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Today I had a fellow student (who is working on a master's degree) come to me and inform me that our mutual advisor (call her Professor WW) had just dropped her as a student for "personal reasons." I am a more advanced doctoral student and have some niche expertise that my advisor does not have, so I do not feel like I am in personal danger of being axed as well, but I want some advice on how to proceed with this situation.

My colleague (call her QQ) is entering her final semester of a master's degree, so naturally having her advisor drop her is rather troubling. QQ is a high quality student and is an excellent worker. She is the type of person I am privileged to have as a colleague. I was very surprised to hear that WW had curtly told her to find a new advisor.

QQ was funded via an NSF grant that WW had. As such, QQ had turned down other funding offers. With the abrupt dropping, Prof. WW obviously also cut QQ's funding. This has left QQ scrambling for funding for next semester with about two weeks before school goes on holiday.

To make matters even weirder, Prof. WW told QQ to not mention this to anyone and that she (WW) would arrange a new advisor for QQ privately, a complete circumvention of the department administration. The advisor that WW has chosen to pursue for QQ is on sabbatical until April 2017. (So,...not a great option).

While QQ has done some of her thesis, she is still at a stage where having an advisor is critical. The only professors who have enough expertise in our area of research are either on sabbatical or are the brand new department chair (and hence is "too busy for grad students").

Professor WW is up for tenure soon, and I think she is fearful that this antic will reflect poorly on her (since, well, it does). As I mentioned, WW has a large NSF grant. She produces a lot of papers (mostly on the backs of her grad students honestly) and brings in lots of money. She probably will get tenure.

Should I do anything here? Professor WW does somewhat control my destiny, but I already have a strong dissertation topic I feel, and I am not so far along that I could not just switch advisors if it came to it due to politics.

Am I ethically obligated to mention behavior like this to the administration, especially with the tenure considerations? I want to advocate for my colleague QQ, but I also do not want to be blacklisted in my department for stepping out of line.


Additional Information

Some of the comments or answers have suggested that QQ was caught cheating/plagiarizing in some way. I am going to take this into consideration. It is a reasonable thought, not so much because I feel that QQ might actually be a cheater, but just because there is a (albeit very tiny) probability that QQ plagiarized.

Still, the last we spoke, QQ has been in contact with someone at the university level to guide her through the process of switching advisors. Unless QQ is much less intelligent than I thought, she probably will not be going down on the official record of filing a grievance if she had been caught doing something nefarious that WW had any semblance of proof of.

As for the thoughts on some sort of romance that developed between WW and QQ.....even less likely than QQ being a cheater in school. Let's just leave it at that.

  • 43
    "To make matters even weirder, Prof. WW told QQ to not mention this to anyone and that she (WW) would arrange a new advisor for QQ privately, a complete circumvention of the department administration" - this is highly unethical and a much greater cause for concern than the rest of what you say. – Jack Aidley Nov 30 '16 at 17:10
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    If funding is involved, shouldn’t there be some kind of contractual relationship that would be affected (=breach of contract) by this? – Konrad Rudolph Nov 30 '16 at 19:24
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    This WW really needs to learn to set the (quite possibly entirely valid) "personal reasons" aside (temporarily) and go through a proper transition procedure, and not this abrupt, department-circumventing, keep-a-lid-on-it business. – Kaz Nov 30 '16 at 22:46
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    This has red flags related to inappropriate relations and/or sexual harrassment written all over it to me (regardless of the genders involved). – Joe Dec 1 '16 at 21:14
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    Maybe QQ hit on WW. – Bohemian Dec 2 '16 at 13:57
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Advise your colleague to take this up with whatever graduate student support is available at your institution.

As a fellow student, there probably isn't a productive way for you to intervene directly. You don't have any official role or reason for involvement, and any action you can take could be taken more effectively by the student herself.

The situation you describe is quite troubling. If this is the whole story, then action ought to be taken (and hopefully the university will support the student). But she really needs to be her own advocate here.

However, keep in mind that you only know one side of the story. Even though you think quite highly of this student, you need to be cautious in jumping to conclusions. Sometimes (though not always) when something seems inexplicable, it's because there is more to it than meets the eye. So I would be careful not to take any rash actions. Don't let this unduly affect your professional relationship with your adviser.

