4th 2009
Just call him “Dr. Love?”

Posted under: childhood, Gender, students, weirdness

Hey, young layyyyydeeeee!

Hey, young layyyyydeeeee!

In the thread on a recent post about how faculty men’s and women’s personal lives compare in these times, some commenters observed that they have male colleagues or professors who date young students.  Deborah Judge wrote,

My college also has the pattern of young male faculty ‘grooming’ wives for themselves by marrying former students or recent college graduates. It makes me seriously grumpy, not least because it makes socializing with male junior faculty really, really challenging.

Maude also wrote here,

As I was finishing up my Ph.D. in grad city, I noticed many male profs getting engaged to, marrying, or dating undergrads, or recently graduated undergraduate women, which kind of disgusts me. Not to say that these women are not smart or intelligent or do not have any aspirations, but what it seemed to me was that these male profs were grooming academic wives for themselves so that they could “have it all.” They liked their jobs, wanted to stay where they were, you know, which is fine, but I find it hard to ignore the power dynamics there, too–a) former prof in most cases; b) significant age difference–on average about a 13 year age difference. It honestly mad[e] me lose a lot of respect for both the profs and their girlfriends.

life of a fool chimed in, “I have also seen plenty of what maude and others have commented on — faculty men marrying (recently) former students, and it creeps me out for the same power dynamic issues already mentioned.”

Does this really still happen?  I assumed that this went out with the 1960s or 1970s, what with the increasing tenure standards and decreasing libertinism that have characterized faculty life over the past 30 years.  Unlike my aforementioned commenters, I haven’t seen it among my peers.  Am I just completely out to lunch(I have to confess that everyone always knows about the romantic intrigues in my circles months before I do, so maybe I’m just clueless on picking up sex vibes.  Maybe mine is a less complicated reality?  La la la la la!)  Are there some disciplines that harbor more predatory (or pathetic) faculty than others?  I think that if a colleague of mine started dating undergraduates, that faculty member would lose a lot of esteem among his peers, men and women alike.  In fact, a male colleague of mine once gave the creepiest and most damning criticism of professors who date their students I have ever heard:  he called it a theft,and described as a vampirism in which the (older, natch) faculty member was sucking the innocence and idealism out of a young person and feeding on it.  Eeeeww.  (But all the same, very apt I think.)

I find nothing whatsoever attractive about undergraduate men–I couldn’t even stand most of them when I was 18-22 myself.  Some of them haven’t yet figured out how to shower and shave on a daily basis, let alone have anything of interest to say, so the idea of a dating or intimate relationship with any of them is just repulsive.  (But then, I never had a problem finding dates or romantic partners who were age-appropriate.)  I can see where some men in particular who didn’t get a lot of action as younger men and who are perhaps still socially awkward would find it attractive to date women and men who aren’t their peers in any respect–age, educational attainment, etc.  I can see a nerdy guy being seduced by the fact that attractive young people are hanging on his every word in class, and thinking that it must be because he’s such an awesome lecturer rather than because he wields the grade book.

I don’t respect it–but I think I understand it.


59 Responses to “Just call him “Dr. Love?””

  1. Barb on 04 Jun 2009 at 8:57 am #

    Maybe I’m not in the typical environment either, but the places I’ve taught would have considered faculty dating undergrads to be serious misconduct. At my grad program, there was a huge scandal because a prof married one of his grad students (before she was done with the diss). Maybe the men are out to “groom” wives who will manage their lives for them, but I wonder what the divorce rate is for these kinds of relationships, once the girls have had a chance to grow up and realize what their other options are?

  2. Historiann on 04 Jun 2009 at 9:07 am #

    Barb–my thoughts exactly on the durability of these relationships. Then again, women as well as men often eroticize power differences in relationships (differences that always place the women at a disadvantage), so it may work for them longer than you’d think.

  3. The History Enthusiast on 04 Jun 2009 at 9:13 am #

    I have seen this at my uni, not in terms of marriage but in terms of dating. I had a grad student friend who, at age 26, was dating a college freshman who was a former student. There is a HUGE maturity gap between a first-year college student and someone who is 26.

    There is also a prof here who dates much younger women who are college students; he’s only been here for a year so I’m not sure if any of that will turn into a marriage relationship.

    Everyone I know in my grad program (and a couple of the more candid members of the faculty) think it is the epitome of tackiness.

  4. Knitting Clio on 04 Jun 2009 at 9:17 am #

    At my campus, the average age of students is 25. Some new faculty members are not much older than that. I have a female colleague who married a former male student who wasn’t much younger than she. But, that relationship didn’t last (but then again neither did her first marriage to a classmate).

  5. thefrogprincess on 04 Jun 2009 at 9:17 am #

    It might be less common now for professors to actually marry an undergrad or former undergrad, although I think dating is still happening on the sly, though again in lower numbers. I had a choir director in college who had married a woman who had sung in that choir when she was an undergrad; he announced that fact pretty early on each year. By the time I joined the choir, they’d been married for well over 10 years but throughout my four years there he was constantly dogged by rumors that he was continuing to dip into the ready-made pool of singers in front of him. Some of these rumors had some pretty persuasive evidence behind them. There is a subtle difference between being a choir director and a professor and I think it’s quite common for this kind of thing to happen in choirs. All the swelling music (much of which is conveniently about love) combined with the authority/power/masculinity that conductors muster since in fact they control every sound that’s being made. But still, it’s disgusting and there were times I hated the fact that I continued to participate in something where I had so little respect for the person in charge. And I felt horrible for the women involved with this man. Historiann, your colleague’s description of this as a theft and parasitism strikes me as absolutely spot on. Instead of aging with dignity and gaining a measure of authority based on their experience, they’re attempting to stay young and attractive by preying on the most vulnerable women they can find. (It’s no coincidence that in this particular case whatever situation occurred always started freshman year, with these women meeting this man for the first time days into their first semester of college.)

