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Professors: Beware of Relationships With Students

Avoiding Conflicts of Interest in the Grading Process

One of the most difficult decisions for college professors is whether to engage in a personal relationship with a student. The relationship might start innocently. Perhaps the student goes to office hours frequently. The professor might devote more time than is customary helping a student write a thesis paper or complete a project. One thing leads to another. It’s not always the professor who wants more. Students can be starstruck especially if the professor is well known in the field and admired by others.

The problem with developing a close personal relationship with a student is it might lead to biased grading on behalf of the professor. After all, it’s highly unlikely the professor would give a student a low grade and still expect the student to care about maintaining  the relationship. In extreme cases, an allegation of sexual harassment may be lodged against the professor even if there was no physical contact simply to get back at the professor for a low grade or if he/she abandons the relationship. Student-prof relationship

Another problem is the appearance of bias. It is quite possible other students find out about the relationship and come to believe the student in the relationship is getting favored treatment from the professor. Moreover, there is a conflict of interest between the professor’s role as an independent judge of student performance and the emotion built up when such relationships develop.

A case in point is Colin McGinn, a well-known professor of philosophy (ironic; I know) at the University of Miami. McGinn , who was 61 and married, supposedly sent sexually explicit emails to a 26-year-old graduate student. The full story of their relationship can be read by clicking on this link. Suffice it to say the two parties went back and forth about how deep to take their relationship and they crossed the line more than once.

Eventually, the University found out about the improper relationship and investigated for possible sexual harassment. The university dropped that charge believing the evidence might not substantiate it but called for McGinn’s resignation for unprofessional behavior, which he did do.

Having taught at colleges and universities for over thirty years, I have witnessed improper relationships between students and professors that range from “innocent” hugging as a way to say hello or goodbye to an outright sexual affair. What usually happens in these cases is one party is more invested in the relationship than the other. This creates stress for both parties and may lead to one or the other breaking off the relationship.

There is no easy exit from these kinds of relationships with students. Professors need to learn to keep their distance. There should never be a meeting between the two outside of the office. A line must be drawn between what is encouraging a student to do his or her best and taking advantage of the fact that the student is in the weaker position by going beyond the mentor-student relationship and taking it to an unhealthy level.

Relationships between professors and students are different than relationships in the workplace where dating is all but an acceptable practice. Sexual harassment claims can and are made in workplace romances. One party may have the upper hand: an imbalance of power that favors the employee (i.e., boss) with more power and influence. If it is a superior-subordinate relationship then performance evaluation is a factor that makes workplace romances potentially dangerous. In reality, the same factors are in play in academia.

From an ethical perspective, relationships between professors and students should be outright prohibited when the two parties work together. What about when there is no current teacher-student connection in a classroom course?  In other words, the student may no longer have the professor as a teacher even though such a connection occurred in the past. These relationships may seem more acceptable but still should be avoided because once they surface others will wonder whether the professor has engaged in improper relationships with other students.

A word to the wise: It’s not worth risking one’s life work, as did McGinn, and taint one’s reputation for sexual gratification from an admiring student who may have their own agenda to gain favored treatment. The person in power – in this case the professor – has the added burden of not only acting ethically but also making sure the student doesn’t get the wrong idea about their relationship.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on July 25, 2019. Steve recently published a book titled Beyond Happiness and Meaning that explains the ethics of personal relationships,  workplace interactions and on social media activities. Visit Steve’s website, sign up for his newsletter, and buy his book on Amazon. Follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.