University cracks down on predation in the lab, more like it

Predators object. David Adam has written an article about a policy change at Princeton University. I’m not too impressed with it.

Romantic relationships between university professors and their students are becoming less and less acceptable.

Hang on there, Mr Adam. When were they ever acceptable? Not in my day. They were always recognized as creepy. The terrible professor who slept around with his students has been a stock figure of contempt in literature and movies for a long time.

But OK, on with the specific news.

Many of the new university policies that have emerged in the last few years have focused on undergraduates and how to better protect them, typically with a campus-wide ban on staff dating undergrads. But a number of universities also demand that faculty members do not start relationships with graduate students they supervise. This month, Princeton University went further and declared that faculty members were no longer allowed to date any graduate student—even if the couple works in different departments. Pre-existing relationships are exempt from the new rule.

Announcing the policy after it was approved by a faculty vote on April 1, Dean of the Faculty Sanjeev Kulkarni said in an email to faculty members that the rule would “create a safe, respectful and equitable learning environment for everyone on campus.”

“I think it’s practical and I think it’s prudent,” Rebecca Burdine, an associate professor of molecular biology at Princeton who voted on the measure along with the rest of the faculty in attendance, tells The Scientist. Most importantly, she says, the graduate students asked for it, because faculty members often have huge power over a graduate student’s career and this can create an unequal and unhealthy power dynamic in personal relationships that emerge.

So, the group at the lower end of the power differential is asking for this behavior to end, making quite clear that this has never been about real love and partnerships.

And how does The Scientist title this article? Universities Crack Down on Love in the Lab. Well, that makes their bias crystal clear, anyway.

Then, of course, they have to include criticisms of the policy. The two men claim that there is no asymmetry of power and object to a decision that might shrink the dating pool. The one woman argues that it might mean a person in computer science might not be able to take a course in art history, because they’re dating an art history professor? What an odd concern.

Meanwhile, the people who are breathing a sigh of relief that one more pressure has been removed from their student career are not interviewed, and probably don’t want to be, because that might involve exposing the unpleasantness of some of the faculty they’re depending on to get the heck out of there.

Holy crap. The guy who thought prohibiting professors dating students would be too costly is…the Director of the Program on Ethics and Public Life at Cornell.


  1. Sili says

    Don’t they say that love conquers everything? If it’s real love the professors’ll quit their jobs to pursue it.

  2. HappyHead says

    How is this even a thing? Why? The University I used to teach at was nowhere near the “big name” group, and they had these… things… academic integrity policy things… it was all like “No you idiot, don’t sleep with your students!” “No, don’t date them either!” You know… common sense stuff, that everyone except that one guy in the English department understood before they even took the job, and didn’t even think needed to be said! (Until that one guy in the English department… then we all understood why they put it in writing.)

    They even had explicit spelled out policies on how to deal with it if someone you were already in a relationship decided to take classes at the U and wanted to take a class you taught – ie: tell us, and we will find someone else to do independent grading of that student if no other professors are available/able to teach a section of the course.

    If my little podunk university could manage to keep all that crap straight more than a decade ago, how the heck is it that these big name places are only just discovering it now?

  3. consciousness razor says

    So, the group at the lower end of the power differential is asking for this behavior to end, making quite clear that this has never been about real love and partnerships.

    And how does The Scientist title this article? Universities Crack Down on Love in the Lab. Well, that makes their bias crystal clear, anyway.

    That article is pretty bad. But I think you’re also making a mistake to suggest that there can’t be “real” love, romance, etc., when there is a power differential. If it is real, that doesn’t imply that there isn’t a genuine problem with that kind of relationship.* So denying the possibility that it’s real wouldn’t be necessary here.
    Many ordinary relationships, which seem to be about genuine respect and affection, involve a power differential of one kind or another. At least whenever I’m using words like “romance,” I don’t think I’m also stipulating that there must be no such power differential — it’s just saying something about their mutual affection and respect and so forth. And if there’s some kind of problem with that romance, as there often are … well then, there’s a problem and maybe we should do something about it. It doesn’t seem like that should invalidate the idea that it’s romantic.

    [*] And institutions like universities, corporations, etc., should consider taking certain measures to address that problem, to the extent that those don’t violate anyone’s rights. It ought to be the sort of problem where I’m not just saying it feels “creepy” to me, or that it’s not something I personally would do if I were in that situation. By that standard, we would be taking homophobes and anti-abortion advocates much more seriously, and there’s a reason we don’t. They would need a better justification than that, if they’re going to do anything about it, which I think they have in this case.