  6. Historiann on 04 Jun 2009 at 9:42 am #

    thefrogprincess–great points. It just seems so easy–picking the low-hanging fruit–to go after people so young and vulnerable, doesn’t it? (That might be the main reason guys like that lose status among their peers–they’re clearly just not that interested in trying harder! As the History Enthusiast says, “the epitome of tackiness.”) Your comments about music and choir directors as particularly prone to this behavior are really interesting.

    KC raises an interesting point about her campus, where the age differential isn’t as great (but the status and power differential stays pretty much the same, I’m guessing.) Maybe your colleage just isn’t cut out for marriage?

    I guess I’m not surprised to hear about dating grad students, but undergraduates? Am I just completely naive to find that shocking?

  7. Brian Ulrich on 04 Jun 2009 at 10:10 am #

    Faculty dating undergraduates is probably much more common at smaller schools where there’s a lot more faculty-student interaction outside the classroom.

  8. Dr. Crazy on 04 Jun 2009 at 10:20 am #

    In my peer group, I’ve not seen this (in terms of profs dating undergraduates, though at my grad institution there was a hullabaloo just before I arrived in which a professor ran off to another institution once it was found out that he was having an affair with his advisee, taking his advisee with him and breaking up his marriage, if I remember correctly). BUT, if the issue is power dynamics/age, I do think that it is more likely for a 40-year-old male professor to date a woman under the age of 25 with less education, status, and overall “power” than he has. I don’t see the same among women professors.

  9. Rad Readr on 04 Jun 2009 at 10:34 am #

    In your post yesterday, you noted an article from alternet about government-funded programs to promote and support healthy heterosexual marriages. Maybe the feds can channel some of that money for faculty who are seeking to marry students. They could even have a faith-based group doing it.

  10. Indyanna on 04 Jun 2009 at 11:05 am #

    On the Eaawwww factor, I think I can top this. A high school senior classmate of mine graduated and went off to the Big State U. in her Midwestern home state. Came back the next June as a visitor at graduation to announce she was transferring somewhere around the local area. Then she married one of our old teachers, which confirmed not so much rumors as unarticulated correlations and suspicions of the sort that years later found their way into that song by the Po=lice. It didn/t last. Dood was a young, somewhat angsty writerly sort with a short novel out, possibly self published, which had impressed us a lot.

    Last I heard she was doing fine, down south somewhere, married with family and career. I don/t know if he ever got another book out, but I know he didn/t stay around the school for long. Maybe I/ll check up on it.

  11. Shaun Huston on 04 Jun 2009 at 11:14 am #

    I teach at a small (approx. 5,000) regional state university, and professors dating or marrying undergrads does not seem to happen at all (or, as noted above, there’s always the possibility of cluelessness on my part). So, I’m not sure about the small school explanation offered by Brian. On the other hand, we have a fairly weak campus culture. Many students leave on the weekends, faculty live in other towns, etc. If those circumstances were different, maybe it would be more likely that some faculty would begin to look at the student body as a pool of “eligible” partners. The one notable instance of such behavior since I’ve been here, which became a sexual harassment case, involved a member of the graduate faculty and students in the College of Ed. However, like Dr. Crazy, I was at a graduate institution where relationships between faculty and grad students were pretty noticeable. In all cases I was aware of the faculty member was male and the student was female.

    I also recall this issue coming up at a community college where I taught as an adjunct, primarily in the context of faculty dating “non-traditional”, that is, age-appropriate, students, which changes the power dynamics at least somewhat, especially if the student in question is taking courses for some non-degree related purpose.

  12. anonymous on 04 Jun 2009 at 11:29 am #

    I once knew a full prof, late 40s I’d guess, who dated his female students regularly. When my uni hired him, we heard rumors that he was leaving his current position under duress, because he had broken up his own grad. student’s marriage: the husband was his student, he met the wife and seduced her, the couple divorced, and then the whole thing came out. I understood that he was asked to leave voluntarily or else be fired.

    So he applied to, and got, a position at my uni. He was considered good looking and a charismatic teacher: with this combo, he had no trouble wooing undergraduate women, including freshman women currently enrolled in his classes! Apparently, he liked to maintain one primary relationship, a woman whom he would mentor intellectually (being her advisor, etc.) as well as sexually. However, he’d also cat around with other young women on the side. He was fired from my institution after a graduating senior complained to the Office of Sexual Harassment: he had just dumped her for another, younger student after being her lover four the entire four years of her college time. He started with her when she was a student in his freshman Gen Ed class.

    Last I heard, he was still at it, at yet another institution…

  13. Historiann on 04 Jun 2009 at 11:29 am #

    On the point of a small college fostering these kinds of relationships: I’m not so sure it’s that simple. Baa Ram U. is most definitely not a small college (27,000+ students). I think in an environment like this, where students never assume that their professors know them at all, it might be very seductive to be singled out for flattery and special attention. I take Brian’s point in that small colleges give faculty and students more opportunity for interaction, but also Shaun’s point that different colleges have different campus cultures.

    I learned how susceptible Baa Ram U. students were to even the slightest attention from proffies when I worked with a number of undergraduate teaching assistants. When I took an interest in these students and let them know that I thought they were smart and good at history, they responded in very unguarded ways that made me think that an unscrupulous person could really take advantage of them if he wanted to. I bought them a box of doughnuts and had a weekly meeting with them as a group to help them facilitate small group discussions in my large classes, and you would have thought that I had bought them new cars and had personally found them places in the top graduate programs–they were so (touchingly) grateful that a professor noticed them at all.

  14. Historiann on 04 Jun 2009 at 11:34 am #

    And as for the stories told here by Indyanna and anonymous: eeeewwww is right, again.

  15. Buzz on 04 Jun 2009 at 11:42 am #

    In physics and mathematics, the males so overwhelmingly outnumber the females that I think that faculty looking for dates among their upper-level undergraduate and especially graduate students might not be worth the trouble. (At the large conference I attended last week, I was heartened to see a higher fraction of young female scientists than I ever had before, and then immediately depressed that even with the improvement, only about a quarter of the post-docs and junior faculty in attendance were women.) Pretty much every couple I know who are both in math or physics are comparable in age and most commonly met when they were both in school.

