10

I am a first-year Ph.D. student. In the last year of my undergrad I began a research project with my then-advisor, who planned to hand me off to his former postdoc (let's call him John) who is tenured at my current institution. I believe that John is the only researcher working in this subfield at my current institution. However, I have recently learned John was actually on administrative leave for the spring and fall semesters of 2020, because he was accused of having an inappropriate sexual relationship with a female graduate student. He is back now and I do not know if the university's investigation found him at fault. I am trying to determine the appropriate path forward for myself. Currently I am tempted to quickly finish this project, with the help of my undergraduate advisor rather than John as much as possible, and then get out of that subfield; after all, I'm just a first-year, and should be able to switch without too much trouble.

I have two questions about how I may proceed. The second is more important, the first being more of an IPS.SE question than anything.

Is it appropriate to ask the department chair or another authority figure if John was found "guilty"? Though I am a man, I am uncomfortable working with John if the allegations turned out to be true. I have to weight my discomfort against the fact that I really enjoyed the project, and would strongly prefer to finish it this year. On the other hand, he's back, and teaching calculus no less, so maybe the truth turned out to not be as severe as the allegations. In any case, my decision would be a lot easier to make with this information (in fact it seems that the department may have tried to hide the reason John was on administrative leave from the first-years, though the other graduate students all knew). However, I fear that because I have not established much of a personal connection with the authority figures here (thanks mainly due to COVID) that if I ask I will just come off as a gossip.

Will having worked with John, knowing what he was accused of, tarnish my own academic reputation? I certainly don't endorse John's actions (and, again, don't know what he was actually accused of, or whether he was found guilty) and don't intend for him to be my thesis adviser -- I just want to get this one project done, and following the suggestions of this Academia.SE post it seems like I should just go ahead with the project, but I'm not sure if the reputation hit will be worth it. So suppose that I work with John, even though I know he was credibly accused of misconduct. I write a paper, coauthored with John. I recognize that my actions may come off as callous towards the victim of the misconduct, and while I don't know her identity, I strongly suspect that her research interests are similar to mine. Should I expect my reputation to suffer?

13
  • 4
    So, you don’t know what John was accused of or what the outcome of the investigation was. And yet you claim to know that he was “credibly accused of misconduct”. It seems to me that it’s precisely the investigation that determines whether any accusations are “credible” and whether what happened was indeed “misconduct”. So basically if I allow myself to rephrase what you just said, you are considering professionally boycotting a person based on some vague gossip you heard. If you had more details about what happened this could be more reasonable but as it is, it’s not a good look for you, sir. – Dan Romik Jan 12 at 20:51
  • 2
    I’m confused. I thought you said you don’t know if any punishment was imposed. – Dan Romik Jan 12 at 22:21
  • 2
    I know that he was placed on administrative leave for a year, which is the "punishment" I just alluded to; thus, the administration found the accusations credible. Whether, by the time the year was up, they found him guilty (a much stronger conclusion that simply that the accusations were credible) and imposed other sanctions, that I don't know. – DeligneMumford Jan 12 at 22:24
  • 4
    "Punishment" was a poor choice of language. I do know the university imposed sanctions (their language, not mine) due to his behavior; this is a verifiable fact, not a rumor. I maintain that I am naive enough to think that they would not have done this if the accusation was baseless. However, this is turning into a game of semantics, so I don't see much reason to continue this conversation. – DeligneMumford Jan 12 at 22:47
  • 3
    What you call semantics seems of critical importance here. I am a professor with experience in university administration. Please trust me that a university (in the US at least) cannot legally impose “sanctions” on a professor without determining that he has done something wrong according to some generally accepted standard of evidence. So the situation you’re describing in which someone has been “sanctioned” because he has been “credibly accused” while not necessarily being determined to be “guilty” is simply impossible. ... – Dan Romik Jan 12 at 23:00
5

Asking the Director of Graduate Studies (or equivalent) about whether there was an official resolution to the investigation is certainly appropriate, though be prepared that there’s a good chance they won’t be able to tell you anything. I would clearly stick to asking about official resolutions rather than their opinion on what happened. For one thing, it would not be unusual for a sanction from the university short of dismissal to include a ban on advising students! If so that’s certainly information you’d want to know sooner rather than later! I’d start with the DGS, rather than the chair, because issues around students finding advisors is more in their purview.

