Appropriate academic relationships are possible — ignore the lech in the corner

Since I’m on sabbatical this year, I guess I’m going to miss out on my chance to hit on hot young coeds…wait a minute. I never do that. I’ve been missing out all these years?

This is a good article on professors who abuse the system, but I find myself having reservations, because most professors would be horrified at the behavior described there.

Splinter spoke to 11 current and former students about his behavior. A number of them identified a pattern: He’d tell a female grad student that he liked her writing, encourage her to meet with him to discuss it, and then begin making sexual advances.

These students often described his behavior as “creepy,” even as it was discussed among faculty and students alike that he was being groomed to eventually become chair of the department. He served as graduate adviser beginning in the 2016 school year, which meant that every graduate student—whether or not they had been on the receiving end of these flirty emails, been desired by Hutchison enough to be pursued by him, or had reciprocated his interest—was obligated to talk to him each semester about their courses, their timeline to completion, their funding, and which classes they would teach.

I’m not some weird outlier, either: I can’t imagine any of my colleagues doing that kind of stunt, and there is a culture in academia of respecting the students, and we’re supposed to be savvy enough to recognize the exploitation evident in that behavior. But at the same time, I recognize that there is another problem that many of us do exhibit, a defensiveness of the system that allows predators to persist.

The town hall meeting quickly turned contentious. Almost 50 people were in attendance when department chair Elizabeth Cullingford and professor Gretchen Murphy started by telling the assembly not to “panic” over the allegations. They declined to name names, and insisted that the accusations against the unnamed professor in Shapland’s essay occurred under a previous policy—but Cullingford also described the new policy, which went into effect in 2017, as “draconian” due to its prohibition on certain kinds of faculty-student relationships. Cullingford urged students to keep the specifics of the meeting to themselves. When students asked questions, Murphy told them to address those questions specifically to the people involved—including Hutchison, who wasn’t in attendance.

The professoriate is really good at the wagon-circling maneuver, and academic freedom is used as a catch-all excuse for anything. But these excuses are inexcusable.

This is academia, “A place where deep and lasting collegial bonds are formed, where mentors and protégés can become close friends and where young lives are transformed by a galvanic encounter with knowledge and their own latent capabilities,” as Laura Miller wrote in a 2015 essay for the New Republic, which questioned if “erotic longing between professors and students” was “unavoidable.”

No, it’s avoidable. It’s pretty easily avoidable. Or do you think heterosexual male professors are all experiencing fierce erotic tensions with their male students? The idea that intellectual relationships between two people will inevitably lead to some steamy smoldering is entirely a product of masculine privilege, used as a rationalization when someone in a position of power uses that to take advantage in a way that is irrelevant to scholarship.

In 2001, Harper’s published an essay by Cristina Nehring called “The Higher Yearning: Bringing Eros Back to Academe,” in which she argued that “teacher-student chemistry is what sparks much of the best work that goes on at universities, today as always,” and “the university campus on which the erotic impulse between teachers and students is criminalized is the campus on which the pedagogical enterprise is deflated.” Six years later, UCLA professor Paul R. Abramson published a book called Romance in the Ivory Tower: The Rights and Liberty of Conscience, arguing within its pages that a university policy that prohibits professors from dating their students “tramples the very nature of freedom itself.”

Oh, really?

In 1910, a 19 year old undergraduate began working with Thomas Hunt Morgan. This student, inspired and guided by Morgan’s mentorship, would do a series of experiments in recombination that would work out the principles of genetic mapping. These two would both have long careers of productive, influential research and would be recognized as pioneers in their discipline. It was a great example of a mutually rewarding teacher-student relationship.

I had no idea until now that the erotic impulse between TH Morgan and Alfred Sturtevant is what sparked their best work. Or that the freedom to indulge their passionate desires was necessary to achieve their accomplishments. Maybe if Tom hadn’t been so smitten with Alfred’s hot young body, he wouldn’t have been such a dick to Nettie Stevens, and she would have flourished under his tender, loving tutelage.

