May 7, 2018

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: CRPC members explain recommendation rationale

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To the Editor:

Last week an editorial was published in the Cornell Sun criticizing the Consensual Relationship Policy Committee’s recommendation to President Martha Pollack of policy CRP-A that bans relationships between graduate/professional students and faculty who work in the same graduate field or degree program over CRP-B which allows for such relationships “provided there is disclosure and an appropriate recusal plan.” The contention lies over the failure of the policy committee to make it’s recommendation solely based on majority votes from the Student, Employee and University Assemblies, as well as the Faculty Senate as the author(s) of the editorial declares that “both pertinent branches of shared governance (the GPSA and Faculty Senate) voted overwhelmingly against the recommendation.”

While the author(s) of the editorial does take into account that the policy committee was candid in stating that “the votes held by the Student, Employee and University Assemblies, as well as the Faculty Senate, were nonbinding and would only be ‘considered’ by the committee,” the policy committee’s provided rationale, which can be found in the final report is also described in the editorial as not adequate. Therefore, members of the Assemblies and Faculty Senate “deserve to know why their opinions were disregarded.”

The policy committee has acknowledged the division among the Cornell Community on CRP-A in the summary portion of the final report provided to President Pollack for consideration. Appreciating that CRP-A comes at the cost of limiting people’s freedom of association, the committee has also recommended that the policy be revisited in three years to ensure it is appropriately serving the Cornell Community.

The Consensual Relationship Policy Committee, of which is made up of undergrads, graduate/professional students, postdocs, staff and faculty spanning fields across campus, was charged to craft an easy to abide by policy, taking into consideration research on other university policies, cases where consensual relationship policies failed to protect both students and faculty, and look into the broader context of societal change relevant to differentials in power dynamics in relationships, not act as a governing body responding to its constituents. Creating a policy that would set into place clear boundaries for the broadest population was a response to this research and became an important mandate in recommending CRP-A.

In addition, the policy committee also strived to gain insight from the larger Cornell Community by offering online platforms and the opportunity for anyone to provide feedback on a set of questions surrounding the issues as well as a public rough draft of the policy. Further, members and chairs of the policy committee also convened with many different campus communities to gain feedback from a variety of perspectives. These outreach efforts included groups such as, Graduate Women in Science (GWiS), LGBT Studies and Out in STEM (oSTEM), to ensure that the concerns of marginalized and underrepresented groups like women and the LGBTQ community were taken into consideration while crafting the policy.

Along with the Assemblies and Faculty Senate votes, and their rationales, all of the concerns and responses from the larger Cornell Community were carefully considered by the policy committee members during the decision process. Therefore, the policy committee did not wholly abandon the democratic process but consulted many different parties on campus and recommended a more broadly considered and informed policy that provides bright lines to better serve all of the affected populations, thus maintaining an academic environment where any student has protections in place for their future careers and emotional well-being.

Operating over the last 8 months, the policy committee has aimed to be as transparent as possible in its policy and decision making by providing online access to the public rough draft, meeting times, as well as minutes and other procedures. All of this information can still be found online, including a “Rationale FAQ” and the statements of policy committee members explaining their reasoning behind recommending a policy. Most of this information is also compiled in the “Proceedings of the Consensual Relationship Policy Committee.”

While the policy committee has attempted to provide ample transparency and rationale for its recommendation of CRP-A, arguably this has not been provided to the larger Cornell Community in a concise way. Therefore, the rationale for the policy committee’s decision to recommend CRP-A to President Pollack is summarized here. Having an unambiguous bright line drawn at relationships between graduate/professional students and faculty within the same graduate field or degree program provides clear guidelines thus:

  • Safeguarding against accidental violations of the policy or exploitation of vagaries in what constitutes authority providing protection to both faculty and students.
  • Granting graduate and professional students access to faculty based on their academic merits and ongoing needs. While special committees, primary investigators, supervisors, collaborators, experts, and so forth, may not be part of the graduate/professional student’s field or degree program, those roles are significantly more likely to be filled by faculty within their fields. Therefore, previous or ongoing relationships with faculty members in a student’s field could very well limit their ability to pursue unforeseen collaborations, mentors or careers.
  • Ensuring previous or ongoing relationships do not create conflicts of interest due to indirect authority. Within their fields, graduate and professional students are subject to formal and informal evaluation by in-field faculty, even when those faculty are not teaching required courses or directly supervising the student. The in-field ban effectively mitigates these types of conflict of interest.
  • Protecting students outside of the relationship that may experience bias due to favoritism of the student within a relationship, actual or perceived.
  • Considering the rights and protections of LGBTQ individuals by reducing the likelihood that disclosure would lead to unwanted or harmful outing. Outing would be difficult to avoid with the required in-field recusal plan under CRP-B. Thus, CRP-A grants fairly equal rights and protections to both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ individuals. In the rare instances where CRP-A would require disclosure and recusal, a place to confidentially manage this (the 6.X Office) has been recommended.
  • Maximizing academic freedom while minimally limiting individual freedoms by prohibiting relationships that have the potential to do the most harm while allowing those across different fields or degree programs.

Students should have the freedom to pursue their academic endeavors, regardless of age, gender or sexual orientation that is free of unwanted pressures or concerns about educational objectivity from authority figures who have the potential to affect their academic and professional careers. CRP-A goes far towards creating this type of learning environment, thus upholding the sentiment of “any person, any study” that is paramount to Cornell’s academic mission.

Tisha Bohr, postdoctoral researcher
Prof. Rhonda Gilmore, design and environmental analysis
Jenna Chong, grad