A Blogger Asks: “Why Can’t I Date My Professor After the Grades Are In?”

Some times you have to look a little more closely to discover the underlying ethics issue.

A blog called “Dating Glory” puzzles:

“I understand that it’s not a good idea to form relationships with professors while still in the class (favoritism, etc.). But why is it such a big deal when a prof becomes involved with a student who will never be his student again? Especially if they are both single and in and around the same age? Why would this jeopardize a professors job? I like my professor (used to be professor ) a lot, and I get the feeling he likes me. He spends a lot of time talking with me in his office and he often looks at me in ways that makes me think he does like me. I want to ask him for coffee but haven’t because I’ve heard this might jeopardize his job. I don’t mind as much that he might turn me down since I’m no longer his student. But what’s the big deal anyway? Why can’t we be free to date if we both want to? Lawyers date their clients all the time.”

It is good and responsible for websites, whatever their topic, to raise ethical issues for discussion. Unfortunately, as in the case of “Dating Glory,” the readership of most blogs prove to be as unequipped to deal with these questions as the blogger, resulting in a consensus answer based on rationalizations, ethical fallacies and misconceptions. The original post, for example, states that “Lawyers date their clients all the time.” In fact, they don’t, and when they do, they are probably violating their ethics rules, which prohibit lawyers from dealings with clients that interfere with independent judgment and create conflicts of interest. The statement also implies a similarity that doesn’t exist, for the professor-student relationship’s duties and expectations are very different from those of attorneys and clients.

Most of the answers to the post were typical. We had…

  • Consenting Adult Tunnel Vision: “They are consenting adults, so what’s the problem?” The problem is that consent may make a relationship legal as far as the individuals are concerned, but there are other stakeholders involved, including other students, the faculty, the university, and even the profession of teaching itself. They all haven’t consented….and it would still be wrong, even if they did.
  • Consequentialism: A commenter wrote that his parents had been in this position when they dated, so it’s “no big deal.” The fact that unethical conduct worked out for one couple (or fifty) proves nothing about its ethical nature, unless we accept a consequentialist analysis. Besides, the commenter doesn’t account for all the possible results of the relationship, just the one—his birth—that matters to him. That is a significant bias.
  • Ethics? What’s that?: A commenter sagely pointed out that a professor wouldn’t be likely to flunk a student that he was having sex with, so dating was a good idea. The answer also wasn’t even relevant to the question asked, which involved a student dating someone who wasn’t one of her professors in a class.
  • The Compliance Delusion: “In my school, there’s no rule against this, so it’s not unethical.” Rules. however, don’t make unethical conduct ethical. They just make it easier.

On “Dating Glory,’ one commenter offered genuine insight. “Professor X” correctly pointed out that professors were obligated to maintain a position of authority, objectivity and judgment as mentors and teachers of the whole student body, and had a duty to their schools not to allow their trustworthiness to be undermined by having intimate relationships among the same group that they were supposed to be supervising and advising. Dating a student is a professional breach of trust, and one that adversely effects the integrity of the entire educational institution.

Bingo.

There is more, too. The appearance created when a supervisor/manager/leader indulges in intimate relations with someone over whom they have authority, status and power—and every professor has authority over every student, in class or out— undermines the institution and the profession, by sending the false message that such relationships are standard, approved, and implicitly desirable in the culture where they occur. As Professor X notes, a professor has a potential teacher-student relationship with all students at a university, not just those in his or her classes.

Dating a student who happens not to be in one of those classes is what lawyers call “a distinction without a difference.” Many students and professors will reasonably assume that the pairing arose out of the student-teacher relationship, and in some ways it almost certainly did. A teacher always has superior power over any student by virtue of his or her position of authority, and it is an abuse of that power to use it to entice students into dates or bed.

And like the commenter who focused narrowly on the “consenting adult” factor, it is naive to ignore the extended conflicts such relationships create. Might the professor’s best friends on the faculty be more generous when grading their friend’s significant other if he or she is one of their students? Will the professor consciously or subconsciously be easier on the friends of his student lover if they are in his class? The fact that the question can be asked shows that the situation should not occur where it can be asked.

Students, all students, must be off-limits as romantic partners for professors and administrators in universities, regardless of what rules are in place.Professors who date students risk their jobs because a student body is not their sexual smorgasbord, and it is a breach of trust and duty to treat it like one.