That is all nonsense, of course. It’s entirely possible and common to have a professional, productive relationship with other human beings without a sexual element. Most of our interactions are literally asexual…unless you’re going to tell me you can’t visit your pharmacist or buy groceries or go for a walk in the park or pick up a book at the library without banging everyone you meet. All of us, even the most horndoggy among us, know more people that we would not have sex with than those we would. The fact that there are 7.6 billion people I will not and would not have sex with on the planet right now does not imply that I cannot interact with them in other ways.

It is not draconian or repressive for an institution to inform its employees that they are not allowed to fuck the people over whom they have power and a responsibility to help; nor does it limit their ability to perform their duties well.

There will always be a few people who whine that they need sexual access to students to empower their best work. Just tell ’em to sit down and shut up, or fire them.


  1. cartomancer says

    Is this another one of those heterosexual privilege things – the idea that if you fancy someone you should always be free to act on that desire?

    Because I’ve always worked on the general principle that if you fancy someone then they’re almost certainly not going to be interested in return and making your desire known to them (or anyone else) will bring incomparable shame and ostracism down on your head. I was brought up with the notion that acting on sexual desires in even a private social context is a big no-no, let alone a professional setting. While I acknowledge that I am probably on the more repressed end of the spectrum, it never ceases to surprise me how many people can’t even understand the notion of professional boundaries.

  2. says

    They declined to name names… When students asked questions, Murphy told them to address those questions specifically to the people involved

    Either I’m missing something or this makes no sense at all.

  3. Allison says

    cartomancer @1

    Is this another one of those heterosexual privilege things … ?

    It’s one of those male privilege things. At least the idea that lust is justification enough for ignoring boundaries.

    I’ve had on-line discussions with men who simply could not grasp the idea that there should be any rules forbidding them from having sex with whomever they want. Although they wouldn’t put it in such crass terms, they believe that their boner is so important that everything else must accommodate it. Their boner is more important than the other person’s right to say “no.”

    And they get a lot of support for that from society. How many romantic tropes involve the man wearing down the woman until she gives in? (FWIW, one of the squickier parts of the musical Hair is the point where The Tribe is telling Sheila that she has to sleep with Claude because he’s getting drafted, even though she doesn’t want to. That’s in fact the point of the song Easy to be Hard — how can you refuse him when he’s so hung up on you? Ugh!)

    Personally, I believe that colleges and universities should prohibit sexual relationships between faculty and any students at the institution. Even if a student is not being graded by a professor (or mentored or whatever), the professor can still affect the student’s grades or chances of getting a degree by influencing those who can — faculty members stick together. Plus, students tend to look up to professors — after all, they’re there to absorb the great wisdom of the professors — and it can be hard to recognize at the time when what they’re getting is no longer wisdom but exploitation.

    I once posted that opinion in a discussion of professors’ sexually exploiting students, and was roundly condemned as being anti-sex — in their view, nothing could be more important that the possibility of sweet romance. (And people wonder why romantic tropes make me gag!)

    BTW, note that I didn’t specify the sex of the victim: the one case I remember from my own undergraduate days (1970’s) was a male professor who was well known to routinely have sexual relationships with male undergraduates.

  4. anbheal says

    The notion of a romance improving the professional or academic outcome is patently risible. I worked for a thinktank at Yale for a few years, and Connecticut was an early adopter of strict sexual harassment policies (perhaps a bit too late for all of Harold Bloom’s victims). So management was not allowed to even ask a subordinate of the opposite sex to play racquetball or meet for cocktails — later modified to encompass gay invitations. Each summer a good client used to give me 6 great box seats for the finals of that tennis tournament in New Haven that’s the warm-up for the U.S. Open. I would call my staff, five good-looking young women, (whom I inherited, I might add, when I took the position, I didn’t hire only good-looking young women), slap the tickets down and say “enjoy….oh by the way, there’s one extra, if there’s anyone else you feel like inviting”. They would complete the equation by showing up at my office door two minutes later, and saying “hey Ace, you feel like watching tennis Friday night?”

