38

Assume the student

  1. recently graduated but works nearby;
  2. has not been my student for over 1 year;
  3. has never expressed any interest in dating until very recently;
  4. has a father who is a coworker at my institution (different department).
  • 16
    I fail to see how 4 is relevant to the ethics of the titular question. – Kimball May 22 '16 at 22:28
  • 6
    @kimball - I think it's relevant, as it shows there's a potential less-formal link between the two. ie there could be more to the relationship than strict "Professor-Student" ties. If they've met at a birthday party, etc... – Jon Story May 23 '16 at 12:06
  • 11
    I don't see a moral issue (IF the power unbalance is now gone - @vadim123's answer below is good), but thought I'd relate this: in my old school, a male teacher had a fling with a female student while she was still a student, and it was frowned upon but nothing more. A female teacher had a relationship with a male ex-student after he graduated, and she was immediately fired. Actual ethics often take a back-seat to any (often biased and unfair) cultural standards as defined by parents, other faculty, or outside pressure. – cloudfeet May 23 '16 at 12:34
  • 1
    My bachelor advisor was in a similar situation. Although he is a CS professor while the student was a math major, so same department but different degree areas. I believe they started dating before she graduated, and got married a few years afterwards. I don't see any sign that this was frowned upon from other department professors. – Bakuriu May 23 '16 at 19:15
88

I don't see any inherent ethical problems here: the key word is former student, so there is no present power dynamic, conflict of interest or anything like that.

However, you should be prepared for those in your department to find out that you are dating a former student, which could create a certain amount of push back. For instance:

  1. The one year gap between the student being in your course and your romantic relationship will not be apparent to all who know about the relationship. Even if you tell them, they may not believe it. Even if neither of you expressed an interest in dating until recently, people may still suspect that you had romantic feelings for one of your students while they were your student.

  2. There is presumably some age differential. If it is small enough, people will probably ignore it. If it is large enough, a lot of people will try to figure out "Why is s/he dating him/her?" This will motivate them to find out that your romantic partner is your former student.

  3. If you date more than one former student, people may view you as using your classroom as a hunting ground for future romance. If this sentiment is held widely, it could make your future students uncomfortable.

I hasten to add that none of these point to any clear ethical lapse or mistake on your part. In particular, the idea that it is disturbing for a much older (adult) to date a much younger (adult) may be more of a societal taboo/hangup than anything that can be rationally justified. It is also true that most romantic relationships come with a certain amount of push back, and some kinds of romantic relationships still get a lot of push back for things that many/most of us feel strongly are absolutely unproblematic: e.g. inter-racial relationships, same sex relationships. (In fact, I am very sorry to say that if your relationship is not inter-racial or same sex, any push back you get will probably be mild compared to that, and if it is, that will increase the push back considerably.) I recommend weighing the possible costs of such a relationship against the possible benefits.

  • 24
    Point 3 is important. I know people who started dating their student, or even getting into marriage with them, and that's fine here. And then I know people who've been dating almost 10 students in the past years, and that's not fine to anybody (but the students who get good grades and easy work...) – yo' May 22 '16 at 19:59
  • 11
    Possible perception of conflict of interest if it came to e.g. writing reference letters (but then I think this should be admitted right at the start, or alternative recommendations sought) – Yemon Choi May 22 '16 at 20:12
  • 11
    @Yemon: I agree. I was reading the situation as saying that the potential datee is really out of academia entirely...and I forgot that we sometimes write nonacademic recommendation letters. It seems clear that in this situation the best solution is simply not to write letters for someone you have dated. If you taught that person one course, that really should not be a problem. – Pete L. Clark May 22 '16 at 20:17
  • 1
    I don't think age difference is such a taboo, at least not in my experience. Both my grandmothers married guys 10+ years older when they were 19 (19, 31 one pair and 19, 36 the other). – Bakuriu May 23 '16 at 19:18
18

The professor-student relationship does not end when the course ends, and indeed might not end a year later. Professors are asked to write letters of recommendation for former students. Sometimes they publish papers with their former students as coauthors, based on work they previously did together. Further, if "student" means that this student completed a thesis under OP's direction (and not just took a class from OP), then this relationship is a lifelong one.

So long as the professor-student relationship continues to exist, a potential power imbalance exists, and an ethical problem arises. Whether your colleagues consider this a serious ethical problem is addressed by Pete Clark's answer.

