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It came to my awareness a case of nepotism in my academic network.

It concerns a professor and a former female student of him. The professor and the student had relationship while she was conducting her Master thesis under his supervision. For the year she was writing her thesis, the professor intervened through an academic network he is heavily involved, to give her a scholarship although she didn't have prior outstanding performance. For her Master thesis he proposed her for some industry prize that she obviously won.

After finishing the thesis she changed city and moved to a nearby city for her PhD (also the Prof. was married with 3 children). Within the first 2.5 years of her Phd she hasn't produced any scientific output. The student and the professor visit several conferences abroad together in order to have time for their affair.

Now it came into my awareness that he is planning to involve her in a prestigious exchange program so that she will be able to work in his city. The plan involves a newly founded start-up and some of his collaborators/friends abroad. She will "collaborate" with the collaborators abroad, but from distance since the start-up claims to be flexible with location. So in essence, she will appear to be working with some other Prof. abroad to get accepted into the exchange program, but she will work remotely from the city of her boyfriend professor. Also the Professor recently broke up with his wife.

Since all this is very shady, I am thinking whether someone should inform the directors/board of the exchange program.

What do you think?

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    I don't think the details about how the professor advocated for the student are relevant. It's normal for professors to seek funding for their (former) students. Having an affair with a student is unethical, but many unethical things happen. What does this have to do with you? And are you asking for opinions? – Anonymous Physicist Jun 28 at 3:13
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    The only point that matters is that this story is likely detrimental to others. This said I could have written the comment by Anonymous Physicist. – Alchimista Jun 28 at 9:57
  • @AnonymousPhysicist This is why I am asking the question. Do you report the unethical things that come into your awareness? Or you just leave things perpetuating. Do you leave powerful people misbehave and do as they please, because they can just get away with it or not? The issue I mention is a major misconduct according to my perception. Promoting his girlfriend through a competitive program in order to be able to see her every day, instead of promoting the rest of 20+ students he has that are all considerably more excellent than said student. – ii.iiii Jun 28 at 10:30
  • @Alchimista It is detrimental if you consider that he promotes an undeserving student in a highly competitive program instead of promoting his other students. – ii.iiii Jun 28 at 10:48
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    @ii.iii: Yes, of course. I agree. – user111388 Jun 28 at 13:14
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This could go very wrong for you. If you go around and tell people what you told us here this could be considered as defamation of the professor and I wouldn't be surprised if he outright sues you.

The questions you should ask yourself:

  1. Can you prove that they indeed had a sexual relationship?
  2. Are the other students of the professor indeed more skilled than the student he promoted?
  3. If yes, can you prove this in any legal sense or is this just your personal opinion?

Especially if you think you are one of those more skilled students I would be very careful, this can backfire horribly. Bad performance in her PhD certainly is not enough to prove 2. There are a lot of people who don't perform well in their PhD and didn't sleep with their advisor. And even if the professor and the student are a couple now, this is in no way proof that they slept with one another during the time the professor advised the student and less so proof that he promoted her for sexual and not academic reasons.

Academia is always very concerned with integrity. Is it ethical to sleep with his students and betray ones wife? Of course not. But you shouldn't just think about some academic code of conduct the professor may or may not have broken, but about the very real legal implications you may face. You are risking a lawsuit in pursuing this further and your personal gain is absolutely zero.

If this would be taking place in Germany, then relevant for the discussion is the following paragraph:

Section 186 Malicious gossip (üble Nachrede)

Whoever asserts or disseminates a fact about another person which is suitable for degrading that person or negatively affecting public opinion about that person, unless this fact can be proved to be true, incurs a penalty of imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or a fine and, if the offence was committed publicly or by disseminating material (section 11 (3)), a penalty of imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or a fine.

If you insist to pursue this issue, I would strongly advise you not to mention the affair. Go to the board and tell them you think there may be a conflict of interest in the award of scholarship XY. Don't accuse the student and the professor of having had an affair, you can't say this for certain. As Buffy points out it is highly likely that the board already knows about the issue anyways - Leave it up to them to make the conclusions.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Jun 29 at 18:53
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While TheoreticalMinimum gives sufficient reasons not to act here, let me suggest a few more considerations before you do.

I think you are making assumptions here that aren't obviously correct and might be quite wrong.

You seem to assume that the professor is predatory. I don't know if that is true or not and there is no place in academia for predators, but it might be something more personal and private. Has he shown such behavior in the past? You may also be assuming that the student is, in her own way, using her body, rather than her mind, to advance her career. I doubt you have evidence of that.

You seem to assume that this relationship is responsible for the breakup of his marriage. I don't know if that is true or not, but other, longer duration, things might well be in play here. People break up for lots of reasons. This relationship might have been the result, not the cause, of the breakup.