    There was a case when I was a student, where a young male chemistry professor was involved with one of his graduate students. He stayed in the relationship long after it seems he had tired of her, because she was doing the most important experimental work in his lab. As soon as he got tenure, he dumped her—telling her that it was over and she was not invited to his tenure celebration. The student broadcast this information all over campus, and the professors was quite notorious for about eighteen months, after which interest (at least among the student population, which necessarily has a short institutional memory) waned.

  16. life_of_a_fool on 04 Jun 2009 at 11:54 am #

    I know of several of these relationships (though sometimes it’s grad student or part time instructors, sometimes TT faculty, sometimes 23 year old grad students (and former undergrads), sometimes undergrads). There are some dynamics (like a lesser age difference or not being a professor/advisor to that student) that might lessen the creepiness, but . . .

    Another thing I’ve anecdotally noticed is that female students play the aggressor. I know many male faculty who have been hit on/propositioned/whatever by female students. I don’t know of any examples of the reverse (though maybe Historiann’s example is a parallel — which she didn’t encourage). That’s not to say that I think the women are “at fault,” but just that it corresponds to broader gender/power/age difference dynamics that I think make that combo (young female student, older male faculty) more likely/common. I can understand it better from the female student’s perspective than the reverse. I get the (possibly misguided) appeal of the smart, accomplished man who seems more cultured/accomplished/sophisticated than your peers. From the faculty perspective, it just seems predatory, creepy, and likely controlling.

    I also do think that the culture of the institution makes this more or less likely (or more or less hidden).

  17. thefrogprincess on 04 Jun 2009 at 12:04 pm #

    Like other commentators, I disagree with Brian’s suggestion that small colleges might be a better breeding ground for this kind of thing. Indeed, you could say that bigger colleges provide more space to hide. But I think he’s on to something when it comes to interactions outside the classroom. Already in some of the anecdotes mentioned here, we have this kind of thing happening in the context of choirs and labs, not to mention the relationships between professors and graduate students: all situations that extend beyond a 50-minute lecture a few times a week.

  18. Notorious Ph.D. on 04 Jun 2009 at 1:33 pm #

    I can´t go into many details here, because I´m on a public terminal in Exotic Research City, but let me just chime in that it makes me a little queasy, too. But are you ready for the twist?

    I was one of those undergrads.

    Yup, moved in with a young prof in my UG department about three weeks after I graduated. Never had a class with him, never dated before turning in my final work of my final term… but I was still a walking cliché.

    My motivations: I wanted a man for whom smart counted for something. And he was cute. And I liked the idea of being transgressive (though as I said, in retrospect I was the biggest clichés out there).

    His motivation? Stinging from a recent divorce, loving the validation and attention, needing an emotional crutch (this took me 10 years to figure out). Which I naively provided.

    Seriously, ladies: if you´re contemplating this, run as fast as you can in the other direction. A man who is primarily interested in women over ten years younger than he is, with much lower credentials, is probably not an emotionally healthy person.

  19. new prof on 04 Jun 2009 at 1:57 pm #

    At my former university, the chair of the department was on his second undergrad-student-wife. The professor in the office next door had an affair with an undergraduate while his wife was pregnant. His wife divorced him. A couple of years later he married yet another student. Hmmmm, I wonder why I ever left.

    Both professors were in their 60′s. Almost all the stories I heard along these lines involved much older men. Perhaps there is a generational divide.

  20. Historiann on 04 Jun 2009 at 2:28 pm #

    Wow, new prof–that’s some pretty epic misbehavior! Your story suggests that there are some environments where this is tolerated. (I’m thanking goodness that my colleagues are all such boring, responsible people, at least so far as I know or even want to know!) That kind of behavior, aside from being destructive of the appropriate boundaries between faculty and students, is also destructive of the work environment among the faculty. Guys like that aren’t minding their business and doing their scholarship, research, and service.

    Notorious: thanks for being the voice of experience here. I’d like to hear more about why you broke up–but I wonder if some of us can fill in the story from the basic outline you provided for me?

    All of your stories are disloging old memories: the grad student who married a prof. in grad school, the department chair at my first job who had just married a recent graduate he met when she was a student in his classroom. Hmm…..

  21. Historiann on 04 Jun 2009 at 2:31 pm #

    Oh, and to life of a fool’s point about the female students as aggressors: I can absolutely see that. Bright college women are fairly confident and they may see an opening to flirt with a professor. But I think the key is that the professor has to be the “adult” in the situation and shut it down fast. But, as I described above, there are some men who won’t shut it down because they’re getting what they want.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that the students (male or female) are just victims here. They’re clearly (or in most cases, like Notorious’s) consenting, or even are the initiators. But they don’t have the perspective that their professors have (or should have) to understand why these relationships are problematic.

  22. Bavardess on 04 Jun 2009 at 2:56 pm #

    At my university, a prof dating/being sexually involved with an undergrad would be considered professional misconduct and possibly open them up to a sexual harassment charge. The age dynamics are interesting though, because although there are a lot of young undergrads, it is also an institution that has a high population of ‘mature’ students. In practice, I don’t know if the situation would be viewed differently if the undergrad was in their 30s or 40s instead of 19 or 20.

    I used to work for a guy that followed this exact same pattern with pretty much every young female temp and receptionist we had through the company, and he didn’t care if they were married/in a relationship or not. Very skeevy. He eventually got booted out after he’d dragged the company through three different sexual harassment mediation proceedings (he was a director).

  23. Dame Eleanor Hull on 04 Jun 2009 at 3:04 pm #

    I wonder if it has less to do with large/small schools than with isolation. A small school in a city gives a bigger dating pool than a large school in the middle of nowhere.

    I have a young friend who is about to marry her former TA, ten years older than she. Both just graduated from an isolated institution, she with BS, he with PhD. FWIW, her grandmother married her own professor, with double that age gap, and I wonder if that family history influenced my friend.

