A postdoc wrote to me about her discomfort with the fact that her supervisor is "involved" with one of his own grad student advisees, a former undergrad who then became this professor's grad student. Not surprisingly, the situation makes everyone else in the research group uncomfortable.
I can relate to that. When I was a grad student, I was very uncomfortable with the fact that my advisor was having an affair with one of his own students. I had just started grad school when this going on, but some of the more senior students wondered how it would affect their letters of recommendation; they were applying for the same faculty jobs as this woman.
Irony (?): One of these advisees later lost a tenure-track position because he was "involved" with female students. He was in the wrong era and/or at the wrong institution to be able to emulate our ex-advisor without consequences.
Back then, we believed that there was nothing we could do about our disapproval of the advisor-advisee affair. Our choices were to try to ignore it or quit. There was no administrative office at the university for complaints about such things, and my department didn't even have a graduate program advisor. Every individual advisor had sole authority over their research group. My advisor wasn't the only professor in the department involved with a grad student.
That was then; this is now. These situations are much less common than they were, but obviously they still occur. What to do?
Take action. It is too bad that anyone's postdoctoral or graduate school time has to be consumed by any of this, but it is important to alert someone.
Today, in the 21st century, all (?most?) universities have at one administrator whose job it is to deal with these situations and who are also sensitive to the possible consequences for the other advisees and for the student involved in the relationship. Ideally, a group of concerned students, postdocs, and others will organize the complaint together.
Possibilities for people or offices to be alerted may include:
- a university-level ombudsman, or perhaps a graduate or postdoctoral program office that deals with personnel issues and conflicts;
- the department chair;
- for graduate students: a department- or program-level graduate director who oversees the graduate program; or
- for undergraduate students: an academic advisor or counselor.
If the department is well run and there is a culture of respect for students and postdocs, department-level administrators may be supportive, but it's also possible that these people will be reluctant to confront a colleague about a situation like this. It's likely that they are aware of the situation, but have done nothing about it.
Depending on the situation, it might be possible to discuss the situation informally with a faculty member in the department, just to get a sense for how well known the affair is and whether the department has any interest in taking the lead in dealing with it. If I were the department head, I would want to know about this.
If the department is aware but hasn't done anything about it, the most effective course of action is to alert someone outside the department.
Ideally, it will not be difficult to find the relevant person or office responsible for investigating complaints of improper advisor-advisee relationships, but it might take some searching, depending on the institution. I just did a few test-searches on the websites of randomly selected universities, and it wasn't too hard to locate a likely office or at least a list of resources by searching on a few obvious key words.
Some universities have a Women's Center that may have a list of resources. At others, the relevant information can be found in the "human resources" webpages for students and staff. Some universities have administrative staff devoted to postdoctoral concerns.
I don't think any of us faculty are eager for our colleagues to be punished -- even the colleagues we don't like -- but I think the vast majority of us would like ethical rules about advisor-advisee relationships to be taken seriously. Professor-student relationships can occur, but the professor cannot have any role in the student's academic program, and most certainly can't be the student's grad advisor.
Long after I finished graduate school, I learned that a professor in my old grad department was involved with a former undergrad who was now his graduate student. Soon after I learned about this, I was at a conference at which I talked to another professor I knew from that department. He said that he and his colleagues were living in fear that the upper administration would find out and would take a dim view of the situation and that everyone in the department would suffer as a result. I said to him "Just imagine if the administration finds out that you all knew about this and did nothing about it. Even if we ignore for a moment that this situation is TOTALLY WRONG, don't you want to be the kind of department that shows some initiative on things like this? Aren't you even concerned about the student?" No, he just wanted this old professor to retire as soon as possible so the problem would go away.
So I told an administrator about the situation. I happened to know this administrator, so that made it easier for me to bring it up. The result? I don't know what further conversations or actions took place, if any, but the professor retired the following year (without scandal).
All this makes me skeptical that departments are willing or able to take action in these situations, hence my recommendation that someone beyond the department be alerted first. I hope that readers with more experience in the inner workings of administration or with direct experience with this type of situation will weigh in with alternatives, more informed advice, or other support.
12 years ago