even speak on the grad student's behalf, for any reason, in any professional context. The grad student acknowledged and agreed to all of this, and they then told the chair of their department, filled out the relevant paperwork, etc. Out of respect for both grad student and faculty colleagues, the two never socialized as a couple with either population (spending time with other mutual friends), creating a work/social life firewall. This was pretty easy to do, given that this junior person was the only junior person and didn't hang out socially with the other much more senior members of the department.

In this kind of situation, it's hard to see how there is a risk of unfair academic benefit for the graduate student. What do you have in mind? Now, it's not that there's nothing at all possible in this regard, of course. But it doesn't feel different in kind than the kind of benefit a graduate student might get for being funny, or hip, or into opera or the same kind of music as the faculty, or into basketball (if there's a faculty/student game), or a big social drinker, etc., with respect to getting extra attention, support, etc.

The other concerns: about feeling like a potential 'target' and about 'fall out' do seem like possible concerns. But I wonder whether they are only contingent concerns, given the bad gender balance at most departments. In particular, the 'target' thing seems particularly gendered (what if the above story concerns a male graduate student). And the 'fall out' thing seems to apply just as much for any work relationship (say, between grad students), at least if the work/social firewall presented above has been properly implemented.

Anyway, I worry that you are generalizing from one instance of the phenomenon, and are making it seem that the rules about non-supervision/non-academic support are harder to maintain than they really are.

Marcus Arvan

Anon: thank you for your helpful comment. Here are my thoughts in reply.

I think you are thinking far too much in terms of a "one off" case. An analogy: suppose I gave you a scenario in which someone jumped off of a cliff and lived. What of it? Should we endorse jumping off of cliffs? Another analogy: suppose that some financial brokers do not commit fraud or insider-trading when unsupervised by FCC regulations. What of it? Should we then permit insider trading?

I raise these analogies because I think your "one off" reasoning about the case you mention fails to appreciate similar issues. Just because one faculty member can date appropriately does not mean that we should, as a rule, *permit* faculty-grad student dating. Allow me to explain why I think this.

First, almost all of the faculty that I have known who have had relationships with grad students have been *serial* grad-student daters. They did not just date one grad student late in the grad student's career. Rather, they dated grad students one after another. This is not to say that *all* faculty who date students are guilty of this. But it does, I think, speak against permitting the practice. We should not permit practices in which there are significant moral hazards, even if -- in one-off cases -- nothing is particularly wrong with the case.

Second, I think you are dramatically underestimating the manner in which permitting faculty-grad student relationships *incentivizes* this very type of serial grad-student dating behavior. As I'm sure you are well aware, the vast majority of relationships do not work out. People date, then they break up. Now imagine a young faculty member who has just engaged in the example you give: dating a grad student late in the student's career, with everything "above board." The vast majority of these types of relationships do not work out (again, I've seen it first-hand -- but dating statistics bear it out as well). What then? Well, the young faculty member is "back on the market"...and they have learned that dating grad students can work out. So, they do it again, and again, and again.

You may say that I am being unfair to young faculty members, characterizing them as overly liable to fall prey to these hazards. To which I reply: my experience -- although admittedly anecdotal -- stands strongly in support of the proposition that faculty (young faculty in particular) tend not to be able to avoid these moral hazards. For again, almost all of the cases of faculty/grad-student dating I have experience with were *not* one-off affairs. Almost all of them resulted in serial grad-student dating behavior...which (I say) clearly does raise all of the problems I mention in my post.


Marcus, thanks for your reply.

I think there should be very strong moral norms against faculty "casually" entering into relationships with graduate students (even if the above-discussed firewall is created). This moral norm should be in place for anyone entering into any workplace relationship, simply because things can get complicated and messy if things don't work out. And one can't, of course, be sure that things will work out. But one can be more or less sure that they won't (one might not be looking for a long term partner, for example). And there should be a moral norm against faculty/grad student casual dating, mostly because of the bad effects of serial faculty daters on departmental climate and the "targeting" worry.

(And you're crazy, by the way, if you don't think that a junior faculty member might worry--a lot--about how this kind of serial dating of graduate students will look to his/her senior colleagues. I think the moral norm is more than enough to get compliance, although it sounds like your anecdotal experience provides one counter-instance.)

But none of that speaks to my initial question about your claim that there are no rules that can effectively prevent grad students from benefitting academically from these relationships (from getting "romantically based professional favoritism"). Have you given up that claim?

You now seem to be shifting focus to the bad climate effects, but its not clear what you think is bad--is it bad for the students who are dated, but for whom it doesn't work out? Why? (Assuming the firewall has been successful, this should also limit any professional damage.) I grant that it is bad for the climate, given the targeting worry. But I don't see it being bad for the undated, untargeted students, as your first reason suggests.

Are you worried about the in-between stage, where a faculty member might seek out the attention of potential dates, and that this would benefit those people (although if things went further, the benefits would all be lost)? But that seems to suggest a rule against faculty/graduate student socializing, given that some graduate students are more fun, better to hang out with, bigger drinkers, know more about opera (or whatever), etc.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Anon: thanks for your reply.