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    +1 Especially that "personal reasons" certainly implies more than meets the eye. – BioGeo Nov 30 '16 at 10:12
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    social courage isn't just standing up when someone gets bullied on the street ... – image Nov 30 '16 at 14:18
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    I saw something very similar happen in 2014 between a grad-student colleague who was a friend and a faculty member I get along with well. Turns out that there was a LOT going on under the surface that I never would have guessed even as a long-shot. Moral of the story: people are all really complicated. – trikeprof Nov 30 '16 at 17:54
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    Of course the "personal reasons" could have nothing to do with the student. For instance, the professor might have discovered she has a serious illness (and might not want the rest of the department to know). I had probably the ultimate personal reason for losing my first PhD advisor: he died. – jamesqf Nov 30 '16 at 18:07
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    To @jamesqf 's point, I would argue that personal illness should have been disclosed to student WW. Not the details, just "personal health issues". That's removes the possibility of something nefarious. It does seem questionable given that the adviser is trying to circumvent the procedure for changing advisers. – FundThmCalculus Nov 30 '16 at 19:11
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A demand for secrecy from a person in power usually means real trouble. Some kind of shenanigans are afoot. Sex? Drugs? Rock'n'roll? Research fraud? Plagiarism? Seriously, something is wrong. And, it's not clear who is responsible for starting and continuing these shenanigans. It could be WW or QQ or other people.

So, be careful. If I were you, I'd refrain from personally intervening in this situation except to offer support and advice to your colleague.

If I were your colleague, I'd let the Professor WW know that the demand for secrecy is unreasonable, and even unconscionable. Your colleague is spending her time and energy, and the money she's getting either from a fellowship or her own funds, to get an education. She's a customer in that sense.

Your department and your institution owe QQ that education. The institution's plan A to educate her is to assign her to Professor WW. If plan A isn't going to work, it is the institution's obligation to to come up with plan B, and see that it's carried out. Professor WW can help coming up with plan B. But the department owns the plan, not WW.

If QQ has violated an academic or personal standard, it is the department's and institution's responsibility to handle that violation. Professor WW cannot just sweep it under the rug, especially by offering secrecy.

WW doesn't have the right to conceal this situation from the department. Your colleague should refuse to let her do that.

Graduate students aren't handwringing supplicants begging for scraps that fall from the banquet table of academe. You are adult learners with life plans. This is especially true of MS students. Graduate degree programs exist to serve these adult learners. I hope QQ can claim her rightful place.

It's not clear who started and continued these shenanigans, but it is clear that ending them is going to be difficult unless everybody cooperates. To cooperate, they have to stop keeping secrets.

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    Keep in mind that we only have QQ's assertion that WW demanded secrecy. We don't know that WW demanded secrecy, only that QQ claimed that. – msouth Dec 4 '16 at 11:00
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    True. That's why I suggested the OP refrain from intervening except to support QQ, and perhaps say things to QQ that would stiffen her spine. Determining the truth of the stuff in this post is a job for a department head or dean, not for you and me. – O. Jones Dec 4 '16 at 11:50
  • I completely agree. I was just reading through the answers again in light of all that we don't know. It's probably worth highlighting that it's the alleged demand for secrecy that you're addressing here, since we don't know if the colleague is telling the truth (I just finished adding a separate answer dedicated to that possibility). Your answer allows for it but doesn't explicitly spell out that the shenanigans could be on the part of the colleague. I added the separate answer because that is precisely the blind spot that the asker may have due to emotional connection to the colleague. – msouth Dec 4 '16 at 12:13
  • And just to be clear, I recognized when reading your answer that you were thinking of this possibility. I didn't mean to imply otherwise, if if came across that way. I'm only saying that, if the asker was reading your answer and already had "this is WW's fault" in mind, the asker could interpret the whole answer as only expanding on the "what nefarious things might be underway in WW's world" question, without alerting asker to the minefield that it could be that QQ is the initiator of or a participant in the shenanigans. – msouth Dec 4 '16 at 12:19
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    I clarified my answer. – O. Jones Dec 4 '16 at 12:28
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Let's hope Dr. New-Department-Leader takes QQ on for the remaining semester.

