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I’m a postdoc (at a North American research university), and due to the high cost of living in the area, I’ve been rooming with other people. One of said roommates is an undergrad in a relatively close area to mine (different department).

Now university policies are incredibly vague about this sort of thing. Does rooming with someone constitute a “close personal relationship”? I know they’ll not be my student, at least for the coming semester, so there is not the usual, clear-cut conflict of a teacher–student relationship.

My question is: What should I do?

On the one hand, it doesn’t seem to be an issue to me; it’s just people trying to save money and live close to their obligations. Unless of course they enrolled in a course I taught, in which case I’d have to talk to the chair. One the other hand, I’m from a different culture, so I may be seeing this a different way.

I should add that I’m reluctant to move right now, since money is tight and so close to the holidays it will be almost impossible to find an apartment and movers. So at the very least I’ll have to live in this situation for at least a few months.

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    I don't think there's anything you should do unless they become your student, in which case you should report the possible conflict of interest. This is a non-issue. Ask your supervisor if you want to clear any further questions.
    – user347489
    Dec 22, 2021 at 2:33
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    In this case, "close personal relationship" is probably mostly a euphemism for "sexual relationship."
    – Buzz
    Dec 22, 2021 at 3:12
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    @Buzz Or a parent/child or other familial relationship (the university wouldn't want nepotism).
    – nick012000
    Dec 22, 2021 at 5:14
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    Check your university's policies. We don't know them. They could be weird. Dec 23, 2021 at 0:18
  • Note that "roommate" means something more intimate in UK English than it does in US English, which may affect the answer. Dec 23, 2021 at 23:04

4 Answers 4

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I would refer you to this answer:

The core ethical issue...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...[though] there are still situations where issues could arise...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.

Now this answer was discussing a situation where a professor was dating a grad student in a different department. In your case, the student is merely a roommate rather than a romantic partner, so you may have even more latitude.

To summarize:

  • Most post-docs have absolutely no power over most undergrads, so there is no issue at all.
  • If you do have power over the undergrad -- for example, if they joined your research group or took a class that you were involved in -- it still might be possible to proceed, but you should disclose the relationship in writing and let your department administration decide what to do.
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    I agree with almost everything said in this answer, but I strongly advise against "disclosing the relationship in writing". Writings stick. In six months or whenever you are no longer roommate with that undergrad student, you'll forget about it. But the writings will still be there. Then in a few years when you apply to get tenure or some other position at university, someone will get their hands on that writing, and will twist it and amplify it, and you'll be disqualified because years ago you admitted in writing to having a relationship with a student.
    – Stef
    Dec 22, 2021 at 12:11
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    @Stef You think that's potentially worse than someone years later discovering that you had this relationship and covered it up? I think the coverup makes things more suspicious.
    – Barmar
    Dec 22, 2021 at 15:27
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    @Barmar What do you mean by "covered it up"? The OP didn't "cover anything up". Also, they weren't "in a relationship" with the student. See? I warned that it would be twisted and amplified ;-)
    – Stef
    Dec 22, 2021 at 15:29
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    @Stef I agree that putting something in writing is fraught with peril. In a somewhat similar circumstance, I met with Dean and Vice President to disclose the potential conflict, then wrote a memo to myself summarizing the meeting. Nothing ever came of the potential conflict, but if it had, I'd have been able to say, "I had a meeting with Dean R. and VP S. on 31 June. We discussed this potential conflict and all agreed that no actual conflict existed."
    – Bob Brown
    Dec 22, 2021 at 16:58
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    @Stef indeed! cf.
    – uhoh
    Dec 23, 2021 at 22:31
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Unless you’re in some sort of position of authority over the student, which it sounds like you aren’t, there isn’t any concern right now. Undergraduates are (though you wouldn’t always know it from the way they get treated by most US universities) adults, and can choose to share accommodation with whomever they find it convenient to. Likewise, you are free to have a co-habitation relationship with anyone whom you don’t hold authority over (through teaching, advising, writing letters of recommendation for, etc).

That being said, it sounds like a teacher-student situation could conceivably arise in the future. So it would be a good idea to ask at your department what campus policies would imply in such a situation, so that you are informed and are able to anticipate any future concerns and act preemptively to eliminate them.

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I don't think there's anything particularly to hide here. People are free to live with whomever they choose.

In the event you actually are a professor/TA for one of the student's classes you can always at THAT time disclose to your department "this also is my house mate, what do I need to do to ensure there is no conflict of interest/appearance of conflict of interest" which I'm sure will have a clearer answer.

Them being an undergrad has nothing to do with this. They could've been a fellow graduate student, or even more extreme your wife/husband/partner. In all cases you would go about it the same.

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I'm surprised people are even treating this as an issue. If you are just roommates and you are not this person's landlord, you aren't really in a position of authority over them. I've only heard of this whole issue come up over romantic/sexual relationships, by the way.

Also I think you have certain freedoms on how to live your life, and it seems ridiculous to me that you might conceivably be expected to move out of your apartment because some academic administrators don't approve of your living arrangement because maybe things will go bad and maybe you'll have some influence over them in the future. It's really an overreach in my opinion for them to go beyond romantic/sexual relationships in this arena.

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