    It was easy, it was cheerful, the boundaries were well understood. And I was good-looking and single, and several of them were as well. They seemed to enjoy the ritual: “hey Ace, a few of us are going to Elmo’s to see Holyfield-Bowe, five dollar cover, wanna see the fight with us.” None of them were all that interested in boxing, but they knew I was. One of them quit to go get her master’s at U Conn, and about a month later called me up and asked me out. This isn’t rocket science (unless you’re in a rocket science program). People — at least decent people — understand the boundaries and why they’re needed.

    But here’s what baffles me about some of the apologetics — how would their performance, in a fairly scientific and academic environment (epidemiology and biostatistics, essentially with some heavy duty algorithm building and coding) have possibly been improved if I was boinking one of them. The others would have resented her, teamwork would have eroded, annual reviews would have been suspect, promotions met with skepticism, and any sort of mentor role instantly undermined. Those two apologia are dead wrong — a good teacher and a good lover are fine things, and it’s very nice to have both….separately. Shitting where you eat is something even dogs know better than to do.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    There’s another point that deserves to be made here as well: students will eventually graduate. If a professor really believes that so-and-so is truly his or her soulmate, then they should be capable of keeping their relationship strictly professional for the few short years until the student has a diploma in hand and there is no longer a power differential, before asking for that first date. (Probably best to wait a year or two, actually.) That way, any relationship that develops will start off on a more solid footing and be way more likely to last.

  6. ardipithecus says

    @ 5. brucegee

    That’s assuming that ‘lasting’ is on the agenda.

    The world is full of suitable mates who are not lower than you on the power totem pole. No one needs to look at those below them in the power structure.

  7. screechymonkey says


    The others would have resented her, teamwork would have eroded, annual reviews would have been suspect, promotions met with skepticism, and any sort of mentor role instantly undermined.

    This is an underdiscussed point. Even if we handwave away any problems of harassment or coercion and assume that everything is 100% consensual and awesome for the professor’s chosen student/lover, what about the other students? What are they to think when the best grades and recommendations and such go to the student who’s fucking the prof?

  8. HappyHead says

    Back when I was teaching, our University administration would send out an email pretty much every other year explaining to us that no, you are not allowed to have sex with, or date, or engage in any other type of intimate relationship with any of your students, or anyone you are responsible for grading or making exams for. (If a course had multiple sections and you were in a relationship with someone in another section, it was okay as long as you reported it to the admin, and were not involved in creating the exams that year, so spouses of profs could still take classes, just not with the prof they married.)

    One year I commented about it to a fellow sessional instructor who was in the English department, and he just sighed and said “Yeah, it’s almost always one of our department’s tenured profs that got caught and suspended for it, then they send out the email again with a new “and no, you can’t do this thing either” added. And usually it’s the same guy.”

  9. Usernames! 🦑 says

    If a professor really believes that so-and-so is truly his or her soulmate, then they should be capable of keeping their relationship strictly professional for the few short years until the student has a diploma in hand and there is no longer a power differential, before asking for that first date.
    — brucegee1962 (#5)

    It isn’t like it is hard to do!


    1) Fraternization
    Fraternization between any two people who are enrolled in or employed by the university is PROHIBITED, unless both are Undergraduates, because everyone knows they are as horny as hell and there’s no practical way to prevent them from tamping down their raging hormones and/or giddiness of being free of parental control for probably the first time in their lives. Everyone else should know better, and they don’t, they can take a class or something for crissakes.

    2) Penalty
    The penalty for fraternization shall be suspension for 3 months without pay + public humiliation for the first offense, and termination with permanent injunction upon any second offence. And we mean it this time.

