Sunday, October 11, 2015

Students going to work under a professor

Seemingly everyone in academia knows of a situation in which a student goes to work under a professor (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more). Why is this shit tolerated? Come on, everyone knows of this happening.

When I was an undergraduate, I didn't blow the whistle on the metaphysics professor infamous for this, because as far as I was concerned it was pure hearsay: he never came on to me, or any of my immediate friends who admit it. I didn't blow the whistle on the experimental high-energy physics professor who married a former student 30 years his junior, since for all I knew everything was legit: after all, they did have the wedding openly. I didn’t blow the whistle on the colleague about whom I got the expression, “he had a student working under him,” since by the time I found out about this, he’d been gone from our university for over eight years, and I had no idea where he'd gone to, anyway. When I was an accursed Visiting Assistant Professor, I didn't blow the whistle on my incoming department Chair, because he’d married his former student 25 years his junior, and before he'd even arrived on campus anywayplus I was an exquisitely vulnerable accursed Visiting Assistant Professor who considered myself on easy street whenever I could see as much as one year into the future. When serving as department Chair, I worried that I would have to blow the whistle on a colleague, who would go on road trips to scientific conferences and on camping trips for fun with groups of students, where the sleeping arrangements resembled those of youth hostels, but he stopped that when he got married, not to a student or former student.

Nevertheless, faculty having love affairs with students isn’t uncommon. Everyone knows it's wrong, despite some strained rationalizations for it you sometimes hear. Nevertheless, seemingly everyone knows of at least one case of it. Why do people look the other way when it happens? Why is it so widely tolerated?


  1. Why? Because in such settings, doing the right thing often creates trouble for oneself.

    I'm reminded of something I had to deal with at the oil company I worked for right after I got my B. Sc.

    I could spend all sorts of money--usually up to a given limit--without too many questions being asked. All I needed was the proper form and a signature or two. However, if I spent just a few pennies more than I was alotted out of, say, petty cash (paying that extra amount out of my own pocket) there were all sorts of hoops I had to jump through in order to settle the matter. It seemed that the smaller the difference, the more hassle I had to contend with, even though the sum wouldn't have impoverished me and I wouldn't have given it much thought. If I'd kept quiet about it, the company wouldn't have been the wiser and my life would have been much easier.

    Similarly, while I was teaching, I knew of some questionable conduct inside my department involving a colleague and a student. In fact, it bordered on hanky-panky but I kept quiet about it. It wouldn't have done me any good to say anything as the person in question already had an axe to grind against me. All I saw was the one incident, so I had no proof that there was anything more involved.

    Besides, according to the law, both parties were mature and responsible adults, so they should have been prepared to not only account for their actions but take responsibility for any consequences. I simply played dumb and acted as if I didn't see anything as I wasn't about to create problems for myself.

  2. When one's colleagues engage in unseemly behaviour, one needs iron-clad proof that something improper is happening. If not, any complaints can backfire.

    It's like what happened to me several years ago. One day, I found a strange dent in the rear corner of my car. At first, I had no idea who did it or how it happened. Without that sort of proof, I don't think I could have filed an insurance claim and the cost of the damage wasn't enough to warrant a police investigation.

    I could have taken it to a body shop, but it would have cost a lot of money, plus I would have had to wait a few months to get an appointment. (Yup, the drivers in my city are that bad that there's a backlog!) Instead, I hammered out the dent, smoothed it out with putty and sandpaper, and then primed and painted it over. The result turned out pretty good and one would have to look closely to see that anything had happened, which is good, considering that I'm not trained in auto body repair.

    Eventually, I figured out who was likely responsible and what happened. There was circumstantial evidence but I couldn't prove it. The other driver didn't admit to being responsible and it wouldn't have been worth it, or wise, to file a small claims suit.

    In that case, I was better off keeping quiet, repairing the damage myself, and avoiding any hassle with the other person.

    I think something similar could be said about blowing the whistle on a colleague's shenanigans.

  3. "I was better off keeping quiet, repairing the damage myself, and avoiding any hassle with the other person."


    As a young woman, a grad student in a traditionally male field of science, I just wanted to get my degree and get out of there. I aced my classes and also used every bit of charm I could muster to be perceived as likeable. That meant putting up with flirtation and TMI from male professors and learning through the grapevine who to never be alone with. We ridiculed the old goats behind their backs but didn't risk their disfavor by standing up to them.

    Soooo many times a male prof would corner me at a party and tell me all about his childhood and interests and current research. Smile and nod; nod and smile. Touching my arm? Oh, look at the time!

    Twice an advisor or mentor made a verbal move. Both were rumored (accurately, it turned out) to have had affairs with students. A third prof in my department got early tenure despite (?) a pending case of sexual harassment. He had slept with at least four students, three of whom left the department without a degree. I spoke to the campus ombudsman about that, but was told there wasn't any evidence they could act on.

    Once, at a distant conference, a potential network-type mentor met me at the venue bar ostensibly to provide feedback about my proposal. I kept trying to steer the conversation towards that, while he kept bringing up his "friends" in various cities he traveled to frequently. I spoke about my husband. He said he didn't have a friend in my city. I said I needed to be somewhere. (Man, do I thank my lucky stars he didn't slip me a Cosb-- wait, I mean roofie.)