As for what you should do moving forward that is really up to you and your conscience. Personally I’m not comfortable collaborating with someone who I could not comfortably recommend as a supervisor to women students down the road. But I doubt that it would seriously harm your reputation (unless this professor gets fired for future behavior in which case you may be in a tricky spot), people understand that the advisor and student are different people.

1
  • I disagree with your final sentence. Having a supervisor reiterating misconduct other than scientifical ones it is certainly a problem for several reasons. It can ends up with a sort of ostracism towards the student, or a turbolent PhD, but the reputation of the student should be unharmed. Plus 1 because I agree with the main message. – Alchimista Jan 13 at 8:51
11

The matter is best left to the official circles. Do not pry, do not gossip. As for being tainted, you are just a student and dependant, and if you neither enabled nor profited from the prof's (alleged, we don't know) misconduct, you should be fine. But if you start poking your nose into matters yourself, you'll get into a lot of trouble, from being seen as a nuisance to the officials, to getting the prof upset, to violating privacy laws, to unwittingly becoming a witness.

A career-limiting move.

5
  • 6
    I don't think asking what the outcome of an official investigation (that placed someone on leave for a year) is "prying." It is certainly not violating privacy laws - the OP can't do that - it would only be on whoever you ask to violate any regulations. If the answer is "A NDA was signed by both parties," that's the answer. || But on the other hand, I agree not to dig through your dept, if only for the professional reasons. It may be possible to find the outcome of the investigation publicly or through a FOIA request. But since the prof is back, they do not seem to have been found guilty. – Azor Ahai -him- Jan 12 at 18:46
  • 3
    The resolution of some things must be made public (crimes, for example). For other things, they must be kept private due to agreements and privacy laws. The OP is recommended to follow the advice here. But no one can guarantee the reactions of third parties. Fairness suggests that you are fine. Reality is more complicated. – Buffy Jan 12 at 20:05
  • 1
    @AzorAhai-him-: It's not at all unusual for employers (including universities) to apply sanctions that fall short of dismissal for professional misbehavior. So there's no reason to assume from the return that they were exonerated, it may well be that the administrative leave was the sanctions. For example, at my school someone on the theater faculty was banned from directing plays, drinking with students, or meeting with students off-campus after an investigation, but is still allowed to teach. – Noah Snyder Jan 12 at 20:21
  • @NoahSnyder Fair enough. I think my point stands, though. – Azor Ahai -him- Jan 12 at 20:23
  • Yup, I agree with the rest of your comment and upvoted it. (Well, with the caveat that I think a FOIA request is a terrible idea. Asking the chair or DGS directly is the professional and appropriate way to inquire about whether there's official information available to potential advisees.) – Noah Snyder Jan 12 at 20:28
3

There are a few aspects to this.

First, as Captain Emacs says, any allegations or hearsay that you may have encountered are just that - you have no formal standing to enquire (and certainly not to confront your advisor about this). Doing so will be a professional mistake.

Second, there is your perception. If you feel that having an advisor who was involved in unethical behavior is something you cannot do, then it is best to cut things off on your first year and find another advisor. Advisor/advisee relationships are more than just professional; you need to get along.

Third, there is your perception of university policies. Some universities are notoriously bad at handling sexual misconduct cases. If you believe that the university is not creating a safe environment for you or your colleagues, then this is something to think about.

Finally, there is the research community. From what it sounds like, you work in a relatively small subfield. Word gets around (perhaps less quickly nowadays with less in-person communication but still), and your name might come up, and this might be something you'll be asked about or have to deal with. You need to think about how to handle these potential interactions, and distance yourself from that incident.

3

Is it appropriate to ask the department chair or another authority figure if John was found "guilty"?

When you ask someone to disclose information that they are supposed to keep confidential, and you know or should strongly suspect that the information is of such a confidential nature, you are essentially asking that person to betray other people’s trust. I’d say that’s pretty obviously inappropriate.

In this case you have a small bit of plausible deniability in that you can claim not to have known if the person you’re asking is allowed to tell you the information, in which case the asking may be seen as perhaps nosy but not necessarily very inappropriate.

It also depends on how you make the request. If you make it politely and while making clear that you understand and accept that the other person may not be free to answer, that would help make the question seem more reasonable and acceptable.