    Also FWIW, although my mother always found such relationships romantic/titillating, I grew up on a block with two of them, and observed closely how a couple of active, attractive women in their fifties were nursing elderly men as well as working and helping to raise grandchildren. I drew my own conclusions about age gaps; though I did once date a TA, he was only 4 years older than I.

    Undergrad/grad student relationships seem different to me than undergrad/prof ones, or even grad/prof.

  24. Flavia on 04 Jun 2009 at 3:05 pm #

    I definitely knew of TA-undergrad relationships (though never between teachers and current students) when I was first an undergrad and later a grad student at the same fancy-pants institution; two were between female grad students and male undergrads.

    Regardless of how common they may have been, they were always looked down upon. One of my grad school colleagues was dating a former student, and although the age difference couldn’t have been greater than 4 years (and although he, like me, had *also* been an undergrad at INRU–which I suspect produced a certain sense of familiarity for both partners, and made them feel that they were peers in a way they weren’t), even his closest friends rolled their eyes when talking about the relationship.

    I only know of two faculty-undergrad relationships at my alma mater–and again, one was between a female professor and an undergraduate male (the other, more conventionally, between a male prof and a female undergrad). They were huge, huge scandals, which is why I knew about them, and the second led to very strict fraternization policies. I know of nothing of the sort at my current institution.

  25. life_of_a_fool on 04 Jun 2009 at 3:19 pm #

    Historiann — I totally agree with the effect on the workplace when such relationships are common.

    I also agree that it’s up to the professor to be the adult.

  26. Susan on 04 Jun 2009 at 3:36 pm #

    Well, like Notorious, I’m one of those women too. Been married 20+ years to the man who was my advisor, and is almost 30 years my senior. What can I say? I know it’s a cliche, but in our case it has worked. I guess I’d add that when the relationship began to develop, we both actually talked about the power dynamics. And while his marriage broke up, we kept things relatively platonic until he’d actually left his wife.

    The attraction was simple: we could talk about everything together – -politics, history, books, etc. It’s like anyone else you are attracted to. Has it helped my career? No, it has been more a problem than a help. I’m sure there are other things going on, but sometimes it’s just hte person you fall in love with.

    Oh, and I’m a great believer that working with someone is a real turn on…

  27. Brian Ulrich on 04 Jun 2009 at 3:45 pm #

    At faculty orientation at my ex-employer, a dean told us that there used to be a regulation against “romantic relationships” between students and faculty. They changed it when an accused faculty member defended himself by saying it was all just meaningless sex.

    During mandatory harassment and sensitivity training at Wisconsin, they told us university lawyers had said they could not ban any relationships between consenting adults as long as conflicts of interest were disclosed and arrangements made to handle them.

  28. Poe on 04 Jun 2009 at 4:27 pm #

    I won’t go into many details because I like my privacy, but I will admit that I am a woman professor who married a student several years younger than me. And I am not the only one that I know (one of the most successful marriages that I have seen was between a female professor and her male student). My own marriage did not last, but I do not regret the relationship at all, nor do I think that it is necessarily pathological. I know that there were certainly reasons why he appeared as an attractive romantic candidate beyond his considerable good qualities – I was at a large but isolated institution, with a tiny dating pool; the number of single men my age or older was small to non-existent, and I quickly found that I had very little in common with my professorial colleagues. On the other hand, as a very young junior professor I had a lot more in common with my students. As a result, I remain more ambivalent about large age differentials in relationships (and the professor-student relationship) than many commentators here. I certainly have watched certain individuals with power and privilege prey on the younger and weaker, but I have also seen couples manage to leave the professor-student relationship behind, in a way that is beneficial to both parties.

  29. Janice on 04 Jun 2009 at 4:32 pm #

    Well, my husband is someone who, when I started my M.A. and worked as a grading assistant, was a friendly acquaintance via a student organization and was also a student whose work I marked in one course. (I informed the course instructor of the possible conflict of interest for two such friends but he just asked to review those marked papers to see if I was marking fairly.)

    Years later, after he’d graduated and entered the workforce, as I was finishing up my Ph.D., we started dating. So you could say that I married “one of my students.”

    What I see, anecdotally, is that academic women tend to seek dating partners and more often marry among their peer group (particularly in grad school, which then makes that two body problem even more interesting) whereas academic men aren’t looking amongst their peers as often, but casting their net more broadly (for that ideal wife?).

    A very few can sometimes can be found trawling among the younger students and recent grads. *sigh* Thankfully, not my colleagues here!

  30. Digger on 04 Jun 2009 at 4:53 pm #

    When I was in grad school, one of the profs had a reputation for having relationships with undergrad students, but not on-campus. On field schools in far-away, foreign, non-English speaking countries. Talk about power differentials.

  31. Metanerd on 04 Jun 2009 at 5:34 pm #

    Long time lurker, first time poster.

    On the undergrad as aggressor front, I once had a female undergraduate who would sign all her emails to me “jailbait.” I found it pretty easy to be the adult and forward them all to the dean. The behavior stopped pretty quickly after that.

  32. DV on 04 Jun 2009 at 6:13 pm #

    In the department with which I am most familiar, this is common among the older faculty. Several of the tenured, white-haired male professors are married to women considerably younger than them who, I’ve been told, were former students. Among the newer faculty (both men and women), there are no examples of this. (Curiously, this younger demographic has a high rate of academic-to-academic pairings.) While I would hope this is a sign that such relationships are no longer condoned, that isn’t the case everywhere. A male friend of mine just a few years ago got a job offer from a small, private, conservative college where the college was it – no town, just the college in the middle of the countryside. He was informed at the campus visit that faculty-student dating was condoned (so long as the student wasn’t in his class), presumably as a way to get a young, unattached potential hire – who was male – to take a job at a remote place.

  33. truffula on 04 Jun 2009 at 6:29 pm #

    My first academic contract had a moral turpitude clause. I had to ask somebody what that meant. Oh!

