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The IEEE holds yearly elections for senior positions in its societies. Every member of the IEEE has the right to vote in these elections, including me. My advisor, however, has candidates who, for one reason or the other, he supports and wants to get elected.

The issue is that he is forcing all of his students to vote for his candidates. Voting is done online. He even asks his Assistant Professor to personally stand next to the students and watch them vote on the specified candidates.

This makes me extremely uncomfortable, as I find it morally incorrect. However, my professor is in a position of power over the students and I am afraid of standing against him and losing my graduate course and scholarship.

Has anyone gone through something similar? What should I do?

  • 33
    Is this the only 'bad side' of your advisor? – Fábio Dias May 30 '16 at 14:13
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    How far along are you in your studies? Consider switching advisors. Someone who is this unethical in one area is probably unethical in others. – Ben Crowell May 30 '16 at 14:23
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    If you vote while the professor is watching, he'll know who you vote for. If you vote from home / some other computer, you can vote according to your conscience. Then when the professor demands you vote, the system either won't let you vote again, or it'll change your vote (in which case you can change it again, from another location). This doesn't prevent backlash against you obviously, but it is a way to exclude yourself from the unethical behavior. – Ben Voigt May 30 '16 at 15:31
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    What most amazes me about this question is that anyone cares enough about a professional society election to pull such nonsense. In my experience, the biggest problem with professional society elections is getting even one person to run for each office, and the second biggest problem is getting a quorum of people to vote for that unopposed candidate. – Nate Eldredge May 30 '16 at 16:28
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    Don't walk. Run. – JeffE May 30 '16 at 21:27
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Allow me to hypothesize a different tack from most of the other answers: Simply don't engage in this issue at all. As my mentor said once, "You constantly get institutional demands for some action, in some cases it's best to ignore them, and you'll find that many just go away."

This request is so incredibly unethical, and also so completely orthogonal to your responsibilities as a graduate student, that it's hard for me to imagine your advisor spending time on tracking you down and taking revenge over it. If you think you might receive more pressure later on (e.g., I've sadly cracked under such circumstances), go ahead and cast the online vote in the privacy of your own home, and then later on say, "Oh sorry, I got a notification and cast the vote immediately."

The request is so inflammatory that I don't see any use to "politely having an open discussion with your advisor". I think that only opens the door for defensiveness and retaliation. As wildly unacceptable as it is, I don't see it as being a good use of your time tracking down where to lodge a complaint over this matter (which your advisor seems canny enough to avoid documenting except verbally, so it would be just your word against his, according to comments above).

At least consider the null action as a possibility.

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    null action imply that you agree. In France, we got this proverb, that I will try to translate : "saying nothing, agree to everything". – Gautier C May 31 '16 at 6:23
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    @GautierC: On the other hand, consider: Schnee, Emily, and Enakshi Bose. "Parents Don't Do Nothing: Reconceptualizing Parental Null Actions as Agency." School Community Journal 20.2 (2010): 91. "A null action is not synonymous with parents doing nothing or being disinterested or disengaged in their children’s learning. Rather, we see null actions as expressions of agency that reflect specific parental interests and intentions that lie behind an apparent absence of parental action..." – Daniel R. Collins May 31 '16 at 15:37
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    @GautierC Null action stemming from indecisiveness is agreement. Null action stemming from decision is not. You still have responsibility for what you do and don't, but its flavour is markedly different. I suggest Brecht's story of Mr. Keuner, "Methods to counter violence" (or whatever it is called in English). It's a very short story and illustrates the point much better than I could hope to do. +1 for the answer. – Captain Emacs May 31 '16 at 15:42
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    @GautierC "If you stand for nothing, you'll fall for everything." could be applicable too. – MonkeyZeus May 31 '16 at 19:17
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    Qui ne dit mot consent ^^ – Gautier C Jun 5 '16 at 9:05
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This is extremely unethical. Do you have any proof of what he asked for ? If he can't check for who you did vote, there is no problem for you (but the moral problem is still here), you might just say you did it alone, without the Assistant Professor. (You do it, then that's it.)

The ethical way would be to inform your university. But that is really dangerous. You might want to wait until the end of your graduate program. It is hard to find a good way to solve this problem without harming you.

In your position, I would certainly tell the teacher that I don't want to do it without a good reason and the certitude that is a good choice, but if you're not confident you can't handle the consequences, don't do it.

