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It is commonly understood that romantic relationships between faculty and students at the same university are frowned upon, or explicitly forbidden. However are romantic relationships between faculty and graduate students at geographically far away universities acceptable? Are they still acceptable if the faculty and graduate student are in the same field or neighboring field? Is a small age difference between faculty and graduate student ever relevant in such situations?

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    Why should they not be acceptable?? – Thomas Oct 28 '19 at 19:24
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    "commonly understood" aka written in contract... – Solar Mike Oct 28 '19 at 19:25
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    That's really far-fetched. Why not ban all relationships at all? My girlfriend might meet my boss one day and tell him good things about me and then I'm promoted.. – Thomas Oct 28 '19 at 20:27
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    @Thomas This is a reasonable question. I know for a fact that in my state, high school teachers are banned from engaging in relationships with high school students, even if the students in question are both over the age of consent and attending a completely different school. It seems reasonable to ask if policies like this would extend to tertiary education as well. – nick012000 Oct 28 '19 at 21:47
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    I expect it is actually quite common for graduate students to date faculty at other institutions. Many graduate students date other graduate students, and if one of them gets a faculty position before the other one graduates, then they have become a graduate-faculty relationship. – Tyler Oct 29 '19 at 13:18
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Short answer: generally yes.


Long answer:

It is commonly understood that consenting adults are in general free to enter voluntary romantic relationships with whomever they choose, except for people over whom they hold professional authority. Thus, a professor may not have a relationship with her or his own student. That’s a big no-no anywhere I’m familiar with.

As for graduate students in the same institution but in other departments, whether a professor is to be regarded as being in a position of authority over such a student is a matter of interpretation; opinions about this seem to vary considerably, and I think it would be a mistake to characterize any particular opinion as being “commonly understood”.

As for a professor having a relationship with someone who is a student in another university, there may be specific circumstances where that would be problematic, such as if the student is applying for a postdoc or other position in the professor’s department. Even this doesn’t make the relationship taboo, it only means appropriate measures must be taken to ensure the professor isn’t exercising any decision-making authority over their significant other’s application. But generally speaking, other than those specific exceptional circumstances, this doesn’t violate any rules, and isn’t frowned upon by reasonable people.

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    That’s a big no-no anywhere I’m familiar with. — I know someone who married his PhD supervisor. Both remain employed and productive at the same Swedish research institute years later. – gerrit Oct 29 '19 at 8:56
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    @gerrit yes, this is known to happen from time to time. Good for them, I’ll be the last person to tell anyone they can’t marry someone they want to marry. But I hope they reported this when it came time for the advisor/wife to write a letter of recommendation to her advisee/husband. I strongly suspect Swedish academic institutes have rules about such things, just as their counterparts elsewhere do. – Dan Romik Oct 29 '19 at 12:44
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    As the proud off-spring of a such a liaison, I'm happy to report that this 'no-no' is flagrantly breached on occasion. – Strawberry Oct 29 '19 at 16:58
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    @Strawberry I’m sure you’re correct, but it’s also worth pointing out that (unless you are extremely precocious) norms about such things have changed pretty dramatically since the time you were born. – Dan Romik Oct 29 '19 at 17:21
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    As another instance, a fellow grad student in Math/CS was married to a professor in the Liberal Arts faculty. They married several years before she ever thought of undertaking graduate work: should their marriage have barred her from her studies? – jamesqf Oct 29 '19 at 17:41
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Look for guidance to the reasons behind such rules and norms. They serve, formally and/or informally to prevent situations in which one party can blackmail or extort the other into improper acts that affect the institution. The same sorts of rules occur in many large organizations for the same reasons.

Can a History professor adversely affect the career of a philosophy graduate student? Perhaps they can, though it would be less likely in a very large university. But each case would need to be judged individually. They could also improperly work to advance the career of the other person in some situations.

However, most formal rules also have the purpose of trying to avoid the appearance of impropriety, not just the fact of it. Therefore they are normally written (when written) to be a bit more conservative than some would consider necessary. Scandal reflects badly on the institution, of course.

But a relationship between someone at one university and someone else at a different university is unlikely to have the power imbalance characteristics that would raise alarms if their professional association were closer.

So the answer to the question "Is it alright to ..." is normally "It depends...". But some cases are much clearer than others. And predators do exist.

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I'm not as sure as some of the other answers here, although agree with @Buffy that "it depends". Many of the answers here are posted under the assumption that what is wrong with faculty-student relationships is that the faculty member has the ability unfairly advantage the student, but this isn't the only reason.