    My current institution has a consensual relationships policy that applies to any relationship with a significant difference in power (supervisor/employee, professor/student, and so on). Anybody finding themselves in such a relationship is required to report it to a supervising authority, with the rationale that this is for the protection of both parties. Such relationships are not grounds for dismissal but failure to comply with the policy could be.

  34. Virginia S. Wood, Psy.D. on 04 Jun 2009 at 6:41 pm #

    “… a theft,… a vampirism in which the (older, natch) faculty member was sucking the innocence and idealism out of a young person and feeding on it.”

    That’s the most apt description of it I’ve ever heard.

  35. Sisyphus on 04 Jun 2009 at 8:09 pm #

    Weh-hel–hell! Have I got some stories for _you_!

    Our campus (I think the whole UC system) has a strong anti-power-differential relationship policy, written in nice broad terms so that you can get the dating and relationships and trawling for f*** buddies all covered by the same umbrella. But, that hasn’t really stopped people, just made them hide stuff.

    English is overwhelmingly majority female undergrads at my campus. I don’t think the _profs_ are going after the undergrads, but a sizeable number of the male grad students go for em, or end up dating former students, often for quite long-term relationships. In their defense, there is such a common pattern of that first year of grad school wrecking your relationship (it happened to me) if your partner is not in grad school and you turn into an insane basket case babbling about theory and dead languages and whatnot, and most of these guys are what, 24, 25, and they are teaching all these bright young girls who also love the same literature they study (and our undergrads don’t wear very much clothing, being in CA and all… it’s a weird thing). As people who are themselves adjusting to being grad students rather than undergrads (as well as to being dumped) it kinda makes sense for them, although it doesn’t really excuse the behavior.

    On the other hand, at the _grad_ level it is definitely a case of male profs and female grad students here. And I could tell you stories! But, since most of those sexual harassment cases couldn’t be prosecuted or were but got closed with a nondisclosure clause in the settlement, I won’t.

    I will say that I have seen several women grad students who seemed to have deep emotional problems that they then projected onto their male authority-figure profs and pursue them very aggressively. And a couple who seemed to think they had no confidence in their own scholarly abilities and sought out someone who was going to be their protector and kinda push them through all the grad-school hoops for them. But I have seen a _lot_ of profs who seem to think that every single female grad student follows this model — either I have to fight to make sure I am being treated as a colleague and a professional when I go talk to them, or I have them recoil in horror and very ostentatiously leave the door open all the way when I went to see them. I don’t like getting either reaction.

    There’s a lotta drama between queer grads and profs here, too — but I think that’s more about the restricted dating pool for them in this town and the sense that everybody knows everybody else’s bizness.

  36. Dr. Crazy on 04 Jun 2009 at 9:15 pm #

    Reading this thread has been so interesting – and sometimes surprising – for me. I suspect that part of my surprise comes from the fact that after a couple of weird experiences (where I just got “bad vibes” from a male professor) I went on in my grad school life and beyond to choose mentors who were a) gay, b) totally not that person or c) straight women. Here’s the thing: I think that the issue is power dynamics, really, and not necessarily or only age difference (though age difference can play into power) or student/faculty status. Example: my mentor in my department is married to a person who was a student at our university while he was a professor there. He never taught her, or even met her, while she was a student. The age gap between them isn’t very big (less than 15 years, probably less than 10, but I’m not certain about that). She went on to get her Ph.D. in a different field, and now they’ve been married for 25+ years. She is now also a professor at my institution. There was never, and is not now, a power differential between them. She wasn’t a spousal hire, and he and she are both full professors.

    In contrast, I’ve got another colleague (very close to retirement) who is on his THIRD former-student-of-his wife. (Let’s just note that apparently I swayed this colleague to my side in my search because I “charmed” him and that this is common knowledge. He’s as old as one of my grandmothers.) That’s a hugely different thing.

    The issue isn’t job title, or even degree. It’s POWER. If one enters into a relationship and one or the other person isn’t an equal partner and participant, that doesn’t usually lead to good things. And I don’t think that this is limited to professor/student pairings: I think that professor/secretary or professor/bartender pairings can lead to exactly the same craziness. The point is, a partner is an equal, not a subordinate.

  37. Dr. Crazy on 04 Jun 2009 at 9:17 pm #

    former-student-AS-his wife – typed too fast :)

  38. Notorious Ph.D. on 05 Jun 2009 at 2:45 am #

    Historiann (et al.),

    The breakup was for various reasons, some his, some mine. But one good thing did come out of it: I went to grad school. To spite him. Yup — I thought, “Well, screw him — if he can get a Ph.D., I´ll bet I can, too!”

    Fortunately for me, the career turned out better than the relationship. And as of August, we will be of equal rank. And as of May next year, we will have an equal number of books published.

    Guess I´m not so over the spite thing, after all, huh? Ah, well — the baser emotions have always been better motivators for me.

  39. Notorious Ph.D. on 05 Jun 2009 at 2:46 am #

    And for the record, I believe that in some cases, relationships like these (just like any) CAN work out — and Susan, your success is great. I just think it´s pretty rare.

  40. Bing on 05 Jun 2009 at 5:53 am #

    I was going to say that I hadn’t seen it, but a little reflection proved me wrong. Early in my grad program, there was an up and coming junior faculty member who dated a just-graduated former student, and it was serious. Of course, everyone thought it was tacky, and it was hard for his colleagues to take her seriously as a social equal at University events, since so many of them had taught her. (She did not mind the awkward, as I remember.) There was also a case of a grad student dating a former student. There have also been apocalyptic (I gave up trying to spell “apocryphal”) stories about a senior male scholar making passes at a female grad student. I know only of one dating relationship twixt senior faculty and grad student.


  41. Tenured Radical on 05 Jun 2009 at 7:13 am #

    You know, Jane Gallop’s “Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment,” in which she describes being brought up on charges by a grad student she kissed at a dyke bar, operates on the premise that “unequal” relationships have the capacity to be empowering as well. Notorious (now we know why!) alludes to this in her rejoinder.