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    Thanks for the suggestion! I believe that discussing this with the professor is a good idea, but I am tending to not pushing the situation to much, and filing a complaint after my studies are gone, not at the university but at IEEE. As for proofs, unfortunately I only have one email where he says who his favorite candidate is, but all the pressure is done personally or by the Assistant Professor, so I have no proof of that. – GoldenLizard May 30 '16 at 14:35
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    an email is enough. Store it somewhere. As I said in another comment, try to ask him why he thinks it is so important, and why it is the good choice, etc... Maybe there is a real reason (who said "politics" ?!) – Gautier C May 30 '16 at 14:38
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    @GoldenLizard I'd suggest contacting both. The University may have ethical rules/procedures which they can bring to bear that the IEEE can not, and vice versa. So if one is powerless/unwilling to act, the other might be able to. – R.M. May 30 '16 at 18:47
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    Recording is viewview as a crime in a lot of countries, including some USA states. And pushing him to crush his career because of a minor impact ethical problem is not what I want. As I said, going proactive right now on this problem will lead to a personal disaster. – Gautier C May 31 '16 at 11:59
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    I disagree that having "one email where he says who his favorite candidate is, but all the pressure is done personally or by the Assistant Professor" is "enough" for evidence of malfeasance. It's fine to make a recommendation or suggestion. It sounds like this advisor is very cunning about knows to keep the actual offense undocumented. I think it will be extremely hard to make any accusation stick; he's already done advance work in covering his tracks. – Daniel R. Collins May 31 '16 at 15:41
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It would be even more powerful to inform the IEEE (if the OP can muster the proof that this coercion is going on). But, unfair as it is, it will probably damage the OP's career irreparably. Utterly despicable - I heard such stuff only from hearsay (or from infamous examples in 20th century history). Collect evidence if you can, and, at some point in the future you may be in the position to dispense justice.

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    He is forcing all of his students to vote for specific candidates. I am not sure if the votes at IEEE are secret. If they are not, the IEEE could check if there is really a statistically significant difference in the votes of this students and others. They could do this even if they get an anonymous complaint. Obviously, this only works if there are enough students so the professor doesn't know who complained. But I assume there are, because otherwise it wouldn't make much sense to force them to vote. – Josef May 30 '16 at 14:10
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    @GautierC: Just because they have everyone's names does not mean they can tell who voted for whom. – tomasz May 30 '16 at 15:03
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    @Josef even if all the students vote for the same candidate, it isn't an indication of foul play. All of them could have met the same guy in a visit to the lab and discover how amazing he is. – Davidmh May 30 '16 at 15:18
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    @DaffyPunk You seem to have an idea how to both prevent this voting irregularity and preserve his career? Then let us know your solution. Note that also the other responders emphasise the direct danger to the OP's career, also in other paths taken. – Captain Emacs May 30 '16 at 20:20
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    @DaffyPunk I must have missed that comment of yours - I do not see it in the exchange (was it deleted?). But, independent of that, I think writing an anonymous letter to the advisor has the distinct possibility of both destroying OP's career and not having any effect. In fact, it can backfire and appear like a blackmail attempt (and yes, the OP will be found out). I agree my solution landscape is highly suboptimal, but I do think that yours has even potential to have much worse repercussions. Compared to that an ombudsman would be preferable, even if still quite risky. – Captain Emacs May 30 '16 at 20:38
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First I would suggest against complaining too loudly against your adviser in public. When bad things happen they flow downhill and you don't want to be a target.

Second, don't "tell the university" whatever that means. What you want to do is find a specific person at the university called the ombudsman. His or her job is to act as advocate for students in weird situations and also deal with administration issues. If you prefer to be completely silent and comply then that is probably also a correct choice. But if you want to change the situation, the ombudsman is the person in the university that can be most directly said to be working for the students. I would take his advice, whether to be silent or to stand up seriously because he knows not only the theoretical best thing to do but also the history of the campus you are at, and in your case, unfortunately, "whether it will work" is tied heavily into "whether you will receive fallout".

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After forwarding a link to this posting to the IEEE Elections Committee, I received the reply below:

Thank you for the reference. We had concerns of this sort presented to us in the past and we are aware of this issue. We are working on a reporting mechanism of such infractions but, as you can imagine, it is not straightforward.

If you have answering privileges on the site where the question was posted, I would be grateful if you directed the student to write to me (Moshe Kam, Chair of IEEE Election Oversight Committee, kam@njit.edu). The intricate requirements of the site where the question was posed necessitate that I gain "reputation points" first before I can answer the student directly. I am a member of the site (under my name, Moshe Kam) but can't get to the person who posed the question.

Regards,

Moshe Kam, Ph.D., P.E.

Dean, Newark College of Engineering

New Jersey Institute of Technology

University Heights, Newark, NJ 07102-1982

Email: kam@njit.edu

Alternate Email: m.kam@ieee.org

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    The question requires 10 reputation points to answer because it attracted a series of "answers" that weren't answers, thus meriting "protected" status to prevent further non-answers. Thanks for passing along this answer from Dr. Kam. – ff524 Jun 6 '16 at 3:13
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Walk, don't run, away. What your advisor is doing is obviously ridiculously unethical, especially considering how inconsequential the election is. Unfortunately, I would caution you against switching advisors without first ensuring that you'll have a safe landing. Honestly, it is worth putting up with something as petty and dishonest as this voting scheme in order to secure your degree and future career; academia really is that competitive. You should switch advisors; someone willing to act that unethical on something that trivial would presumably be willing to do worse on things that do matter. Just make sure that you don't do so hastily or without protecting your own career.

