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I am a 32 year old Assistant Professor. I met a girl at a conference. I liked her, but I realized she is a graduate student at the same university where I am faculty member. She is from the same school, but from a different department. Is it ethical for me to date her?

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    It might be "frowned upon". – Eric Duminil Mar 3 '18 at 9:27
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    What are the policies at your school? The answer seems specific to your universities policies. – Richard Erickson Mar 3 '18 at 13:50
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    @RichardErickson We live in a very dark age if ethics is decided by a school policy... – Bakuriu Mar 3 '18 at 18:50
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    I know two Ph.D. students who dated and eventually married their thesis advisers. This caused administrative headaches, since the adviser couldn't be a member of the committee that evaluates the thesis. But no one prohibited or prevented these relationships. – Andreas Blass Mar 4 '18 at 3:05
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    I owe my existence to a not dissimilar arrangement. I don't feel unethical. – Strawberry Mar 4 '18 at 14:34
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I hope it's ethical! (My husband was a graduate student at the university I'm a professor at, in a different department in the same school, when we started dating.)

The core ethical issue in faculty/student relationships is the power dynamic: it creates an ethical problem if you have power over her career, either in a way that could favor her (leading to concerns about favoritism) or disfavor her (leading to concerns about coercion).

In separate departments, that's not likely to be an issue: most assistant professors at most universities don't have power over graduate students in other departments. There are still situations where issues could arise - say, if you ended up on the panel choosing which grad student from the school would win a prize, and she were a candidate; or if you were asked to be the outside member of her thesis committee (at a school which picks outside members to be professors from other departments).

So, unless your school has a specific policy on the subject, it's probably ethical, as long as you make sure to avoid being in a position that creates a specific conflict.

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    "unless your school has a specific policy on the subject, it's probably ethical" Policy and ethics are orthogonal. If a university had a policy to not admit black students, it would be unethical for staff to follow that policy. If a university has no policy about, I dunno, helping old ladies across the road, it's stll ethical for staff to do that. – David Richerby Mar 3 '18 at 14:54
  • It might be worth mentioning that there is a transparency dimension to consider: Professor X starts dating his student, Y from a different college within his university. All well and good, except the student may decide to take a course taught by his professor partner at a later date, or decide to invite professor X to serve on one of his academic committees. Some universities have policies that student/faculty relationships need to be explicitly registered with the institution for the protection of both parties for this reason. – Alexis Mar 3 '18 at 22:16
  • @DavidRicherby Surely policy and ethics have some independence, but are quite interdependent on one another? There are situational ethics, ethical legalism, and legalistic ethics, right? – Alexis Mar 3 '18 at 22:20
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    @DavidRicherby I didn't read that as "If it's not against policy, then it's probably ethical because it's not against policy.". I read that as "It's pretty ethical, unless it's against policy, in which case it may be ethical to consider the policy when making your decision.". – Daniel Wagner Mar 4 '18 at 0:36
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    @DavidRicherby: All else being equal, I think you have some ethical obligation to follow your school's policies, seeing as you have voluntarily accepted employed there, and seeing as you don't want to put yourself in a position where you would have to keep your violations secret (exposing yourself to risk of blackmail, etc.). This can be overridden by bigger concerns, of course, but I think Henry is 100% justified in qualifying his statement "it's probably ethical" with "unless your school has a specific policy on the subject". – ruakh Mar 4 '18 at 0:38
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You should check your school's HR handbook or department policy. Many institutions have specific rules. If you don't violate their rules, and the relationship is mutually agreeable, best of luck to you both.

I just ran across a publication from a very respected professor, at a very respected institution, who collaborates with his wife, also a professor at the same institution, and a co-author on the paper. His bio indicates he met his wife while on a fellowship.