    OK here’s a biggie: my first serious relationship was with a woman who was my high school teacher — that’s right! I was recruited into the lesbian sisterhood right out of high school! It lasted for four years, more or less, then dissolved when I got out of college. She was 20 years older, a feminist (the first I really knew), very involved with the sexual revolution and very much an intellectual mentor. Like Notorious, having a relationship with someone who took me seriously as a potential intellectual was what I wanted and needed — my parents were big into achievement, but not so much into what one did with all those great grades and a Yale BA.

    What a happened around the break-up was a big frikkin’ train wreck that I won’t go into — she wasn’t fooling around, and while I was serious about her, I had more life to live and didn’t see myself settling down with someone who would have had a super messy divorce (with heart-broken kids as a bonus) in order to settle down with me — did I mention she was married to a man?

    OK — back to the point. Yes, it was empowering. I got to be smart. The sex set a very high standard. But was I able to navigate the complexities of this relationship on the emotional experience of a teenager? No, no, no. I did things that I regret to this day that were very hurtful and mean to extract myself from the relationship. But only when I was much older did I get it that of course there was a power imbalance in the relationship in my inexperience vs. her experience; and my naivete in what the expectations, emotional and practical, of a long term affair would be for someone who was older than I.

    Needless to say, all this took a long time to unravel for myself. I would not say I was harmed by this relationship, and in many ways I was helped — getting distance on my family, going to graduate school, and so on. But there might have been another way to accomplish these things.

    And Historiann — a certain graduate department you know well is famous for profs taking grad students as second, and in one case I can think of first, wives! A grad student there once told me that these relationships were ok because they invariably resulted in marriage. Uh-hunh.

  42. maude on 05 Jun 2009 at 7:44 am #

    I would like to chime back in here, although I’m late to the party again, but in the instances I mentioned previously, these males profs were dating someone their own age and of equal status (none of them academic women, but successful, strong, independent women with careers) who then “traded” them for much younger (again, like 13 years younger) cutesie girls who had just turned 21. Three of the profs in particular were between 36-38 years old. These profs knew these students AS undergrads, and in one case, had been cultivating this relationship (while already partnered) with the undergrad when she was about 19! I will say that I do think it would be different if say these women were non-traditional students, even in their mid to late 20s (while still undergrads)–but the power dynamic still cannot be ignored. I cannot fathom these relationships as anything other than predatory–especially when you there is such an astounding age difference.

    I will add this, too, in the interest of full disclosure, that part of my disgust and desire for women not to enter into these relationships is because I was one of those girls–not the undergrad girl, but the grad student who had an affair that lasted over a year with her thesis advisor. This apparently was a problem at my Master’s institution as well (which was not an R-1). I was very young–24, extremely depressed over my divorce, and my advisor, who was married, who I thought was trying to help me get over my divorce, got me really really drunk one night, and we had sex. And that continued for well over a year–even after I moved 900 miles away, he sent me money so that I could come visit him! I, of course, thought he was being discreet, but apparently it was no secret, and meetings about me took place behind closed doors about what to do incase this ever became public. At the same time, the Graduate chair had left his wife for a grad student (who was older than me, 30), and really, people suspected the only reason she got into the program was because she was sleeping with him–she was a “C” grad student–this affair/relationship was much more public and all of the non-tenured grad faculty were afraid of giving her anything but As for fear that if they gave her anything but they would find themselves without grad classes (it was a 4-4 or 3-3 if you taught grad classes). Because I was the much more vulnerable one, I was being set up as the scapegoat. And really, I mean, the whole relationship was about power after that first act of sex. It was a small department, he was the only one in my field, I couldn’t very well get another thesis advisor; furthermore, it would have looked even more suspicious if I had. On top of that, I had a horrible time finding others to even sit on my committee, one in particular who did it with such disdain because he had only heard rumors and thought I was the one pursuing the prof and not the other way around. (He did, when set straight by another prof give an apology w/o really giving an apology–of course I found all this out after I had graduated), but we both knew I was trapped as long as I was still there. I found out after I graduated that I was being portrayed as a “femme fatale” (which if you had seen me at the time, I was 99 pounds on a 5’6″ frame, and I cried in empty offices and bathroom stalls between classes I was so fucking depressed and I turned to all the wrong people because when one is that vulnerable, one does not think clearly–so “femme fatale” my ass). Aside from the fact that I am embarrassed for being a cliche’, I also know, now after years of trying to come to terms with this, that he was indeed a predator, and that I wasn’t the first either (though I didn’t know that at the time). I lost a lot of respect for myself. And I know lots of people lost a lot of respect for me, too. I don’t think anyone lost respect for him though because obviously he was the one who fell into my trap.

    So even as a grad student, even though the grad student is older, I don’t think the power dynamic can ever EVER be erased. It affects, still, my professional life today because I hear he lives near where I got a t-t job; I always check conference programs beforehand, thoroughly, before any conference so I can prepare myself in case I run into him (still–I am afraid of running into him, sadly, and I know I shouldn’t be because I am not that same scared girl from before, and I heard he’s not even teaching or doing anything academic anymore). He still emails me about once every year or two to tell me he loves me and misses me (he gets my info from the PMLA directory). So I know this kind of digressed from the original point at hand, but for some reason, I see this happen all the time (maybe I’m sensitive to it). I mean, it is enticing at first because these relationships begin under the guise of “wow, an man takes me seriously, for the first time ever, someone who sees me a having a brain and values what I say. I’m not just tits and a vagina for him! And he has a Ph.D., so I must be smart and RIGHT for him to think so!”

    Which, that being said, points to a much larger problem in society with regards to women, how women are viewed, what is valued in women, and why so many of us, still, regardless of how smart we are, fall into these traps, when we should not base our status as intellectuals on how our male profs (current or former) grade our intellects. I hope HOPE that as a professor and as a scholar I can help female students see they are smart and valuable and strong so that they can depend on themselves as their own judges of brilliance and not make the same mistakes I did.