40 thoughts on “A Blogger Asks: “Why Can’t I Date My Professor After the Grades Are In?”

  1. Good article. It’s also one that’s far reaching in its implications. But those for the scholastic profession alone are especially saddening, as they now extend well beyond young adults in college. All the way to primary schools, in fact. If anything, the professional standards of school teachers should be the most closely scrutinized, as actual children are the potential prey. And what’s worse, the organizations that are supposed to set and enforce standards of conduct on all levels seem to be, of themselves, hopelessly corrupted.

  2. I wouldn’t be so hard on the commenter who stated that their parents had been professor and student. There is a generational difference on this topic. It was not (apparently) considered improper to date students or former students in the past. When I was single, I had many older people ask me why I wasn’t dating students and they seemed shocked that the practice is considered horribly unethical today.

    It is a very good thing that this practice is gone (at least the acceptance of it is). I can imagine the horrible atmosphere that it created. I have heard it creates a terrible burden for female students in the graduate areas where it is still (unofficially) accepted.

    There are ethical grey areas concerning dating in academic settings, but dating an undergraduate who was just in one of your classes isn’t one of them. When there is no age differential and with today’s relaxed attitudes the power difference may not be as obvious, but it is there.

    • The generational divide is a good point to make; I didn’t think about it. When I was in college, one of the college stars, poet William Alfred, was famously married to a much younger former student of his. I have to admit, even waaaaay back then, it seemed wrong to me. I was obviously born a fuddyduddy. But this is a good example of where ethical consciousness has improved.

  3. Ok… So I am sort of in the same boat… the thing is….it was ONE CLASS… and now the class is over…the grade has been given AND he will no longer be teaching at the school…We are the exact same age..Is this still a problem?

    The interesting thing is…we HAD to meet this way…I can’t imagine that if we were random strangers somewhere that we would have even given one another much thought…What I like about him developed over time…I guess I like his brain and he likes mine…What better way to meet someone more suitable for you?

    I can’t imagine that some stupid “cultural rule” might actually cost me what could be the love my life!

    • It’s not a problem for you. It’s a good rule for authority figures and professionals to explicitly eschew personal involvement with clients, patients and others within their authority until that part of the relationship is 1) over and 2) far away. All rules sometimes fail to work right, and I’d say your situation is probably one of them where there is no real ethical violation, and the appearance problems are minimal. Now, if this was a pattern with the professor, if he habitually used his classes to pick out his next girl friend, I would say that was unethical.

      I think you’re in the clear, though, based on what you have written. So go for it! As the “Four Aces” always said:

      Love is a many-splendored thing,
      It’s the April rose that only grows in the early spring,
      Love is nature’s way of giving a reason to be living,
      The golden crown that makes a man a king.
      Once on a high and windy hill,
      In the morning mist two lovers kissed and the world stood still,
      Then your fingers touched my silent heart and taught it how to sing,
      Yes, true love’s a many-splendored thing!

      • Academics are notorious to have a false sense of reality. They basically live in a commune. Of course, your article poses an argument against having a REAL relationship with a student because of the drug-like feelings of infatuation. Some faculty love having one after the other and if that means having an anonymous sexual encounter with a stranger on campus, the hotter it feels and the harder the risks. Love is so much different than living in the dark secular world, but the excuse is: I DON’T HAVE TIME. It is ridicules. There are many spins on ethics: hedonistic, utilitarian, etc. and they all seem like those that hardly know their own religion and political parties’ beliefs. Just because YOU say it is wrong, it does not mean that it is wrong. It is not about being wrong, it is about being challenging, advantageous and pleasurable. Thinking cannot be substituted with objective benchmarks of any standard. Outside the classroom, you are no longer a slave on duty. No matter what attitude you choose to exercise in whatever place you stand, you are ALWAYS a possibly normal, possibly reproductive, possibly loving and caring human being.

          • And your name and e-mail IS my business, asshole, because you comment here by my leave, on conditions set by me. So while I allowed your non-ethical, the heart wants what the heart wants blather to appear here as a good example of the genre, you are not welcome to comment again with your arrogant “noneofyourbusiness@thecommuneofignorance.com fake address.