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Let's start from the bottom line. Regardless of anything else, don't vote for his/her candidates. If push comes to shove, remember you're an academic and an IEEE member and you have a moral responsibility to your community which comes before spoiling your relations with your advisor or even your personall career advisement. Unless you are blackmailed with threats of physical violence, obliging your advisor on this is completely intolerable morally.

Now let me make some suggestions you might consider regarding how to fend off this forced drowning in the sea of turpitude.

  • Talk about this with your fellow slaves, umm, I mean, Ph.D. candidates of that advisor. While resisting your advisor alone is dangerous, doing it as a group is less so (although there would still be risks). Also, if you're all coordinated, and something is done anonymously by one of you, your advisor can't know.
  • Like others have suggested, gather iron-clad hard evidence, as much as you can. Get him to email you about it, get him to talk about it while you record him on your cell phone, then transcribe what was said, etc. Save copies of this evidence off campus, in several places where he is unlikely to reach. Remember a person like that is not beyond accusing you of fabricating accusations if this becomes public knowledge. @Stilez mentioned this in the context of contacting the IEEE, but evidence is important regardless, and you should get it before or in conjuction with anything else you do, not later.
  • You mentioned power relations. Are the graduate researchers in your university unionized? If they are, then you are probably in luck. Go to the more seriously active union officials (at the faculty level or the university level; it's not always the head of the union who's the most trustworthy and militant on these matters), ask for their help and explain you've got evidence. If they are not completely spineless, they will have your back in the sense of being willing to go very far if you are harmed in any way - public protests and even a strike until you are restored to previous employment conditions in research and teaching. And it will not come to that, since if a union delegation pays a visit to your advisor, telling them they have evidence of his coersion attempts and will not hesitate to bring the public's full power to bear if he doesn't cut it out immediately, he will not dare touch you. If you're not unionized, then at least you now realize why that's important regardless of whether you get enough pay/benefits.
  • An alternative to proper confronation is the sick-out: On election day (is it a single day?), be sick, asleep, at home. Go to the doctor that day and get a note, or a prescription or something, which you could show him if he claims you're lying. An even better alternative to the sick-out is getting called away on some fabricated emergency.
  • If you are willing to confront him, but are just worried about the reprecussions, then - I would say that you should present as big a stick as possible. That is, if you have a "I won't do it" talk with him - try to have it in front of his other students; tell him he's breaking IEEE and university bylawys (having taken the trouble to figure out what these are, so you can cite exact articles to him), and if at this point he does not retract his demand, tell him if he insists you will publish an open letter to the IEEE, to his collaborators, to the dean of the faculty, to the president of the university and to the press, and will consider making a formal disciplinary complaint in the university and within the IEEE. He might not like you, but it should scare him enough. Oh, by the way, this is another conversation worth recording.

  • Another option regarding power relations. Are there any senior faculty members, preferably not friends or even acquaintances of his, with which you are on a friendly basis? If so, consider consulting them.

Note again that the above are suggestions to consider rather than out-and-out recommendations.

Finally, and not as a method of avoiding this specific issue - consider switching advisors or finding a co-advisor. This does not sound like a person I would want to be dependent on too much for my academic future. I realize switching advisors is often completely infeasible, but if it isn't, it might be worth it for ethical and psychological peace of mind. This doesn't address your immediate problem, though.

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    On a moral basis I agree with most of the answers. Just keep in mind that the advisor could be alerted to your plans by those whose participation you seek. – Daffy Punk May 30 '16 at 21:13
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    "... get him to talk about it while you record him on your cell phone..." This thought also crossed my mind, BUT this is illegal in about one-quarter of the United States. Make very sure you're in a "one-party consent state" before doing this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telephone_recording_laws#United_States – Daniel R. Collins May 31 '16 at 3:32
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    I think I disagree that the OP's moral obligation to the IEEE ought to be put ahead of his academic well-being. Forcing someone else to vote for your candidate in an election is ridiculously unethical. Not taking dire measures to avoid being forced to vote for a certain candidate is not nearly as unethical. The IEEE has more than 400,000 members. Professor Ridiculous's ploy to get his 30 students to vote for his candidate is....ridiculous, because it's 100% unethical and 0.00...% percent effective. – Pete L. Clark May 31 '16 at 4:36
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    Trying to mount some kind of sting campaign on your thesis advisor while he's your thesis advisor makes about as much sense as identifying the bridge you're on as structurally unsound and burning it while you're still on it. I 100% agree that the OP should make plans to switch to a more sane advisor and after doing that he should blow the whistle on this guy. But please don't advise him to jeopardize his entire academic career over a piece of micro-skullduggery. – Pete L. Clark May 31 '16 at 4:39
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    @PeteL.Clark: With due respect, I believe if OP followed your advice, then what would happen is that he would just cave in to the pressure and move on, leaving an unchallenged public hazard as a staff member and thesis adviser to entrap others. And I'm sure it's not just about the IEEE elections, there must be other, even more significant examples of that kind of behavior. I also don't agree with your metaphorical summary of my argument. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica May 31 '16 at 7:45
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I would start by contacting the IEEE professional ethics team (or ask for the most senior director related to that area you can get through to). State when they ask who you want, "I'm not sure: it's a serious issue of professional ethics, I really need to speak to a director or someone that sort of level, or their PA, someone very senior, not an ordinary customer facing person or service staff."

