Can the Graduate School comment on romantic/sexual relationships between faculty and students?

Date: April 2017


Dear Deans,

I heard that there was a discussion in the GPSA meeting about policies regarding romantic/sexual relationships between faculty and graduate students. There are certainly some thorny issues around consent in such relationships with imbalanced power dynamics, and I am interested to see where the GPSA and the Faculty Senate take these concerns.

Does the Graduate School have any comment on this issue, as it pertains to not only the health and safety of graduate students, but also the academic standing of graduate students (both those involved in such relationships and not) and the standing of the Cornell Graduate School as a whole?

Additionally, and more specifically, the notion that some faculty might be writing recommendation letters for graduate students in exchange for sexual favors—whether those graduate students ‘consent’ or not—strikes me as deeply troubling. Do you have any thoughts on this practice, or on how to change a culture that has apparently led to such behavior?


Curious Graduate Student


Dear Curious,

Thanks for writing with your excellent question!

The Graduate School supports and encourages the ongoing graduate student discussion of a new or revised policy to address romantic/sexual relationships between graduate students and faculty. The debate ongoing in the GPSA includes multiple perspectives and voices, reflecting the complexity of this issue.

The Graduate School supports the efforts of the GPSA and especially the Student Advocacy Committee (SAC) in proposing policy alternatives for discussion, presumably with the Faculty Senate when ready. In my time at Cornell (since 2012) I’ve developed an admiration for the diligence and passion of the SAC for their work identifying and addressing substantive issues on behalf of graduate students. We value their work and our partnership with the GPSA and graduate students in addressing concerns such as these. 

We recognize the diversity of opinions that exist about consensual sexual relationships between graduate students and faculty, including, as you suggest, that some students may see these relationships as beneficial, e.g., exchanging sex for recommendation letters, as discussed at the recent GPSA meeting. We also recognize that perceptions and definitions of “consensual” may vary, even among the two individuals involved in the relationship. 

First and most importantly, if students feel coerced or threatened or enticed into behaviors or sexual relationships with faculty, particularly where there is a power differential or an element of supervision or if promises of resources or access are made to students, we encourage students to talk to someone to get information, help, or other perspectives. Cornell has a policy on sexual misconduct and on faculty romantic and sexual relationships with students and has many offices that can help. (See the complete list below.) 

Both Janna Lamey, assistant dean for graduate student life, and I are available to meet or talk by phone. In addition, there are confidential resources, such as the Ombudsman Office, that students can contact to get help and find resources. 

Even in cases where students may willingly initiate consensual sexual relationships for what might be perceived as a beneficial career-building purpose (e.g., getting recommendation letters) as suggested at the GPSA meeting and in your question, there is potential for serious, damaging outcomes. In addition to possible emotional distress, such relationships exchanged for specific perceived benefit have the potential to undermine the professional identities and careers of those involved. When these relationships end, accusations of coercion, harassment and assault or rape are sometimes made.

Your question reminded me that, while I worked in the graduate school at Columbia, the student newspaper published interviews with undergraduates who had initiated relationships with their TAs and faculty. From flattery and flirting (which garnered extensions on assignment due dates) to dates (which students reported got them stellar letters of reference) to more (which students reported got them grades of A), the TAs and faculty were made to look easily manipulated for their seeming willingness to toss aside objective standards, professional ethics, and their principles.

Thanks for writing. Let’s continue this conversation.



Jan Allen
Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs

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