I'm a tenure-track assistant professor who started in this fall. I heard that I should not get involved in any issues or conflicts to get tenured. However, I am unsure about this situation.

I was in a romantic relationship with a professor in the school I was a graduate student in over 7 years in Illinois. Recently I realized that he has been double-dating with a professor in New Jersey. Actually their relationship was over 10 years. Both are in my study field and they are pretty well-known.

I immediately broke up with him during this COVID-19. However, he keeps all of my stuffs in his place -- mostly books and personal stuffs (total about $5,000 books) and does not pay back the costs I spent for his trip (total about $15,000).

He says "just let it go". He threatens me that he would contact my department chair and dean not to reappoint with me for my tenure if I bring any issues regarding my stuffs and the cost he doesn't send me back as well as his double-dating. His point is "just stop contacting him". Actually the relationship started because he kissed me during his office hours; he asked me to meet on Saturday to talk about my research and then he took me to his place....

The most important thing to me at this point is to get tenured in my current position. Is it wise to let it go as he insists. Or is it better to bring an issue like contacting his department chair to report his problems?

I'd truly appreciate your response -- it is very complicated because I am pre-tenured and all in the same research field.

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    I'd be likely to say this relationship had strong elements of harassment/inappropriate conduct on his part: if he was your mentor and started a relationship with you, that's definitely some sort of conflict of interest, not to mention an unequal balance of power. I don't know how well your school handles that sort of thing, but I'd think pretty strongly about that and what to do about it. – Breaking Bioinformatics Aug 28 '20 at 13:21
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    I am not a lawyer, but the threat to torpedo your tenure case sounds very possibly criminal. Keywords to google: extortion, blackmail, coercion. Sounds like a very messy situation, good luck resolving it. – Dan Romik Aug 28 '20 at 16:13
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    I recommend a confidential discussion with your Title IX office. – JeffE Aug 28 '20 at 16:20
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    @DanRomik Quite so, but it requires nerves of steel (and hard evidence) to fight that. The strange situation is that a tenured prof would get a $15,000 trip "sponsored" by a postdoc (?). To quote the immortal words: "I have a bad feeling about this." In fact, I think, perhaps: "It's a trap." This guy is double-dipping with impunity, blatantly exploiting people far below his power not only romantically, but financially, making explicit threats across institutions. Clearly this person is happy to take elevated levels of risks. There's a name for such behaviour. Handle with care. Lawyer up. – Captain Emacs Aug 28 '20 at 16:32
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    @CaptainEmacs agreed. The suggestion to start by getting/consulting a lawyer is probably the most prudent and helpful anyone here could make. – Dan Romik Aug 28 '20 at 16:49

It is probably worth stating this up front: The relationship you describe has the appearance of an abusive relationship -- and I'm also going to say that I'm sorry you find yourself in this situation :-(

Part of abusive relationships are threats that, in many cases, can or will not actually be realized. While I don't know for sure, my best guess is that your former partner does not actually have much to gain from contacting anyone about your tenure: It would certainly reflect very poorly on them to have been in a relationship with a student, and whatever they would have to say about you would come over as poor taste and sour grapes, not deep insight in your abilities. As such, my best guess is that your former partner is not actually going to pull through with their threat, even if you moved forward with retrieving your possessions with the help of a lawyer.

The second part to keep in mind (and that is something you should definitely take pride in!): Your current department hired you for a good reason, namely that you are qualified in your work! They want you to succeed, and will support you in it. The advice to stay out of contentious topics is probably good, but your colleagues are there to help with get through personal things such as this as they have no stake in it. You will have friends in your current department, or at least people who have good intentions. You can rely on them to find a way through all of this.

My suggestion to be on the safe side would be the following. Write an email to the department head or another senior professor in the department in which you lay out the situation to make sure that it's on record before anyone might hear from your former partner. Maybe something like this:

Dear < department head >

I'd like to bring to your attention a situation that is primarily a personal matter but that might also appear in our professional lives. There is nothing for you to do at this moment, but I want this to be on the written record in case it ever comes up again.