  4. Jazzlet says

    I had a couple of friends in the late 1980s, graduate student and lecuturer in the same department, who kept their relationship secret until she graduated as it wasn’t allowed. This was at a UK university.

  5. kebil says

    Hmmm. A friend of mine says this sucks. He is an older student, and his fellow students are way to young for him. Does this mean he can’t date professors his age or younger? (of course, nobody should date their supervisor or committee members).

    Just asking for a friend who has a crush.

  6. lotharloo says

    I have mixed feelings about these policies. On one hand, they do a good job of reducing harassment of students. On the other hand, they cause collateral damage as they could potentially be outlawing good and ordinary relationships; if it helps, consider that there could be no age gap between a young faculty member and an older PhD student. Ideally, what you want to outlaw is “a person with higher power, hitting on, or initiating romantic contact with a person of lower power”. I don’t think the other way around is a problem. Does anyone have a problem with a student asking a professor out (assuming there’s no conflict of interest)? I don’t think so. But as I said, the policies do a good job of reducing harassment and the “student asking the professor out” does not happen as often as “the professor harassing the student” scenario, not even close.

  7. Curious Digressions says

    Excluding the rare career student, being a student is a temporary situation. If a couple is that enamored with each other and committed to having a relationship, maintain a friendship for a couple of years and date when they graduate.

    I know that the heart wants what the heart wants, but adults can deal with delayed gratification.

  8. chris61 says

    Does anyone have a problem with a student asking a professor out (assuming there’s no conflict of interest)? I don’t think so.

    Princeton does. The policy says no initiating or engaging in a romantic or sexual relationship.

  9. Ichthyic says

    wow. I’m surprised to see such ignorance in the comments here.

    I’m guessing most of you have very little experience with how power can influence relationships. Most of the time, it isn’t even about intentional predatory practices on the part of professors themselves. the power dynamic, in and of itself, changes how a relationship even starts.

    please, at least try to educate yourselves before you even remotely begin to critique Princeton’s response to the problem.

    if this feels like a slap in the face to you, that might be because you really have zero clue, and probably should take some time to at least review the literature on this subject before you find yourself in a situation where that power dynamic… influences a relationship you yourself are involved in.

    Princeton’s approach is the simplest, but I have seen more detailed approaches where student/faculty relationships must be acknowledged to the appropriate university department, and the couple then must also spend time in counseling to make sure there is no conflict of any kind. But this approach costs a lot more money and time, and STILL can lead to bad results.

  10. kome says

    Good god I can’t stand the whole “if we can’t date people we have power over, it’ll be so hard for us to find dates” whine. You got a doctorate degree. Clearly “it’s too hard” hasn’t been a deciding factor in the decisions you’ve made in other parts of your life. Download a dating app and swipe right or go to a bar and talk to actual people who don’t give a hoot that you published in your field’s flagship journal one time fifteen years ago and you’ve basically been coasting ever since. Or date colleagues whom you don’t have authority over… that is, of course, presuming that your university’s departments hire qualified women in the first place. Academia isn’t that small, and even if it was, that doesn’t excuse treating students as potential dating partners or recipients of your sexual advances. Stop pretending that graduate students – or worse, undergraduates! – are the only dating pool eligible population you have available. Your job is to teach them and only give them the D if their grades fall between a C and F, not because you’re a sad lonely horny old man with no self-control.

  11. chrislawson says

    Echoing Ichthyic@9–

    I think a lot of people would benefit from reading up on on relationships and power imbalances. It’s not about the age gap (although that can be creepy in itself and it can accentuate any institutional power gap, but these policies would and should prevent an older student dating a younger professor, or a student and professor of exactly the same age). It’s not about who starts the relationship (from a university’s point of view, its integrity is made suspect whoever did the initial propositioning).

    And yes, it’s entirely possible for a good, supportive, ethical romance to exist between a student and a faculty member. But their university can’t possibly predict the entire future for the relationship and can’t possibly know that the faculty member will somehow achieve perfect detachment when assessing or offering study participation or supervision. Conversely it certainly can predict that it will create discontent and perception of unfairness among students and staff members. And there is some evidence (unfortunately this is an under-investigated field) that allowing relationships creates a predatory climate regardless of whether the relationships themselves are ok: “the problem of sexual harassment on campus will be difficult to address so long as transactional sex relationships between professors and students are permitted”.

    If a student and a faculty member want to start a relationship, then there are some hoops they should jump through, including the possibility of one of them moving campus. If they aren’t prepared to do that, then they’re putting their career/education ahead of their relationship…why should the university be expected to undermine its integrity for them?