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    I don't see how the second paragraph is relevant. There's no indication it's the same type of situation, or evidence for it being ethical. – Kimball Mar 3 '18 at 14:47
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    What's problem with collaboration with wife? – qsp Mar 3 '18 at 17:12
  • One of my advisors too got married with a student in a different department... but this does not make a point: plenty of stuff that people do is ethical, even if it is illegal/against policy, and plenty of stuff that people do is unethical, yet not illegal/againt policy, so just because a couple people did something it does not make that thing ethical or unethical. – Bakuriu Mar 3 '18 at 18:53
  • qsp: That's the point, it isn't a problem. I was pointing out an example of a successful marriage/collaboration. The pair in question have been together for 30 years or so, at a very respected institution, and they are themselves respected in their fields, and obviously the institution hasn't any problems with the arrangement. – formergradstudent Mar 4 '18 at 6:47
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I don't see any problem as long as it is assured that she will not be your student during graduation or it is assured she can't get any unfair advantage in academics due to this relationship.

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    Apart from ethics, which is the main question: even if she is not in your department (if she is, tread carefully!) check your university's honour code - even if MBK's advice is appropriate, your institution might still frown upon or even forbid relations between faculty and students (I do not know whether this is limited to being in the same department or also valid across the university). Some places require the declaration of a relation, but permit it as long as no supervision takes place. – Captain Emacs Mar 3 '18 at 3:48
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I generally agree with other posters that separate departments should be distant enough--except that you met at an academic conference, which suggests your areas of study overlap in some way. How big was the conference, and has she already proposed a dissertation that does not overlap with your expertise? Further, depending on HOW you met (e.g., session vs. conference social), it might be murky whether her interest/expectations are about professional networking or a romantic relationship (or, problematically, both at once).

I am a fan of Stanford's recent policy on this. They created an infographic, available here: https://harass.stanford.edu/be-informed/guidelines-consensual-relationships. Basically, NEVER date undergrads, and teachers shouldn't date any student "when a teacher has had -or might be expected ever to have-academic responsibility over the other party." ("Student" here includes grad student, postdoc, and clinical residents/fellows.)

With what you know now, how much does your field fall within all the possible things she might think of studying? (Grad school is broad, after all...) If you study social psychology and she studies sociology of groups, say, you might have too much overlap to ethically date: she might have to curtail her academic interests to avoid taking your classes. (That said, it would be problematic on the other hand if you two developed an academic relationship with an unrevealed desire for a romantic relationship still lurking.)

Also consider what would happen if you dated but broke up acrimoniously. You would have to recuse yourself from judging things she was part of, but what would happen if her advisor recommended she take a class in your field of expertise?

Obviously, as others have said, it would be unethical to violate the expectations set up in your school's policies (unless the policies themselves were unethical, such as Bob Jones University's old ban on interracial dating). But presuming the relationship was OK by your school's policy and your fields of research are separate enough that you are not going to infringe, you might be OK.

You would have to think about how to ask her out directly, once, making it clear that you have no power over her and there would be no repercussions or hard feelings or pursuit if she said no. Or, better yet, hope that she asks you out! (Perhaps see social advice and workplace advice on the delicate question of HOW to / not to ask if you decide to.)

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This actually breaks into two questions:

Is it Ethical? and Is it Okay?

The first is answered most easily by "Check with HR". I have been to universities where the answer has been "Absolutely not under no circumstances", and some where the answer has been "As long as you're not in a supervisory position".

Now onto "Is it ethical?"

In my mind, the biggest issue here is the potential power imbalance between the faculty member and the student, and the ability of the faculty member to influence her career and degree progress positively or negatively.

That comes up most directly in the same department or in a direct supervisory role, but it could also crop up if you're in the same school. For example, if there are school-wide awards, fellowships, etc. where you're potentially in the position to be judging her. Or if you're in a school where committees are often hybrids from several departments, etc. - which might be a thing if you met at the same conference, depending on how big and broad that conference is (for example, the American Public Health Association's annual conference is a massive, broad thing, while on the other hand a specialist conference might end in going 'Technically we're in different departments, but we both work on X', wherein there's a bit of a problem).

At the very least, it needs to be documented that it exists, and there should be a formal plan for how this isn't going to impact her progress. There also needs to be an acknowledgement in both your minds that this is a dynamic question - as your career and hers progress, it may be important to revisit the question and make sure no conflicts exist, and evaluate opportunities that come up in light of your relationship.

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