At the end of the day, different people define differently what counts as inappropriate, so it seems impossible to predict the answer. I suspect that some reasonable people may indeed interpret the question as at least a little bit inappropriate, and a larger number still would see it as not quite inappropriate but at least clueless or in poor taste.

Will having worked with John, knowing what he was accused of, tarnish my own academic reputation?

Again, it’s difficult to predict what sort of things would tarnish your reputation. In an age when people come under all kinds of criticism they didn’t expect for fairly minor actions like liking someone else’s tweet, or for some photo they appeared in many years ago whose content seemed to them innocent at the time or was taken out of context, one can imagine you being criticized both for working with John by some people, and (presumably by a different set of people) for deciding to not work with John when you knew so little about his alleged misbehavior.

So what to do? It seems to me that trying to guess what will tarnish your reputation is the wrong question to ask. Your reputation is the end result of the choices you make, which are guided by your moral compass. If you have a solid moral compass and a good sense of right and wrong, you should be able to decide which action is ethical given the information that you have, and should be able to defend yourself against any future accusations of wrongdoing. In other words, your goal should be to do the right thing. When you set that as your goal and your North Star, a good reputation (and the ability to sleep well at night) will generally follow.

As for what’s the right thing here: I can think of two extreme ways of doing the wrong thing, and I would certainly advise you to avoid both of them. First, I would avoid working with a person I know with certainty is an evil person. Second, I would avoid boycotting a person about whom I know nothing more than a vague rumor that he misbehaved in some way. Doing either of these things strikes me as indicative of a weak moral compass, and something that likely should tarnish your reputation.

For scenarios in between those two extremes, it becomes a question of what you actually know about John. Personally, I think rumors and gossip in general should be discounted and should not be the basis for making a decision as serious as boycotting someone, since they are often unreliable or outright false. (For example, have you considered the possibility that the person who told you about John was lying? It might sound far-fetched but strange things do happen sometime.) Beyond that, I don’t see a clear defining line. You’ll really have to just consider the facts that are known to you and make a decision according to the best dictates of your conscience. That’s all anyone can ask for. Good luck!

3
  • +1 for a measured response. What may complicate matters is that moral code may vary from university to university/country to country. I heard that there are universities in the US which do not permit even academic staff at the same level in the same unit (institution?) to date, while in many places in Europe it is permitted for a staff member to date a grad student as long they are not in the same department, i.e. the staff member has no power over the student. US-style restrictions seem to now be increasingly rolled out in Europe, but the morality is not quite as absolute as presented. – Captain Emacs Jan 13 at 8:53
  • @CaptainEmacs thanks. I don’t know where you heard such a thing. There is no legal basis for prohibiting adults from dating each other when there is no supervisory relationship. Perhaps at a religious institution they can get away with such restrictions somehow, I don’t know. Anyway, it’s always fun to hear how Europeans sometimes manage to make Americans sound even crazier than they actually are... the actual craziness is bad enough, no need to exaggerate it further ;-) – Dan Romik Jan 13 at 9:02
  • I am not inventing it; I was told this by an academic who had been at an institution in the US. I won't name the institution, but it's well known, but I am pretty sure it's not at all religious. The veracity of the statement is not something I felt needed to be questioned at that time (it's more than 10 years ago), because I knew of similar rules in other contexts in other countries which I am definitely aware of. Wasn't there also something with a well-known US supermarket? No idea how it ended up. And given the last years, it would be presumptuous to blame the US from the UK. ;-) – Captain Emacs Jan 13 at 9:32
-2

It looks as if you have placed John in a "guilty" category in your own mind, although you know nothing about it. Acting on rumors and gossip, and especially in the "sexual harassment" area is particularly nasty. Doing a project with John will of course not hurt you, unless you have your own illegal issues. However, I would strongly suggest you switch to another person to work with, mostly for John's sake and then for yours.

1
  • 1
    I believe in the principle that one is innocent until proven guilty, so in my mind, John is not guilty. I do not believe that a university would place a tenured professor on administrative leave unless the accusations against them were credible. Note that both of the questions I asked were about how this impacts me professionally, and not my personal feelings; though I'm uncomfortable (which, again, is not the same thing as believing that John is guilty), that is simply beside the point of what I'm asking. – DeligneMumford Jan 12 at 22:18

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.