Part of the worry with staff student relationships is that the relationship is not entered into entirely voluntarily, even if the staff member believes it is (actaully, even if the student believes it is). This is because the staff member has power over the student - but not just concrete power, like grade etc, but also social and cultural power. This differential can also apply outside your own university - students can have a hard time dealing with attention from staff at conferences because the staff member has social capital in the field that the student does not have, thus there might be an element of coercion involved, even if neither party (but especially the staff member) is aware of it.

Thus, to a certain extent, common sense has to be used - relationships that pre-exist the current staff/student status, or two people who meet at say, a Star Trek conversion, without being award of the connection, are clearly fine. Relationships that start at conferences are much more dodgy. As @Buffy said, look at the reasons behind the rules, and ask your self how this applies to your situation.

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    Part of the worry ... is that the relationship is not entered into entirely voluntarily ... (... even if the student believes it is).” Hmm. Respectfully, I find this a rather patronizing, dangerous, and offensive belief, not least because it can be interpreted as playing into the sexist trope that women are weak individuals who need to be protected from their own decisions. How would you like it if someone said “What is worrying about letting Ian Sudbery post his thoughts on stack exchange is that his decision to do so may not be voluntary, even if he believes it is”? – Dan Romik Oct 29 '19 at 20:08
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    @DanRomik I don't see gender mentioned anywhere in this answer? – Marianne013 Oct 29 '19 at 23:33
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    @Marianne013 you’re correct, gender isn’t explicitly mentioned. But I take issue with the idea that graduate students cannot be trusted to make certain consensual, informed, completely voluntary decisions, “_even if the student believes it [to be voluntary]”. It’s offensive and patronizing when applied in a gender-neutral way, and is especially so when applied specifically to women (which it often is, sadly) because of the sexist trope I mentioned. IanSudbery can clarify that his opinions apply to all genders equally if he chooses, which would mitigate some but not all of my criticism. – Dan Romik Oct 30 '19 at 2:49
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    I was careful not to make it gender specific, there are plenty of examples of abusive relationships involving a female adult.Not realizing a relationship is problematic might be a problem for young men because society tells them that they are "always up for it". Irrespective of whether or not you agree with prohibitions on student-staff relationships, that doesn't change the fact that this is one of the reasons such prohibitions exist, and thus is pertinent consideration when deciding if a given relationship will be viewed as problematic by others - which was the original question. – Ian Sudbery Oct 30 '19 at 13:00
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    @Thomas - Its about power differentials. I'm saying that a conference is not a good place to start a relationship between two people with differing levels of power, because it is a place where those differing power levels cannot help but be relevant. Its not really about whether the you can benefit the person you are dating unfairly (this can often be controlled), whether people feel as free in their decisions when dealing with someone more powerful than them, than the would dealing with someone less powerful. – Ian Sudbery Oct 30 '19 at 15:34
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I would carefully check with each school's ethic guidelines, which should be written somewhere. That said, in general, I'd be surprised if there were any issue. There might be some possible complicating factors; for example, some schools will occasionally have faculty from outside sit on a PhD committee, and obviously it would be inappropriate for that faculty member to sit on that grad student's committee. But barring weird situations where they end up having some conflict of interest or authority over the grad student, there really shouldn't be an issue.

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  • I would not check with school ethics guidelines. There's a limit to how repressive those things can be allowed to get. If it's somehow in there I would definitely ignore it. – einpoklum Oct 30 '19 at 0:38
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    No court in any democratic country would accept such a clause. (If there was such a clause, one could also not call these guidelines "ethic guidelines".) – Thomas Oct 30 '19 at 15:02
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A lot of these answers focus on the direct interpersonal aspects of the situation (eg, can two people date).

Here's a direct quote from my university's handbook about another aspect worth considering:

A potential conflict of interest exists whenever personal, professional, commercial, or financial interests or activities outside of the University have the possibility (either in actuality or in appearance) of (1) compromising a faculty or staff member’s judgment; (2) biasing the nature or direction of scholarly research; (3) influencing a faculty or staff member’s decision or behavior with respect to teaching and student affairs, appointments and promotions, uses of University resources, interactions with human subjects, or other matters of interest to the University; or (4) resulting in a personal or family member’s gain or advancement at the expense of the University

For example, this might cover:

  1. Faculty member reviews manuscripts, grants, etc from the lab of the student

  2. Faculty member uses official resources to travel to student's city for borderline reasons, or requests reimbursement for non-work-related costs during the trip (if you want to upgrade to the honeymoon suite, don't pay for it from a grant)

  3. Unusual or preferential access to lab resources while student is visiting ("here's our visiting scholar. Give them whatever they need. Really.")

  4. Sharing sensitive or privileged information (eg third-party manuscripts under review that might affect student's chances of publication).

None of these scenarios is specific to a relationship, but some of these situations might be more likely to occur when a romantic relationship is involved. All the standard rules of good judgment apply.

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