February 4, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Should Grad Students Be Banned From Dating Each Other?

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The Consensual Relationships Policy Committee has undertaken a long overdue revision of Cornell’s policies on romantic and sexual relations between faculty and students.  These relations are fraught because of differences in power and experience, because they can involve serious conflicts of interest and because they can have disruptive effects on the functioning of and climate within our professional workplaces.

However, there is another class of romantic and sexual relations that seems similarly fraught — in kind if not in degree — that has received almost no discussion:  those between graduate students within the same department or workplace.

Graduate school provides a transition between young adulthood and full professional stature, and graduate students mature enormously over the course of their studies. Before graduating they may participate in many of the professional functions of faculty, including undergraduate teaching, training and supervising new graduate and undergraduate students, evaluating students and writing recommendation letters, managing collaborations, and writing and reviewing manuscripts and proposals. This is especially true in large research groups, where an overworked and distracted professor may be at the apex of a complex hierarchy of students and postdoctoral associates.

Despite this professional trajectory, when it comes to romantic and sexual relations, for graduate students the current (unwritten) policy is: anything goes.

Dating within the same research group, within one’s department or academic unit, within collaborations and between students with large differences in age and experience are all fair game.  Suppose A and B, new graduate students, join a research group, and are to be trained by senior graduate student C.  Now C starts dating A.  Can B expect the same professional attention to his or her development from C?  How will the professional development of A and B be impacted if A and C break up?  Professor X hires a new student D, who previously dated her student E, but is now dating F in the lab next door.  How will this impact D and E’s ability to deliver on their professional responsibilities to their professor and to the federal agencies (and taxpayers) that are supporting their graduate studies?

In an online discussion board, one graduate student notes that “it’s sort of a pain in the ass for everyone else to not be able to go into their workplace without getting sucked into someone else’s personal life.” Possible relationship scenarios are as varied as episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, and few have positive consequences for the professional workplace we should strive to achieve at Cornell.

Of course, graduate school is a time when many people meet their (first) spouse, and there are many examples of successful long-term relationships forged by graduate students in the same group or department (just as there are many successful long-term relationships between faculty and their students).  When the resolution of these dual-career situations involves placing both in the same department or workplace, the conflicts of interest and complications to workplace dynamics invariably follow.

The problems caused by graduate student dating within the workplace may be especially severe in fields with large gender imbalances.  Those of the minority gender can be subject to extreme social pressure, ranging from being invited to every party and asked to join every study group, to frequent unwanted advances from the lonely or emotionally underdeveloped, to sexual harassment, all accompanied by workplace gossip.

Learning to manage these complex social interactions may be good preparation for future leadership positions. But our cognitive capacities are finite, and the cognitive load imposed by a workplace dating culture must interfere with learning and growth that many consider more salient to their professional futures.

Former U.S. District Attorney Mary Jo White,  in her report on accusations of sexual misconduct by University of Rochester Professor Florian Jaeger, noted that “Jaeger struggled to change his behavior after graduating from student to professor and ‘unquestionably blurred the lines between his professional and social spheres.’”

Isn’t it time we helped our graduate students to sharpen these lines?
Robert Thorne is a professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments may be submitted to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.