    And again, I’m sorry for such the long comment. But thanks for indulging me.

  43. maude on 05 Jun 2009 at 7:52 am #

    oh, wait I should say, too, that I know this is very hetero here–my comment, but these are the relationships I see taking place. It is not meant to discount same sex experiences of the same nature–I just cannot speak to those experiences.

  44. Vance Maverick on 05 Jun 2009 at 9:53 am #

    I was in a relationship with a professor, 20-25 years ago now, that fit many of these patterns — highly asymmetrical as to power, dependent to the point of derailing my academic and intellectual development, etc. (When we met, I was 16 and he about 35.) But it didn’t occur to me to see it in these terms, because it was never explicitly sexual, and indeed since we were both straight men (I naive, he a touch homophobic), that thought did not cross my mind till quite late. And I didn’t see the vampirism or exploitation for what it was, because I learned so much from him (some of which, of course, has had to be unlearned painfully since). I can only imagine the extra pain and difficulty that would have been added by a literal sexual or romantic relationship, or the distinct pressures and expectations on a female student.

  45. Mamie on 05 Jun 2009 at 11:37 am #

    Hee-hee. Notorious, I soooo get that lingering feeling of competitiveness with the rats in our pasts. Years ago, a partner dumped me for one of his students. I occasionally derive untoward pleasure from comparing our current CVs (the professor’s, not the student’s. Naturally, she left him long ago).

  46. Historiann on 05 Jun 2009 at 11:58 am #

    Now, I’ve heard of a “grudge f^ck,” but I’ve never heard of a “grudge Ph.D.!” (As Notorious suggested above, and Mamie seconded here…)

    Thanks so much for all of your comments–I really appreciate the variety of experiences people have relayed here. I am preparing a follow-up post to address some of the common points. There seems to be a convergence here–even among people who have been in these relationships as well as those who have merely observed disapprovingly from a distance–that power is the key variable. Many commenters have suggested, and I agree, that non-traditional aged student and grad students complicate the picture, as does the relative seniority of the faculty members in question. A junior faculty member having a relationship with a student in her late rather than early 20s is different; a faculty member having a relationship with a student he met through other channels rather than in his own classroom is different; etc.

    It seems like most people commenting here, with the wisdom that comes from surviving into your 30s, 40s, and 50s, would agree that the late teens and early twenties is a much more vulnerable period in life than it felt at the time. I myself remember feeling like I was on top of the world at age 21, a big fish in a small pond of a college who had gotten into the grad school of her choice with a fellowship. I did some reckless things that reflected that (false) sense of invulnerability and control over my environment. And I feel like a total ass about it now, but my 40 year old self is rather more forgiving of my 21-year old self than my 22- or 23-year old self was.

    Anyway–more later. Sorry to have had to check out of the conversation, but hecksapoppin’ here on the High Plains Desert and I’ve got to run now.

  47. Fratguy on 05 Jun 2009 at 12:22 pm #

    “Shave and shower on a daily basis ?” that’s all I would have had to have done? Awwwwww man.

  48. Historiann on 05 Jun 2009 at 12:31 pm #

    Hey, Fratguy–that’s a baseline, not a maximum qualification.

  49. Fratguy on 05 Jun 2009 at 12:57 pm #

    Decent haircut ?

  50. Historiann on 05 Jun 2009 at 2:13 pm #

    That too would distinguish you among the undergraduate men around my uni.

  51. Clio Bluestocking on 05 Jun 2009 at 10:06 pm #

    I used to T.A. for a professor in his 40s who would say that all of the women his age had been so screwed over by men that they had too much baggage and wouldn’t trust him. Therefore, the only women worth dating were in their late teens and early twenties — 25 was getting too old for him.

    Of course, if he went to the places where 18-24 year olds hung out, he would look like the skeevy older dude. Instead, he’d turn to his classes as a dating pool. He had the gall to ask me on the first day of class if I saw “any good prospects” for him among the students. When I told him that I didn’t approve of that, he told me I should “get over it.”

    He had actually married one of his students something like a semster after she had been in his class. She was all of 19. The marriage didn’t even last a year. He was back, trolling the classroom the next semester, before the divorce papers had been filed.

    Then — it gets better — he told me that I should date him (and I was over the 25 year old age limit) because that would shut down the rumors that I was having sex with my advisor. Who started the rumors about the advisor? The advisor himself. I wasn’t the first he had started rumors about, either, nor the last. He liked to find some young, naive, single student, get her to take classes only from him with late meetings in his office when the building was empty, and then tell the other professors what a slut she was. Since he was the department bully, if he decided you were his target, you were poison to anyone else as either a friend or a student.

    I later worked for a professor who took it upon himself to file a harassment suit against his department chair on behalf of the graduate students in that department. No one asked him, he just didn’t like that the chair was dating another grad student. Well, the whole time that he was filing this complaint, he himself was dating a grad student. The chair, at least, wasn’t married at the time. This particular professor ended up having three wives. Their ages all stayed the same, but he kept getting older.

    Somewhere along the line I began to wonder if it was just me, if I was a magnet for scumbags, or just brought it out in the people around me. Then, I realized, it was the whole system around me — the power, the sexism, the vestiges of an age that permitted sexual harassment, the younger men who were pissed that they were unable to live in that age, and, on some level, the juvenile antics of overgrown boys trying to prove to the other boys that they are the most virile of the pack.

  52. Caroline Knapp on professor-student relationships : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 06 Jun 2009 at 5:59 am #

    [...] relationship.  One passage in particular will interest readers who followed the last post, “Just call him ‘Dr. Love‘,” on professor-student sexual relationships.  Knapp writes about an experience she [...]

  53. Z on 06 Jun 2009 at 3:24 pm #

    The reason I realize how many male professors are married to former students is that I have been where I am for as long as I have, and secondly, I have also worked at another university in South Louisiana, so I have absorbed a lot of information over the years.

    I still keep getting surprised to find one more case of it. I wonder sometimes whether in the end I may find it is almost all of them.