    If it’s just loneliness and the person only meets students, then the answer is to get out of university circles. Join a club. Get a dating app. Walk a dog. Take up a sport. Visit art galleries.

  12. chrislawson says


    I think your friend should read his institution’s policies and beware of making decisions based on a “crush”.

  13. Knabb says

    For these older students – universities tend to be in these things known as “cities”. Cities have plenty of people their age which don’t have institutional power over them; scrapping policies like this on their account for that tiny edge case is ridiculous. So is pretending that the problems of power dynamics are somehow completely a factor of age in the first place.

  14. says

    Power dynamics are much more complicated than simply looking at who is older or wealthier. There are some young people who are very confident, independent and who know what they want from life. There are also some older and financially well off people who are shy, lonely, and desperate for love. Personalities also play a huge role. Some people are easy to emotionally manipulate. Others are near immune to the same types of emotional pressure. It depends on the person also when it comes to institutions where one person has power over another one, because not everybody exploits and abuses whatever power they happen to have, some people are nicer than that.

    I’m 26 right now. All the relationships I have had were with guys who were older than me. My number one criterion for picking boyfriends is how well-educated and intelligent a person is. For me smart people are also sexually attractive. I just won’t sleep with somebody unless I also enjoy talking with them. And my favorite conversations are ones in which I can learn something. Anyway, if I was signing up for some dating site, I might as well bluntly type: “Looking for intellectuals and university professors.” Of course, I also look for other traits in my partners, and I do have my limits when it comes to how old people I’m willing to date, because there is a point at which I stop perceiving old people as sexually attractive.

    Anyway, my first relationship, back when I was 17, was the typical fiasco that one might expect. I was an idiot, and the guy who was older than me, manipulated me. I didn’t get hurt back then only because we broke up quickly enough. The only good thing from that relationship was the fact that I learned what not to do in future. I also learned what kind of people to avoid in my life.

    The next relationship, when I was 20, was an entirely different story. The guy was pretty shy. I invited him to dates, I kissed him, I pretty much controlled how that relationship developed. He was too shy to initiate anything. At that time I was a student with no job. Thus everybody who had a job was by default wealthier than me. I was also younger than the guy I was hanging out with. In reality, however, I was the one in charge.

    I think that relationships in which one person controls the other one are very unhealthy. Power dynamics are a real problem. I am definitely against student/professor relationships. There’s just too much room for abuse. Even if both people are nice and have the best intentions, it’s just hard to fairly evaluate and grade your partner’s homework. Moreover, when people break apart, they often do so on bad terms. Thus I do support forbidding student/professor romances. In university I never tried hitting on any of my professors, even though a few of them were really sexy and I sort of wished I could hit on them.

    Anyway, my point here was that power dynamics aren’t as simple as what people sometimes suggest. Requiring that all couples are the same age and the same income doesn’t solve anything. It depends on each person. For me relationships with older guys haven’t been in any way problematic. Of course, that one fiasco from back when I was 17 is an exception, but I did learn from my mistakes.

  15. jd142 says

    Am I reading this wrong?

    [F]aculty members were no longer allowed to date any graduate student—even if the couple works in different departments.

    That’s any graduate student. So the example of ‘a person in computer science might not be able to take a course in art history, because they’re dating an art history professor’ should be:

    A graduate student in Art History cannot date faculty. Period. Not even if the faculty person is in College of Veterinary Medicine and never the twain shall meet.

    I don’t disagree with implementing this policy, I just see some responses with the Art History/Comp Sci example and I think the policy is broader. After all, that Comp Sci faculty could easily influence faculty in Art History intentionally or unintentionally. Or the person studying Art History may be concentrating in the use of computer imaging and AI to restore old palimpsests and the Comp Sci faculty is on the thesis committee. This policy helps to head off these two, and many other, examples.

    Note: I have not read the text of the actual policy, just the summary quoted above. So the actual policy may be narrower or broader.

  16. Anton Mates says


    Princeton does. The policy says no initiating or engaging in a romantic or sexual relationship.

    Nope, it says that faculty can’t initiate or engage. Students can propose whatever, faculty just have to decline.

    “It is important to note that this prohibition, and therefore any disciplinary consequences, fall entirely on the faculty. That is, this policy change will not result in any disciplinary consequences for graduate students,” Dean of the Graduate School Sarah-Jane Leslie said in a statement emailed to graduate students.

  17. lotharloo says

    @Anton Mates:

    Nope, it says that faculty can’t initiate or engage. Students can propose whatever, faculty just have to decline.

    Actually that’s quite reasonable, I had misunderstood the policy earlier.