  • 9
    -1 for misleadingly implying that the (supposedly) "lifelong" student-teacher relationship of a thesis advisor and their former advisee has any relevance whatsoever to the question of dating. There are other inaccuracies in your answer, but this one is simply nonsense. – Dan Romik May 23 '16 at 15:37
  • 4
    @DanRomik, would you be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation for an ex-girlfriend who cheated on you and broke your heart? – vadim123 May 23 '16 at 15:42
  • 26
    no, and even if she didn't break my heart it would be unethical for me to write her a LOR after dating her. But that doesn't mean it would be unethical for me to date her, which is what you implied in your answer. – Dan Romik May 23 '16 at 15:47
  • 2
    I don't understand why this is so highly upvoted (and barely downvoted). It feels tangential at best and quite misleading at worst. – enderland May 24 '16 at 12:30
6

No. This is not unethical. Consider the alternative.

If I am single, I reserve the right to pick off a member of society to be my mate. The very notion that I must temporarily restrain myself from choosing such a relationship with the people whom I actively have direct authority over... is an idea that makes some sense. The idea that anyone is permanently blacklisted from being a potential candidate, just because I have ever encountered that person in a class which I taught, is way too unfairly exclusionary. Such a requirement would be unethical.

I remember a college class which was required for all students in the college. Would it be a sensible expectation that a college professor should be required to seek a mate from among the less educated, or from a remote town?

When I signed up to be a college professor, I never agreed to limit my long-term life options in such a way. Once I am done with the short-term scenario where I have influence over a person, such an expectation would impose notable cost/harm without really providing significant benefit.

  • 13
    How does this address the ethical implications? Just because it seems unfair to you not to do it doesn't mean its ethical to do it. There are many situations in life where one has to step back and put ethics above the personal gain. – Polygnome May 23 '16 at 9:36
  • @Polygnome : There's a difference between morality (right/wrong) and ethics (which has more to do with the expectations of society/culture). In this case, society would not be right to expect a professor abide by this particular proposed restriction. The protection gained is minimal to non-existent, and individual personal burden inflicted is significant. Demanding that a person doesn't date would be undue Tyranny of the majority. If society disfavors undue oppression, and doesn't restrict, then the professor is left with the right. – TOOGAM May 23 '16 at 12:16
  • 1
    @Polygome If a restriction placed on individuals is unfair, and society pursues that restriction anyway, then that is unethical. – JBentley May 23 '16 at 12:54
  • 4
    So in effect you're saying that even if it's considered unethical by "society" then you're entitled to go ahead anyway, because you believe that to be an unreasonable conclusion. While true so far as personal ethics are concerned, this outlook on life is liable to get you arrested when your sense of morals and/or ethics is at odds with that of your society. So just be sure that the rewards of the behaviour justify, to you, the costs of being seen (incorrectly in your view) as unethical by others. The love of your life might be worth more to you than a idle few dates. – Steve Jessop May 23 '16 at 14:47
  • (That said, personally I think the important issue here is that most people in a position to judge this kind of thing, don't judge this unethical, rather than the issue that even if they do it needn't matter. TOOGAM isn't unduly relying on a personal opinion that it's unfair, as Polygnome read into it. Rather, the whole basis of the restriction on dating students is indeed what is stated here, to do with temporary authority, and so that's why generally it's a temporary restriction) – Steve Jessop May 23 '16 at 14:57
5

Assuming you are on the receiving end (it's also possible to read (3) as "despite my prior attempts") I think this may be unethical only if you are accepting the relation knowing (or having reasons to suspect) that the datee has other than romantic motivations for it (or that the datee mistakes student-teacher bonds for romantic bonds, which I guess (3) is supposed to rule out).

Otherwise you may consider social implications as other answers suggest, but behaving in accordance with social conventions has nothing to do with ethics.

-5

I guess it shouldn't be a problem, a famous example can be found here and here :). Both are highly respected in their field.

  • 57
    This comment does not address the question; it is impossible to answer the question of whether something is ethical by simply providing an example where that thing has happened. For example, a similar method could "prove" that it is ethical for a professor to date students currently enrolled in their class; or to retaliate against students for rejecting their advances; or to sexually assault students, etc. – Tom Church May 22 '16 at 17:08
  • 7
    @TomChurch, Just to pay some justice, Usernegativetwo didn't simply stated that it had happened before, but also said that that wasn't considered unethical by society. Your counter examples do not pass this test. – kroki May 23 '16 at 9:54
  • 4
    @TomChurch: This comment does not address the question – I disagree; this answer tries to address and answer the question; it just does so with bad reasoning. This answer should arguably be downvoted, but not converted to a comment. (I agree with the rest of your comment.) – Wrzlprmft May 23 '16 at 14:46

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