  54. Z on 08 Jun 2009 at 12:18 pm #

    And once again, the propositioning is RAMPANT and I wouldn’t know if I weren’t so immature and didn’t have all these friends who are former students, halfway between the undergraduate age and my age.

    The other night I was at dinner with a friend who was an undergraduate here years ago. A colleague of mine, someone I’ve always liked and wouldn’t mind having in my social circle (or so I thought) came up and hit on her.

    They hadn’t seen each other in 10 years. She was horrified and said OMG, he used to hit on me when I was in college, and now he still thinks he can come and do the same thing. And she told me he had a huge rep for this. And the faculty does NOT know.

  55. Z on 08 Jun 2009 at 12:29 pm #

    And P.S. I think rising tenure standards and so on CONTRIBUTE to it. People have NO time to find any social life outside school.

  56. On prohibiting faculty-student sexual relationships : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 10 Jul 2009 at 6:57 am #

    [...] with Longanecker.  We had a long conversation about this last month–many of you confessed to having relationships with professors when you were students, and then in a follow-up post we talked about the role that drinking may play in these [...]

  57. Humiliation and Longing: Part II of my discussion with Tenured Radical of Terry Castle’s The Professor : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 21 Jul 2010 at 8:29 am #

    [...] in our minds, those of desire, longing, and the price one pays to join the academic club.  And as some of you have reported here, sex is one way young scholars can gain admission, or at least imagine that that’s what [...]

  58. jt on 25 Jun 2014 at 8:17 pm #

    Professors, please refrain from dating your students and former students. It is unbecoming to the profession.

  59. LateToTheParty on 30 Oct 2014 at 6:19 pm #

    I realize I am late to the game but this something I am conflicted about. I agree it is complex and as with most things I think it depends on the situation. I also think, however, that most of the time it’s pretty clear to any adult (professor) with a sense of responsibility and decency would know. I am currently a professor and have some experience in this matter.

    Undergrad- I attended a small college (less than 1000 students) in a town where the college was it (rural). Professors and students frequently formed close relationships outside of the classroom, socializing was normalized and encouraged. That close bond, if anything, seemed to make the mentoring relationship stronger. To my knowledge, no student-professor relationships of a romantic or sexual nature occurred (and this place was small so good luck hiding anything). Of course it was also likely you would have had or were going to have any given professor in class at some point (I took classes from a least 70 percent of the faculty) and the ones you spent considerable time with you probably had classes with every semester or research. Faulty regarded us as up and coming scholars and were respectful, fun and encouraging but still regarded is as kids in some light. And we were to some degree. I am very thankful that none of them tried to exploit their power or ruin those formative and carefree years. They will always be special, regarded as an authority, and I wouldn’t advise dating if/until the person has been out for many years and earned an advanced degree, then perhaps it would be reasonable. People had crushes on professors, professors may have known, they didn’t encourage, and they viewed it as their responsibility to draw the line. As a professor I now think it my responsibility with my students. Example well set.

    Grad school – I went to a larger school, much larger (15,000) students. Graduate school itself is smaller though and I was very much accustomed to close relationships, more than my peers who came from large school. This led me to interact with faculty quite well, which was good in most cases and the other students eventually got the hang of it. A professor there came on to me, I was shocked (I know naive right?) but the age difference had me in a mindset where the thought didn’t cross my mind. He was almost 40 years older. Predatory as I found out late he had done this many times before and the department knew it and jus pretty much turned their heads. Nice. Now I’m not sure if it’s always wrong and for me it wasn’t a big deal, I hang had him in class, wouldn’t in the future and he had no supervisory role over me whatsoever. So was it wrong? It was in poor taste and he was married so that part was wrong. I’m also a firm believer that most people under 25 should stick with people 2 or 3 years in either direction. Why? Brain devleopment. Experience. Had I been 27 and he 40 I wouldn’t say it was a great idea (just as I think dating in the workplace in general is inherently problematic) but certainly not wrong. On the flip side I’ve been asked out by students, both as a TA and a professor. Sometimes I can tell arsd of time sometimes I’m surprised. I know who it’s going to be this semester by the way. As a TA I don’t know if it would have been wrong entirely, one guy was actually a year older than me and it was only 1 class that was 4 weeks long. I was hardly his mentor. But my answer is always the same, I’m sorry, I wouldn’t feel comfortable…power dynamic…integrity…professionalism…I don’t care what the policy of the school is (a lot seem fine with grad students dating undergrades een if they has them in class just not currently) and I’m not entirety opposed to that, however not for me. I’m also not sure if it’s wrong for someone who is in grad shool, say 29 or 30 to date a professor who doesn’t have a supervisory role over her or him, even if at one point they did. I would argue your advisor had too much of a mentor relationship but other than tht you are in the same field (which is often small) there is a spark, it’s might be okay I’m not sure. Not for me but that doesn’t mean it is wrong necessarily. Once someone is 30 their brain is developed into an adult brain, they have a sense of identity, just like with any relationship a discussion should be had about any power issues but even if the professor is 50, as long as it won’t impact the students work like sitting on a committee, grading any exams, funding then I think it can be healthy at least it’s possible but there is always the influence she or he might have over other faculty so they should be mindful to not comment on said student. It would be bed to wait until graduation at which point a grad student who is a graduated phd and a former grad professor would probably be fine (unless of course it was an advisor).

    That’s my take. Not saying I am an authority, I know this is a complex issue an in most cases it was probably wrong on the professors part (I don’t care if the stand threw herself or himself at the professor it’s the professors job to be the adult because she or he is especially with undergrads). I recall thinking I was an adult back then and even somewhat equal to professors, now I realize just what a child I was in some ways and am glad they never tried to rob me of my experiences with other children. I agree it is stealing something at that age, professors have so much influence the students don’t even realize. I’m not saying everyone would be hurt by it either but still professors should be fostering development not grooming mini me’s for dating or using them for sex. Sorry for the long post I just feel strongly on this issue.

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