    He'd had lots of side affairs with grad students, but I needed the degree, and he reviewed a lot of grant proposals. So I didn't call him out. Fortunately there was an up-and-coming woman who mentored me instead.

    According to some sociology research I read at the time, men in academia rise in status (or think they do) by appearing to have affairs with students. This study pointed out that the perception of sleeping around was as good as the actual deed, and that professors sometimes cultivated an image when in fact they didn't actually do it. Wish I could remember the reference.

    What needs to change? The rewards of calling out this behavior need to outweigh the risks for both colleagues and subordinates -- men and women. Lower-status men need to see respect for women as colleagues modeled as a set of behaviors that raise a man's status. (Hey, it works for baboons.)

    Since the whole dynamic is not endemic to academia, I don't see real change happening any time soon. But things are better for women than in my mother's day, and way better in our little corner than in the wider world.

    1. Unfortunately, in some cases, if one files a complaint, it can backfire.

      All the other party needs to do is hire a good lawyer and claim that filing that complaint constituted harassment or could be damaging to that person's reputation. In the ensuing legal mess, the original incident may end up being forgotten.

    2. While it's often the case that it's the professor who's at fault, I wouldn't be surprised if there are instances when the student's conduct is questionable.

      I mentioned in a post the other day that, while I was working on my Ph. D., a certain supervisor's dealings with one of his grad students seemed suspicious.

      I knew them both. I wouldn't have put it past him to engage in unprofessional conduct. On the other hand, it wouldn't have surprised me if she willingly went along with it or, for that matter, was the one who started it.

      Both of them should have known better. He was much older than her and he was married with a son still in school. She was quite intelligent and certainly didn't need to stoop to such tactics to succeed.

  4. Yes, I imagine that sometimes the student is consciously grade-grubbing in the lowest way. That hasn't been the case in the 15 - 20 cases I know. What I've seen are situations where a *young* woman (early 20s) thought his attention and seduction were about her talent and potential, having no inkling that this man she respected, liked and trusted had a pattern of screwing and discarding subordinate women.

    I feel very fortunate to have heard enough stories from other women that I could filter the attention through a sieve of skepticism.

    I hope our tennis-playing Thirsty writer is reading this thread.

    1. The most egregious situation I witnessed (i.e. I saw A LOT in my department as a grad student...) didn't involve grade grubbing, but job grubbing. There was a paid summer position available, with an older member of the department who already had a reputation with flirting with students, and his (much younger) 2nd wife was originally his grad student.
      The summer position was highly sought after: several just-graduated MSc students would have been perfect for the job, they were well-qualified for the position, and they were all keen to get the job as it helped bridge the devoid-of-pay period between their graduation and starting a PhD in September.
      Who got the job? A fresh-out-of-undergrad student who had no background in the subject matter of the position and who, in a miraculous set of circumstances, a couple of weeks later, when summer term started, also moved in with the rather ancient specimen (who was recently separated from his 2nd wife).
      Many people in the department were outraged; the other job applicants were outraged. But nobody did squat, and nothing happened.

    2. PP:

      Job-grubbing is commonplace in industry. It's like the old saying: a good lawyer knows the law, a better one knows the judge.

      I've been in that situation as, at one outfit, I was passed over in favour of someone who the boss liked more, even though the "winner" was less-qualified for the position.

  5. The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.

    All is fair in love.

    The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to us all.

    Etc. . . .

  6. Yes, love happens. One of my best friends in grad school married my advisor (whom she never took a class from or had on her committee).

    In my program, they were the exception. (And I am very happy for them.)

  7. most of my students are young women, and I do my best to mentor them, but I always worry that they'll think my efforts are, um, less-than honorably motivated. So I make sure there's a photo of my wife prominently displayed in my office, and I make sure to introduce them to my wife as well. and I never, ever touch them. not even an affection shoulder squeeze. I want to hug them and cry out "you are great! you will set the world on fire! go and make us proud!!!" but I settle for a handshake and whatever verbal and written encouragement I can give.

    1. This may be one of the few areas where women really do have it easier than men, especially as they/we get older (or at least when the cougar isn't a current cultural trope). Still, I don't touch my students, either.

      I like the photo-of-wife tactic (when available; displaying a photo of a nonexistent wife, or sister likely to be perceived as wife, or similar tactics, would be weird, and I suspect that a male-partner-of/plus-male-proffie shot might in some circumstances increase rather than decrease the likelihood of perceived harassment).

    2. thank you. I wish we had a comment edit button because my comment was typo-city. oye.

    3. This, yes.
      I understand that as a white guy I'm not likely to be subject to either sexual or racial harassment, but the fact that I am actually unaware of cases among my colleagues suggests that I'm either more clueless than I imagine or not considered the sort one tells about these sorts of troubles; both options disturb me equally, and the possibility that I'm lucky enough to have worked in departments/divisions with no such issues strikes me as not worth betting on.

  8. I've seen it tolerated, and I've seen it not tolerated. I generally prefer the latter, but, yes, there are exceptions (and adult, responsible ways to handle such exceptions, most of which involve a degree of impulse control, especially on the part of the party with the greater power -- i.e. the instructor. If it's really a once-in-a-lifetime -- or even twice- or thrice-in-a-lifetime, since death and divorce do happen -- thing, it can wait for a year or two to reach full expression; on the other hand, if it's a frequently-recurring itch, there are other, more appropriate ways to scratch it).