  4. I like my professor, a lot actually and I think he likes me too. I only have him for one class and then I graduate next semester…. I dont think that it is an ethical problem if I test him after the grades are in to make sure its what I think it is… I really really like him and I wish I met him at the grocery store or somewhere else but the chances of meeting someone in my field in the right age (im 26 hes mid 30) thats not married are so slim that I am not going to let this opportunity go because hes a professor. I even had a dream about us the other night… and I dont feel bad about it at all- and I’m not sick that I would like him because hes my superior and if in fact he likes me as it appears, I know hes not sick just to like me bc Im his student; I know there are a lot of freaks in this world but come on… people can genuinely just be attracted to eachother.. God- I cant wait til the end of the semester.

  5. This page was very helpful for me. I guess I already knew the answer when I “googled” the question… Here is my spin. I am not wanting an intimate relationship so much as to know my professor. I don’t want a candle-lit dinner, rather a conversation-filled cup of coffee. Is it still wrong?

    • No. That’s what professors are supposed to do for all students, time permitting. If the signals are clear, it he is not giving you special favors, if you both make sure that something doesn’t “just happen.” and most of all, if he is professional, then there should be no problem.

  6. I’m glad i’m not alone in this situation. I’m (25) currently an CNA and taking a my LAST course for my RN program. This professor whose (30) actually spent months in China and has a great interest in the Chinese culture. This really struck me as a Chinese so I have grown really interseted in him.

    We have spend 1-2 hour time talking in his office about his trip to my home country and it seems we have ALOT in common in terms of cultural values and interest in China. He is NOT married i’m not sure if he is single though.

    My dillema right now is, since this will be my last class with him, after the grades are turned in for his class and the semester ends. Should I ask him out to get to know him better???? OR just forget the whole thing?

    • JH: my answer is different for you than for your professor. I think students should be off limits as ethics policy; it I were a professor, I wouldn’t be open to a relationship of any student in the school, period. Is it wrong for a student, after the class, after the semester, to open the door? Only in the sense that such an overture is arguably inducing, or attempting to induce, a professional to violate an ethical principle. Still, it’s his call, and I acknowledge that my version of the principle is more extreme than most.

  7. I am a clinical instructor at Uni, no PhD, and have developed a friendship with a student. I’m 27, she’s 25. In the course of the semester we have both become single, and we get along really well. It’s the end of the semester, my contract is up and I don’t know if I’ll continue working there. There has been flirting, and she’s been hinting at asking me out, and I don’t know what is the right thing to do.

  8. I’m a 23 year old undergrduate student and I will be graduating in 3 weeks. At first glance, my professor appears to be just another 20 something year old college student, yet in actuality, he is 33 years old and recently obtained his PhD. When I met him, thinking he was a student, I felt an instant attraction. That is, I just wanted to get to know him. After being in his class this semester, I’ve had the oportunity to talk to him about many different things. Often, our conversations drift from academic matters concerning the particular subject, to more recreational topics. He is unmarried and a very attractive young man. He is intelligent and shows such enthusiasm and passion for his field that even if you don’t really care for the subject, you’re still drawn into discussion.
    My question is this, would it be unethical to ask him out for coffee and eventually dinner once I’ve graduated?

  9. This is an interesting response to a question I’ve had. I’ve been trying to figure out how to do this ethically, and your post was helpful, if a little depressing (for me).

    I’m a “returning student” as some colleges call it. I’m in my mid 30’s and have resumed my education. I find one of my current professors, who is the same age as me, very attractive. We’ve had several conversations after class, and sometimes it has veered off the academic topics. I can’t tell if he’s interested in me yet, but I thought I would just let him know I found him cute. However, I don’t want to make him uncomfortable, or cause any ethical problems. I wanted to wait until we are given our final grade to tell him. He seems like a very ethical person anyway, so I just want to avoid any inappropriateness.

    However, like a few posters above have said, I don’t know that I would have met him if it weren’t for being in his class. Also, I have no issues with power difference. I see him more as a peer, although a much more intelligent one. I don’t feel that he would hold any power over me, especially since he will not be my professor in about a week.

    Your blog post has given me some pause, but I still would like to express to him that he’s cute…not expecting anything to come out of that.

  10. Excellent article! Kept me from doing something I would regret (I think). Better not to risk it! I like my teacher. When I met her I thought she was just another student. Turns out she was going to be teaching me. I better keep some distance now because I don’t want her job, career (she’s still doing her master’s), and indeed her whole reputation to be jeopardized. There are other women my age, after all.
    Thank you very, very much.
    K.