I have to disagree with one of your early claims: that one can be more or less sure whether things are likely to work out in a relationship prior to the relationship beginning. Romantic relationships are almost always deeply transformative in nature. People who get along swimmingly on a casual level can, and often do, get along poorly once in a romantic relationship. Romantic relationships are "a different beast" than just about anything else in the world. They can give rise to unexpected emotions and behavior -- jealously, insecurity obsessiveness, etc. -- in even the most well-adjusted people. This is one of the main reasons I think the workplace should be free from them. They are just *not* predictable. Even the best *marriages*, for instance, can end in bitter divorce, anger, resentment, etc. A good workplace should be free from these things, and I am skeptical as to your "firewall" claim.

But setting that aside (as I expect you are apt to disagree), and focusing instead on your main worry -- that institutional rules can prevent grad students from benefiting from these kinds of relationships -- my claim is not that in *principle* there are no such rules, but that in *practice* they do not work.

Here's why I think this -- again, on the basis of experience (and this is very much relevant to the big-name case currently at hand). Consider a particular faculty member who is either "famous" or "up-and-coming" in the discipline. This faculty member is considered so important to their department that *although* there are rules preventing certain types of behavior, in practice those rules are disregarded. Why? Because, if held to the rules, the faculty member is likely to head for greener pastures (a job elsewhere).

The phenomenon here is very similar to another one that I have had an abundance of experience with: special treatment for "star athletes." Although every athlete on a team is in principle supposed to be treated the same -- and there are often rules to this effect -- in *practice* those rules are often bent beyond all recognition.

This, then, is the problem as I see it. You are talking about what could work in *principle*. I, on the contrary, am talking about what works in *practice*. My life experience -- both in athletics, academia, and the broader world beyond academia -- is that "valuable commodities" are almost always given special treatment. My experience, in turn, is that such special treatment tends to produce serial grad-student daters in philosophy departments. And so my claim is that -- on these grounds -- faculty-student dating should be prohibited.

Again, I take it that you will disagree with a lot of this stuff on empirical grounds. I can only speak from experience -- but I think my experience is considerable. I have not only seen things but heard things from many different sources. And -- although the facts may be debated -- I can only judge institutional policy on the basis of the facts as I see them. The fact, as I see them, are that most cases are not like the one-off case you mention. Most cases involve the systematic bending of rules that permit and incentivize behaviors that lead to a hostile work environment in the senses discussed in my post.

I take it, then, that you and I differ mainly over facts. You think policies can prevent harmful environments. My first-, second-, and third-hand experiences strongly suggest that they do not.


Thanks again for your reply, Marcus.

My claim was that there are some cases in which one can be pretty sure that the relationship *won't* work out (one might be wrong--cue the plots for millions of romantic comedies--but one can be pretty sure). Not that one can be more or less sure that a relationship will work out. My suggestion was that one's caution should go up dramatically when one is considering a workplace romance. It still might not work out--you might get it wrong--but you should at least only go into it thinking that this really might be a serious relationship. Teacher/student is really not a good context for casual dating/hookups/flings etc.

(Just as an aside: I think just about every major life experience is transformative in some weak sense. I don't think relationships are unusual in this regard. Something's being transformative doesn't mean we can't make some judgments about likelihood, or whether having that experience is likely to be positive or negative. We never have all the facts about anything; that just means we aren't always right, not that there's no ex ante assessment to be made.)

Your 'big shot' point is very helpful for me understanding where you are coming from. I agree that good rules are often not enforced in a good way against big shots. But there's no in principle reason for that, particularly if the relevant norms shift so that serial dating of grad students is seen to be as problematic as it is. One thing the McGinn case is good for is putting big shots on notice that there might be good rules that will be enforced against a person, even if one has not done one of the few things that used to get a big shot in trouble (quid pro quo sexual arrangements with lots of explicit evidence, rape, etc.).

Our back and forth makes me come to this view: I'd be in favor of a rule that said no senior faculty / grad student relationships.

First, there's likely to be a big age differential and worries about those power dynamics (it's really bad if the person you came to grad school to work with decides he/she has a crush on you, and you don't reciprocate). Second, there's the need to insulate grad students from the mid-life (late mid-life) crisis McGinn-style breakdowns (junior faculty might go through these, but it'd be less likely). Third, I think it's very little cost to impose on senior faculty, who should have their own social world. Junior faculty are often much more collegial/peer-like with graduate students, just because they are often around the same age. Finally, the 'big shot' special treatment problem is considerably lessened. What junior person is really such a big shot so as to both get special treatment and to not worry about how they are perceived? Particularly given how competitive the job market is these days, there can't be more than one or two people each year who are really "stars" in this way, if that many. And to the extent that this might have been the case in the past, I think those norms are shifting fast (a reputation as a serial-dater/harasser will be much more of a career killer than it would have been 15+ years ago).

Marcus Arvan

Hi Anon: thanks for your reply. Here's the problem I have with the moral you want to draw: in my experience, it is *young* faculty -- not senior faculty -- who tend to be serial grad-student daters, and for more or less the reasons you give in your post (viz. people tend to assume there's nothing wrong or unusual with "people of a similar age" dating). In other words, I think the very moral that you want to draw from the discussion is more or less the very kind of attitude that, in practice, fosters a permissive atmosphere toward young faculty that often results in serial dating (and all of the attendant "climate" problems I mention).

I also think you are dramatically underestimate the number of "young stars" who benefit from these kinds of permissive attitudes. Although the job market is incredibly competitive, my experience has been that many departments are all too willing to overlook such behavior for the sake of hiring and/or retaining "young hotshots."

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