You'll be asked your name/number - perhaps told they can't put you through without it. State that you want this on a "no names" basis, and please just find such a person and put me through. Be polite but firm, and expect a long time on hold, this won't be usual and they will have to check what to do and who to put you through to.

If the person is in fact senior, you can add that this is because you are fearful of repercussions. In my experience people will very easily agree to this - if not it's the wrong person. Getting put through to the right person is usually the hardest step, if needed Google and figure who you want to talk to (and direct phone?) and then be prepared to push hard. Example: "Something's happened which I need to discuss with the director responsible for ethics. Can you put me through please". Then "sorry, I need the director responsible for ethics. As you can understand, I don't feel the matter can be told to other people for passing on, or I'd have left it with the customer services team" followed by "can I speak with the manager in charge" or "please just find who I need to speak to and put me through". Be prepared for a few conversations like this, repeated escalation, and understand it's unusual for them, too.

A good trick is to ask for the person's PA, instead - PAs are usually very good for this sort of thing, and if you get to them, you can be more open, and they are easier to get to as well.

Eventually, assuming you get through to someone who sounds senior and willing to talk/listen, tell them the situation without names or institution/university details, and tell them you feel they should know but fear consequences, and this is far beyond what you are used to. You don't know whether or not the IEEE rules forbid or allow it even. But you feel ethically bound to report it. You don't however want to formally report it as you would have to provide names, dates, testimony, or proof (voice recording etc?). So you are in a quandary. Can he/she advise.

Then see what they say. They will surely want to know more, which you can't tell them, so ask them what else can be done. Can they consider it and call you back (friends phone) or email you (use a throwaway email address). That might be best.

In my experience directors etc often care passionately and want to hear if something's wrong enough to merit their attention - and forcing students' votes to manipulate the election almost certainly would be.

But if at all possible get proof.

You don't say what country you are in, and IEEE is worldwide. If legal in your country (and allowing for legal exceptions related to professional misconduct/coercion/abuse of position of power by professionals, as some countries consider this to be criminal misconduct not just "bad conduct"), you may also be legally allowed to take a voice recording app and a phone loosely held in the hand (just saying " 'bye" when he/she opens the door as if it's end of a call may also help) when you ask your supervisor is all it takes: "please, I'm not really sure it's okay to tell me who to vote for, in the IEEE, can you retract the direction, I feel very conflicted and stressed over it" or "would it be okay to vote privately"?, and try to capture them saying you have to do as told (if they do).

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    In many US states the advice in the last paragraph (to record the supervisor without his knowledge) would be illegal. – Tom Church May 30 '16 at 19:35
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    The OP, or future readers in similar positions, may not be in the United States. In many countries, it is entirely legal to record evidence of malfeasance/professional misconduct/public interest/possibly criminal conduct (coercion?blackmail? Abuse of position of power?). Don't assume everyone is subject to U.S. limits on this. IEEE.org/about: "420000 members in 160 countries" – Stilez May 30 '16 at 20:02
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    @Stilez, this forum has many participants who work in the US, so please don't assume anyone is not subject to US law. I'm glad you've added a warning that your recommended course of action is illegal in some places, and I urge you to be more proactive about including such warnings in the future. – Vectornaut May 30 '16 at 21:42
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    The first part of the answer (asking for someone "very senior") sounds at best like a salesperson and at worst like the action of a crackpot pushing fringe theories. If I were the receptionist, I would likely hang up on you. – March Ho May 30 '16 at 23:03
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    @Vectornaut The U.S. isn't the only country in the world. This forum also has many participants who work in countries other than the U.S. It would be equally justified to: "please don't assume anyone is not subject to French law" or "please don't assume anyone is not subject to German law". – industry7 May 31 '16 at 15:22

protected by ff524 May 31 '16 at 20:42

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