In short, while I was at A University, I was in a relationship with professor X. The end of this relationship was contentious, and I have received threats from X as well as professor Y at B University (with whom he has apparently also had a relationship) that they would try to sabotage my career by writing to you about me.

As mentioned above, there is nothing for anyone to do at this moment. My goal is simply to ensure you know about the threat in case you do get emails from X or Y. When the time comes, in a few years, to thinking about letters of evaluation for the purposes of tenure, I will likely also request that neither X nor Y will be asked to write.

Sincerely, user128851

The point simply is to make sure the issue has been recorded in writing before anyone ever gets an email from X or Y, so that if they ever did, they can find the appropriate place for this email: The trash bin. It will also make sure that your department -- which, remember!, wants you to succeed -- will disregard anything coming from the direction of X or Y when it comes time to decide on your tenure. For example, in a faculty meeting about your case, if someone brings up that they heard bad things about you from X, the department head will say something like this: "We will need to disregard what you have just said. A few years ago, user128851 told me some personal details about her time at A university. I can't tell you what they were, but I will share that she and X had disagreements and that X threatened her. I believe that what X is now saying about her is not something we should trust." And just like this, the issue is gone -- the important point is to get out front of anything X might ever say about you.

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    Yes.This guy will make himself look like a total fool when contacting the department head. Which doesn't mean he won't still do it though! Someone leading a double life for 7 years is not a sound person after all. – user117200 Aug 28 '20 at 22:39
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    @TheoreticalMinimum I think in practice, it's often what precisely that other person actually claims. Imagine for a moment that he writes an email to the department head saying "I've worked with A in the past and we had some draft papers at the time that we didn't seem to get around to finishing. I have now found to my dismay that one of her papers from last year is a worked out version of something we had 90% ready, but she has neither asked me to be a co-author nor informed me about the publication". This sounds credible and would worry me as a department head. – Wolfgang Bangerth Aug 28 '20 at 22:57
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    That letter could be career suicide. Poster should look for a lawyer. – Scott Seidman Aug 29 '20 at 0:39
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    I don't think this is good advice. It's much better to hire a lawyer. There are too many ways your letter could be misinterpreted. – Anonymous Physicist Aug 29 '20 at 1:37
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    "what message does it send if a young faculty member communicates with the department head by way of a lawyer?" Nobody suggested that. – Anonymous Physicist Aug 29 '20 at 3:59

There are three entangled issues here:

  1. an issue of personal relationship gone wrong, your former partner not allowing you to collect your personal items and not returning the money you paid for his trip;
  2. an issue of tenure which potentially gives your former partner some power over your future career;
  3. an issue with him being in a relationship with you when you were a student, which can be considered academic misconduct and potentially can be used to sabotage his future career.

From your answer in comments, I understand that you are not interested in (3), but mostly want to solve (1), avoiding issues with (2).

First, I suggest considering (together with a proper lawyer, perhaps) whether you could legally enforce (1) if all other issues were nonexistent. I don't know about laws in the US, but in many places it can be difficult to recover money spent in a relationship. Where I live, it would be probably illegal to simply

get in his place with a police to take get back all of my personal stuffs and the costs you took from me.

as you suggested in a comment on the question.

It is possible that before you get the police involved, you will need to take this matter to court. You will likely be able to get your personal items back, but as for the money, it may be not so easy. It is not uncommon for one partner to buy expensive presents for another partner, and typically partners can keep the gifts they received (unless there is a special law in your country that forfeits an unfaithful partner the rights to anything they received in the relationship).

If you and your lawyer agree that recovering your items and money is legal and legally enforceable, and you are willing to proceed, then do it. You will need to inform your Department that there is a conflict of interests between you and the professor. It is unlikely that they will require details, but if they will, you can ask to speak privately to the Ethics Lead in your Department (might also be called Title IX office, Ethics Office - check with HR if unsure). Usually there is a well-established process on how to deal with sensitive matters without compromising the privacy of people involved.

Normally, the declared conflict of interests results in him not being part of any assessment and decision-making process regarding your tenure. The panels are often not very big, and it is quite easy to choose the panel avoiding any potential clashes of interests. Also, even if you are not interested in (3), he does not know it, and it may serve as an extra reason for him not to stay in your way to tenure.