What can QQ do? Meet with the department head or the dean of graduate studies, and ask him/her to discreetly look into the problem. Prof. WW has no right to ask QQ to keep these types of secrets, and QQ may safely speak openly to one department administrator about what happened.

What can you do? You can offer to QQ your willingness to go along to that meeting for moral support. If you do, you should explicitly request that your presence in the meeting not be revealed to your advisor.

I cannot imagine this resulting in your being blacklisted or harmed in any way, if this is in the U.S.

If I were in QQ's shoes, your presence in that meeting, and your taking the initiative to offer that support, would mean a lot to me.

It is not for me to say what you should do. That is a very personal decision.

In addition, you can make yourself available to QQ as a supportive fellow student and friend.

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Consider the fact that your colleague may be at fault and deceiving you about it to keep you on her side.

As I mentioned in my comments, I hate to even bring up this possibility. But even if it's not the reason for this particular situation, it needs to be said, in case someone else looking at this question in the future does face the situation I'm describing.

If the colleague was, say, caught plagiarizing by the advisor, the advisor might follow this course of action:

Bring up the plagiarism to the colleague. Inform the colleague that advisor will no longer work with her, but does not want this incident to destroy colleague's career if colleague is willing to reform. Advisor will help colleague find a new advisor (perhaps someone with tenure that can more safely deal with a hopefully-but-how-can-we-be-sure reformed plagiarizer). Advisor agrees to keep the reason for the switch private in order to not torpedo colleague's career.

Keep in mind that this (entirely hypothetical) version of events is completely consistent with everything described in your question. It's an awful thing to have to consider the possibility that your colleague is being dishonest with you, but before you risk damaging your relationship with your advisor (and possibly the university and your career), you need to be realistic about the fact that the situation is not fully known to you.

Even if you think you know your colleague well enough to know that plagiarism is unlikely, there are other possible scenarios. The colleague may have developed a romantic interest in the advisor and acted on that in such a way that the advisor considers this the best course of action. Or the colleague may have initiated a relationship with the advisor's significant other. Again--I realize that you may feel awful considering all of these negative possibilities about someone you respect and just want to help. But you really should proceed with caution, and this is just one of the unfortunate aspects of what being cautious means in this specific situation.

dan1111's answer brings this possibility up, but I felt that it was important enough to get a separate, fully fleshed out hearing in case this is what is happening in either your case or, as I mentioned above, some other, future case. It can be very tempting to come charging in as the white knight without actually knowing who is the dragon and who is in need of rescue.

Sadly, I speak from personal experience, having gone to great lengths to help people that I later found out were deceiving me.

My advice then, is as follows. Even if you don't want to believe anything bad about your colleague, make sure that every action you take would be a safe action to take should the colleague turn out to be at fault.

I feel that you should do whatever is ethical but with a realistic view about what is practically within your power. You are not in the practical position to launch an investigation, as you have no authority to do so.

There are many things that you can do, but most of them, due to practical considerations, end up being in the "advice and support" category.

  • advise your colleague to seek counsel from an on-campus student advocate if such thing exists

Subject to the advice of said counsel, consider these possibilities as well:

  • advise your colleague to communicate with the advisor about this via email so that there is a record of the conversation
  • advise your colleague to make an accusation-free, factual case about how this is negatively affecting the colleague, particularly with respect to the funding that the colleague turned down and the additional expense that could be incurred due to needing to extend for another semester, in an email, so that there is a record of this having been brought up

As a third party with some objectivity, you can help by offering to preview such communication and keep it from sounding accusatory or containing implied threats of retribution. If your colleague is being dealt with unfairly by the advisor, it could turn out in the future to be very important to have a record of these dealings and for that record to make it clear that your colleague's actions were non-accusatory and non-threatening, simply addressing the facts of the situation as they were.

One more thing, not necessarily related to the question of your colleague's honesty, just a bit of advice pertaining to the current situation:

  • Your colleague has brought you into her confidence by telling you something that she has been told not to tell anyone. Do not take it upon yourself to take any action that may indirectly reveal that fact without your colleague's express permission.

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