You seem to assume that this is an infrequent thing generally. But the history, generally, of people breaking marriage vows implies otherwise. "To death do us part" seems to be recognized in the breach. And students and professors actually falling in love when working closely or academic colleagues falling in love is fairly common. Not ideal, perhaps.

You seem to assume that he has promoted her only for his personal sexual satisfaction, not for her work. I think that is overreach. His job, actually, is to promote her, as it is to promote every other student.

You seem to assume that others are disadvantaged by this relationship, offering no proof. That may or may not be the case, but if not, then his professional behavior has been correct, independent of personal behavior. Generally speaking, people's personal relationships are their own business unless others are disadvantaged. Complain, if you must, about unfair behavior if you see it, but leave the personal things to the people involved.

Finally, I suggest that you examine your own motives for wanting to complain about this. Are you disappointed in some way that you haven't advanced as quickly as you thought you should?

I won't advise you whether to complain or not, actually, as I don't have all the necessary information, but think it through deeply before you act.

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  • I will address your comments point by point. 1]This professor is known to be a predator. Both before and during his relationship with this girl he has approached with sexual intent several females and this is something a lot of his colleagues are aware of. 2] Obviously the fallout of his marriage is not this relationship with the particular girl but his lifelong philandering 3]I do not imply that this is infrequent. They seem to have a relationship and not a simple affair, albeit he is still approaching sexually other females in conferences – ii.iiii Jun 29 at 13:24
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    Academics who have personal interest or relations with a student should immediately remove themselves from any position of power related to this student (e.g. academic supervision). They should also not involve themselves in any discussions regarding the promotion, assessment or reward of said student. Recommending the student for promotion is an breach of integrity. – Dmitry Savostyanov Jun 29 at 13:37
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    @DmitrySavostyanov Exactly!!! This is exactly my problem. I understand that you might fall in love or whatever but you cannot continue to influence her career – ii.iiii Jun 29 at 13:38
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    @ii.iiii If you contact a person responsible for Ethics in your University, they will explain you in details the exact processes / requirements of your organisation. Then you will know for sure whether or not what you witnessed seems like an breach of ethic code your organisation adheres to. – Dmitry Savostyanov Jun 29 at 13:42
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    Given what you say here in comments it is extremely unlikely that his behavior is unknown to the people responsible for a correction. – Buffy Jun 29 at 14:18
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Romantic relations between academics and students (specifically, in situations when academic is in the position of power related to a student) is forbidden for academic staff and may cost them job in many places. The underlying issue is academic fairness: academics are supposed to assess and promote the students based on their academic performance only. Being in personal relations with a student compromises this ability, and at a very least makes the process look unfair.

More broadly, academic teaching is a part of public service, and therefore Ethical standards for providers of public services should be adhered to. In the UK, the The Seven Principles of Public Life are

  • Selflessness
  • Integrity
  • Objectivity
  • Accountability
  • Openness
  • Honesty
  • Leadership

I leave it to you to consider how many of these principles are compromised by the ongoing romantic relation which you described.

The professors' behaviour makes me doubt that academic fairness and academic standards in your Department are strongly maintained. Hence, anyone aware about this situation could doubt that all students from this Department received their degrees and prizes for their academic merits. This can compromise the value of your hard-earned degree.

Hence, I believe you have a good grounds for complaint and should consider filing it. You may want to discuss it with student union / student service representative first to identify how you can do it in the most effective but also the safest way for yourself.

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    And of course you should be able to prove it. – user111388 Jun 28 at 13:15
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    @user111388 If you use the court of law analogy (which is not fully appropriate, btw), OP is a witness, not the prosecusion. OP should honestly report things they personally have witnessed. Collecting further evidence, investigating and proving the case is not their remit. – Dmitry Savostyanov Jun 28 at 13:32
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    @DmitrySavostyanov I often find your answers very helpful, but I think this is bad advise an puts the OP in danger of being sued. You can't just go around and claim that people have an affair or that they abused their power. The professor will certainly take legal action against OP if he does. I don't think this is worth it. – TheoreticalMinimum Jun 29 at 12:08
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    @user111388 I disagree. The very concept of "proof" belongs to the court of law, and standards of "proof" are different for different cases. When people witness something which they think is wrong, they should be able to discuss it with proper people / teams in the organisation, without fear of repercussion. In a fair and just society no-one should fear speaking the truth. – Dmitry Savostyanov Jun 29 at 13:39
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    @ii.iii: Maybe yes, maybe no -- but at the very least, if someone steps up, they should think about what could happen (namely a lawsuit or a repuation for one who makes up stories about their enemies). – user111388 Jun 29 at 14:23

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