Hands Off Your Grad Students!

Yes, you’re consenting adults. But you’re harming your department, your discipline, and mentors everywhere.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

Some things in academia never change. Even in an age when the feminists apparently control everything, it seems that the practice of older (usually male) scholars sleeping with much younger (usually female) graduate students is alive and … well, I wouldn’t say “well.” With two such relationships making recent news in the discipline of philosophy alone, for some of the older generation of professors (again, mostly male), the grad students are still a dating pool—and vice versa. This is not just icky—it is highly damaging to the profession.

For despite the handful of happy families that result from professor/grad student couplings, the practice has an overwhelmingly deleterious effect on the academic community. It’s not just a matter of two consenting adults’ hearts wanting what they want. Because not only are these relationships almost always an unacceptable abuse of power, they also affect the dynamics of departments, entire fields, and the very act of academic mentorship altogether.

So why does it still happen (other than the fact that people enjoy having sex)? It happens because in many academic disciplines—such as, of course, philosophy, which already enjoys a reputation for misconduct—there is a tendency for beginning scholars to have “philosophical idols,” as explained to me by Meena Krishnamurthy, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba. (Just count the times this author uses the word “hero.”) Thus, the master/protégé dynamic cements power differentials that are simply too pronounced to create a healthy relationship, even if the attraction between the two parties is true love forever.

Not to mention the fact that grad-student/faculty relationships literally ruin careers: When a student and faculty member start sleeping together, rarely is it a well-kept secret; often, the student becomes a departmental pariah. Without support from fellow students (and, often, dismissed by the other professors in the department), many of these once-promising grad students wind up out of the discipline entirely.

Take this example from Carla Fehr, associate director of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession Site Visit Program, which conducted the recent visit to the University of Colorado–Boulder that resulted in the ouster of the chair and the freezing of graduate admissions. Let’s say, Fehr proposes, a woman whose adviser has a reputation for dalliances with students goes out on the job market. “People ask, with a wink and a nod, what it was like getting that letter of recommendation.” If, the next year, she leaves his letter out, she’s then “asked why the famous professor was not writing for her. Her professor’s behavior,” Fehr explains, has “put her in a position where she just couldn’t win.”

Indeed, it is the lasting and pervasive damage these relationships do to the act of academic mentorship that makes them so dangerous. In my discipline, the term for a dissertation adviser is Doktorvater or Doktormutter. I am not just my (upstanding and professional) adviser’s student; I am his progeny. Advisees of the very famous may, indeed, never leave the shadow of their parents’ influence. Correspondingly, advisees of famous student-seducers—male or female, straight or LGBT, platonically relationshipped or otherwise—can easily be tainted for their entire careers. “If a woman co-authors with a more senior man (and notice the heterosexism that we always assume heterosexual relationships),” explains Rachel McKinnon, an assistant professor at the College of Charleston, “some people either explicitly or implicitly suspect that they’re in a romantic relationship, and that the senior scholar only offered to help her publish for romantic interests. This happens even if there’s no truth to it.”

And the consequences go far beyond the couple. When a professor dates a graduate student, no matter how it turns out for them, it harms everyone in the department. “The reputation of a department follows all of its graduate students, sometimes in ways that are very unfair,” explains Fehr. This, in turn, puts an inordinate amount of pressure on those veritable heroes who somehow manage the feat of not sleeping with their students. “It can encourage straight male faculty to favor supervising male students,” explains Eric Wiland, an associate professor of philosophy (and my husband’s colleague) at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. This, he explains, is “to avoid problems, rumors, and other foul-ups, sometimes self-inflicted.” He gives the dispiriting example of a female grad student he knows at another school, who now gets “less professional attention, because the male faculty in her department are now scared to socialize with her in the way they socialize with their male students, and in the way they used to socialize with her.” And most upsettingly, Wiland says, “this even extends to semi-social things, like informal workshops and lab meetings.”

So what, if anything, can be done? Institutional policies that forbid such relationships? Many universities have these already, and they rarely seem to matter. Off-site visits, such as the one Carla Fehr engineered? As satisfying as it was to see CU–Boulder duly spanked, that resulted in an infuriating amount of rank-closing and defensiveness. Sure, every now and then, a Colin McGinn type does something high-profile enough to cost him his job—but that’s rare. Usually the “consequences” are little more than behind-the-back whispers and the occasional passive-aggressive slight. (One of my mentors in grad school once stuck a very prominent scholar—who had just left his wife for a 28-year-old graduate student—in a near-unattended 8 a.m. conference slot.)

Indeed, most of the time, an accomplished senior scholar can get away with almost any poor sexual decision with a student, and still be respected in the field. Colin McGinn himself is giving a keynote at a high-profile philosophy conference in a few weeks.

A true solution would be to shun proven student-schtuppers from the discipline. Don’t just “encourage” Dr. Loverboy to find another equally eminent job and become someone else’s problem—and then keep inviting him to conferences. A professor who sleeps with students should find him- or herself wandering in the professional wilderness for a good long time.

Because sleeping with students is not merely a personal indiscretion, someone’s private business deserving of continued privacy. It is also professional abuse. It destroys departments and ruins careers. Because of this, sex with students should be on par with plagiarism, or fabricating the results of a scientific study. Scholars who can’t keep it in their pants should stop being able to hide behind the disingenuous guise of a “private life”—or, in rare cases, true love.

And if it is true love? Well, true love waits … until the student defends her dissertation.