Saturday, April 08, 2006

Sex in academia

The lawsuit that destroyed the department (mentioned in the previous post) related to two profs who were having a sexual relationship (allegedly) and an accusation that this was the reason that they both voted that another prof didn't deserve a raise. Its a ridiculous accusation because there are so many reason that another person might influence your vote that isolating sex as one of them is just stupid. Many people let their friends influence them and you just can't sue someone for that. Why should sex be any different?

So I thought I would write something about my attitudes towards sex in academia. What is appropriate? When should co-workers/administrators be concerned. I'll tell you what I have learned in my limited direct experience. As an undergrad I attended a tiny midwestern college, with a serious left-ish bent. I was a science major and all the science profs and classes were housed in one four floor building so it was easy to know what was going on with everyone.

First quarter in college I took a class with a Poli-Sci prof who was rumored to have affairs with female students. I have no idea if the rumors were true, but he only called on the skinny blonde in the class and a few male students he considered brilliant.

Third year in college, my organic chem. prof continously stared at my breasts while he lectured. He had daughters my age, but he liked to talk with troubled female students and try to comfort them. When I told female microbiology prof she offered to help me address the issue, but I felt he hadn't done anything clearly inappropriate, just made me uncomfortable.

Fourth year, the same Microbiology prof explained to a small class (maybe four women) how she discovered that it was a bad idea to have a relationship with your students. She had married her disseration advisor, had two kids, and then divorced. She was adament that it was never appropriate to get involved in situations of uneven power.

The next summer another student and I rented a house across the street from her. Over the summer she had an affair with a student who had just graduated. Its true that she was never going to have that person as her student again, but I was deeply disappointed with her.

Fifth year, the physics prof and the new biochem prof begin an affair. They are both married.

Here's my point, although none of these situations were examples of particularly good judgement on the part of the people involved, none of them involved the university administration, lawsuits, or other scandels. Students and other profs knew what was going on, but stayed out of it. Sometimes smart people do really stupid things, but its not possible for the rest of us to correct them if they are not ready to listen. The last thing you need when you are being an idiot is someone pointing it out to you or trying to destroy your career over it. Unless you directly cross some line I think everyone should butt out.

For example, profs should not have relationships with undergrads, even if they aren't in your class. (Most places have rules against that anyway.)

Profs and grad students shouldn't get involved unless they are not in any way involved in the same department.

(The same thing goes for undergrads and TAs.) Beorn is an undergrad at the same U. where I'm a grad student, but we are in complete different departments.

Anyone else have thoughts on this? Tell me your sex stories!

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