  10. Robert Serrano says

    brucegee1962, @5:
    I agree with the caveat that graduation itself really shouldn’t be the cutoff point. In many fields, right after graduation, your professors still have a great deal of impact on whether or not you get anywhere. So, at least until the student has established themselves, relationships should be kept strictly professional. Otherwise, you’re pretty much inviting abuse.

  11. drken says

    Then of course, there’s the “it’s different in art school” defense I keep hearing when I hear about student/teacher affairs. I’m not sure what’s different as there’s the same power dynamic, but I’m just a STEM major and I guess while we can’t be trusted to not abuse power, artists… Well, I’m not sure what makes it’s OK for them, but I’m sure it’s a real good reason.

  12. Rich Woods says

    Bringing Eros Back to Academe

    Can’t help but wonder if this is someone who would think that the pederastic element of the Spartan agoge system was A-OK.

  13. Kamaka says

    What about the money?

    So I am Dad and I saved up half my life to send my kid to a decent college.

    To be rewarded for all my effort with a lecherous Prof? That would piss me off.

    So I am a college student busting my ass making it to class, waiting tables and cleaning bathrooms to get my degree.

    To be rewarded for all my effort with a lecherous Prof? That would piss me off.

  14. says

    I always wish there was a “like” button on this site PZ. I am sure I told you this before but I am 61 and the memories coming back at being hit on and feeling paralyzed is frightening. Girls truly are taught to put up with this crap imo in this country at least. Ish! I did get meaner as I aged and now I will backhand someone in a minute. I had a man at Cub a few weeks ago come up to me as I was looking at some shelf and say “damn you are cute”. Get the f away from me now. It never ends.

  15. methuseus says

    @cartomancer #1 and Allison #3:

    Is this another one of those heterosexual privilege things – the idea that if you fancy someone you should always be free to act on that desire?

    It’s one of those male privilege things. At least the idea that lust is justification enough for ignoring boundaries.

    I agree with Allison’s statement, with the added caveat that it’s a mainly heterosexual male thing, though in academia homosexual male urges are more accepted than in general society. There’s also the added bit about desirability. If the man is deemed desirable by the group of people he is targeting (women or gay men) then it is definitely acceptable. If not, it is less acceptable, but then rapey vibes are more accepted (see Woody Allen among others). So, cartomancer, because you and I do not see ourselves as desirable, it is not acceptable to act on our desires. Further, you as a homosexual man (if I remember correctly) are even more expected to tamp down your desires.
    In reality, however, everyone should be free to privately act on their desires in the form of talking to the person they fancy as long as there is no power imbalance, etc. That means, if you see someone you fancy, maybe take the time to try and feel out if they might be open to an advance, and then present that advance in a healthy, open way. I won’t claim to have all the answers, and I’m sure someone will correct at least some of what I said, but hopefully everyone can find some sort of companionship in a healthy relationship, even if not necessarily romantic.

    As for the topic in general, holy hell I agree with PZ. As soon as I saw “Bringing Eros Back to Academe” I thought of all the various collaborations of men where there was no hint of any eroticism between the two or more male participants in making their major discoveries. I can literally only think of one collaboration where love or eroticism (I don’t know about their sex life) was inherent in the collaboration: Marie and Pierre Curie. And their love for each other did not seem to make the discovery of radium happen; it’s because they were both very intelligent individuals.

  16. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    The best part is that precisely no one is opposing Eros per se. We just don’t want Zeus at the party.

    If two people are really so amazingly attracted to each other, they have countless options. Either the student and the teacher, or both, can quit. Or transfer departments. Or wait until they can relate to each other as colleagues.

    That’s what people who love each other actually do.

    We’re not talking about love. We’re talking about people who insist that they should be able to keep tenure, and their respect, and their privileges, no matter what they do and no matter the consequences for everyone else.

    Think how much weaker the arguments for this kind of behavior would sound if the people talking about it had to admit that it was about sheer convenience.