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As a graduate student, I often discuss the performance and abilities of undergraduates in very frank terms with fellow graduate students. However, I would never do so in front of other undergraduates. To do so seems clearly unprofessional. My question is, should faculty members have the same code of conduct towards graduate students? Is it inappropriate for a professor to discuss negative intellectual or personal qualities of their graduate students in front of other graduate students? I ask because a faculty member at my institution routinely criticizes the abilities and progress of one of their students in front of other students. I wonder if someone should have a discussion with the faculty member to stop this behavior.

Note: I can imagine scenarios in which it is appropriate for a professor to speak frankly, in confidence, with one student about another student's abilities, for example if students are having issues working with each other or there are concerns about the quality of work. But this is not what I'm talking about. To give a specific example, imagine a faculty member at a dinner with several other faculty and students, and loudly saying things like "Johnny can't even come up with testable hypothesis", "I'm probably just going to have to hand him a project", and "he'll get his PhD but he won't be successful in academia."

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    I wonder if someone should have a discussion with the faculty member to stop this behavior. - Yes, but not you. Perhaps the chair or an ombudsperson. – Kimball May 16 '16 at 21:51
  • Yeah I never thought a student should directly confront the person. But if students have noticed the problem, do they initiate a discussion with the department chair (or someone else in senior to them)? – Slow loris May 16 '16 at 21:56
  • It is possible that other faculty members have noticed and raised the issue. But I'm not sure, since I know of at least one faculty member who does not seem bothered by it, and has independently referenced the offensive comments (e.g., "Johnny can't even come up with a testable hypothesis") as evidence that the student is struggling. – Slow loris May 16 '16 at 21:59
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    I often discuss the performance and abilities of undergraduates in very frank terms with fellow graduate students. — Not by name, I hope. The performance of your undergraduates is really none of your fellow grad students' business. It doesn't matter whether you think the undergrads in question can't hear you. – JeffE May 17 '16 at 3:36
  • I feel that discussion of the undergraduates is often necessary when evaluating their work, deciding how to handle requests for lenience, deciding who to take on as a thesis student or research assistant, and discussing how a course worked or didn't work for different students. – Slow loris May 17 '16 at 3:54
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The answer to your two question are: YES! - Faculty members should have the same code of conduct towards graduate students? Why should an undergrad be treated with any less (or more) respect than a grad student.

And...

NO! It is not appropriate for a professor to discuss negative intellectual or personal qualities of their graduate students in front of other graduate students?

This all falls under the realm of basic human decency.

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It depends. In academia, rigorous criticism of a person's ideas and intellectual qualities is an integral part of the job. As the saying goes, "if you cannot take the heat, get out of the kitchen". The presumption should be that academic work is not a private matter, although there are, of course, some exceptions (such as peer review of a manuscript). On the other hand, "personal" qualities are a private matter, except insofar as they bear upon one's academic work. In general, ad hominem attacks are frowned-upon.

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