Good luck.

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    Given the issue of (3), I have to imagine the threats about (2) are mostly bluster. That said, some people can be extraordinarily irrational and act against their own interests, or may simply misjudge that they are at any risk at all from a position of power. OPs concern seems mostly to be about soft power through contact with people at OP's institution (with whom he may be personally familiar) rather than official influence through a tenure committee. – Bryan Krause Aug 28 '20 at 15:30
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    @BryanKrause That person seems happy to take quite elevated risks. Without having a history of past behaviour, it is dangerous to assume that the threats are bluster. OP should plan under the assumption that the threats will be carried out. – Captain Emacs Aug 28 '20 at 16:35
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    @CaptainEmacs Could be. It's also possible they are used to getting their way with threats alone. – Bryan Krause Aug 28 '20 at 17:15
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    @BryanKrause Maybe. But the "bluster hypothesis" basically suggests to OP to gamble with their career to find out whether this is the case. Not an action to be advised lightly; at least it should carry a proper warning tag. – Captain Emacs Aug 28 '20 at 17:19
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    @BryanKrause Yes, I read it. I found the warning a bit implicit, though. Don't get me wrong, many bullies are actually cowards, but this particular guy has gone so far into the deep, and exhibits such a string of systemic malfeasance (perhaps also some others OP even does not know of) that I imagine them going on the rampage once it starts to unravel, as they will feel they have to deter people from digging further. – Captain Emacs Aug 28 '20 at 17:36

Ex-academic here.

I would err on the side of caution. I would suggest that you:

  1. Investigate your legal options. This does not need to involve your school or telling anyone you work with - you have a right to keep your private life, private. For example is there a small claims court you could access that doesn't involve the school?
  2. Get your documentation in order. Unless there is proof, it's your word against his. This includes documenting your relationship.
  3. Document everything you do, now. This includes all emails, calls, and texts about this matter. If others know of the matter and comment (or bully) you, write it down.
  4. Keep this documentation forever. Times change; proof can be very useful in the future, not just now.

Map out all your options and consider them carefully. Search for people whose relationships have been with people who have power over their career in your field1 and see how they end. I would absolutely be talking to a lawyer; you need a dispassionate advocate who can give you balanced advice while shielding you from manipulative and what sounds like predatory behaviour.

1 Every faculty/industry is different. In my (ex-)field, for example, the majority will back the older man / male-favourites over any injustice (with proof or not), regardless of reputation (just my lived experience and every other victim I've spoken to in my field).

All the best.


Just as an amplifier on earlier responses: if you don't have threats from him in writing, check out the legality of recording him over the phone. In many jurisdictions such recordings are legal as long as one party knows about them. If he's in a different jurisdiction it's probably trickier: two jurisdiction's rules plus possibly other rules such as US interstate rules, may apply.

But having legal recordings, as painful as it might be to get, could put you in good stead both with the court in trying to recover your belongings, and to get any negative input from the two dismissed if it prevents your eventual tenure.

You also don't seem the vindictive sort but if you were, I imagine his actions may be a violation of his employer's ethics code.


I'm not an academic. But I think this is not a purely academic issue either. It should not be dealt with by some ethical advisor, senior professor or department head of your university. This is not their job.

This is a legal issue. This is blackmail. Make it very clear to your former partner, that you will not tolerate this behaviour. Demand from him to stop threatening you like this immediately or you will take legal action against him.

Do you have written communication of him saying that he would contact your department chair and dean not to reappoint you if you raise issues regarding your stuff and your costs? If yes you should contact a lawyer.

Your goal should be to obtain a cease and desist declaration against your former partner and maybe even his new partner. He needs to commit to not contact your employer about your past relationship and work.

If you don't have proof of his threats proceed with caution but still get legal advice. I don't know anything about US law and it seems to be not the same when it comes to blackmail in every state, so you should get expert advice.

If he does not cooperate and you go the legal route you should consult your department as suggested by Wolfgang Bangerth. But I think only informing them is not enough in this case, he may find a way to still make you look bad!

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