  11. Wow, this article is so judgmental!! There is nothing concrete here about real ethics, except the hypothesis that the professor would influence third-party grades. If we’re going to be that cautious, don’t own a car because you might choose to run someone down with it.

    The rest of the arguments are about perception or power differences. Well, what would people think if you dated someone who was of the same sex or a different race, income, nationality, or age??? There could be power imbalances there. Your arguments are based on prejudice. Shame on you!

    Think harder about what you are saying, mind your own business, and let people love who they love.

    • You get a D-, D.You don’t know the first thing about “real ethics,” and I am still scratching my head about your weird car analogy.

      “Professor X” correctly pointed out that professors were obligated to maintain a position of authority, objectivity and judgment as mentors and teachers of the whole student body, and had a duty to their schools not to allow their trustworthiness to be undermined by having intimate relationships among the same group that they were supposed to be supervising and advising. Dating a student is a professional breach of trust, and one that adversely effects the integrity of the entire educational institution.

      This, to someone who has a clue, makes it very clear what the ethical stakes are. The post is about abuse of trust, abuse of power, conflicts of interest, appearances of impropriety, fairness. Your contribution to the discussion is confusing differences in group membership to differences in actual organizational authority, misusing bias, resorting to the moronic “mind your own business in commentary regarding someone who asked for advice,” and “let people love who they love,” which is the unofficial motto of the man-boy love association, and is strong evidence an IQ below freezing. Go ahead and love who you love, but if you’re going to love someone you are supposed to supervise, find another job.

      to

  12. Thank you for your reply, Mr. Marshall. Please let me flesh out my argument.

    I have taken a number of courses in ethics and moral philosophy. My IQ is high enough to know that many “duties” people have defended contradict with other duties, and often have costs that far outsize their purported benefits. Yes, I know about categorical imperatives, and I would like a world where people are largely allowed to love who they love, so long as they are consenting adults, putting NAMBLA objections aside..Love is of paramount importance to human existence, and interfering with it unnecessarily may be about as unethical as unethical gets..

    I don’t know why you are lashing out about all of these “abuses”. When was such a compact made? The restrictions we do see at some universities may have much to do about image or fear of lawsuits, not about ethics. Some colleges used to rule out interracial dating. Should students there have just looked for another school?

    Many illegal things are perfectly moral (I would count smoking pot as one of them) The logic of your objections seems to rule out even being friends with former students or with anyone falling in love at work (where Americans spend most of their waking time) Are you singling out sex as being of paramount importance? Can someone play poker with a former student? Professors have favorite students just as parents have favorite children. There’s nothing you can do stop that. The problem are when there are unprofessional consequences, such as with grades. But we are talking about afterwards, when such concrete consequences are over.

    Most professors hardly ever interact with their former students and so most students lose nothing by losing a potential supervisor. They also have thirty or more other professors they can talk to. But really, the former student is likely to gain MORE from having a relationship with a former professor. Furthermore, “Love is the great equalizer” and oftentimes the power relationship is flipped where the former student has power. I don’t think you really appreciate this. Also, the love between a professor and former student is largely based on a common love of truth and knowledge, which according to Plato’s Symposium, is the foundation for the highest form of love.

    As for other students, most universities are so large, that professors hardly ever interact with students that are never theirs. I think your view of supervisory responsibility that preclude relationships is far too broad. We all have moral responsibilities to each other in society as a whole, but that does not rule out that we get down and dirty with each other.

    Reading the writings of some ethicists makes me believe many ethical rules are unnecessarily created to justify their own existence. Christian clergy have long persecuted human sexuality for the worst reasons, and we need to clean up the vestiges of this moralistic rubbish. Love and sex are not of trifling importance, and without an extremely compelling reason otherwise, impinging on a consensual adult relationships is inhumane and cruel. That is why, sir, is why I believe you should temper your ethical judgments.

      • Excellent comment. Professors and students are human beings. We are not robots. What better place to meet special partners then on a college campus? That’s what the college atmosphere is also about. Remember, this is after the student and instructor are no longer in the so called teacher-supervisor-power position. When I was an undergraduate, married and miserable, I remember seeing professors in the student bars. They had wonderful conversations and chemistry with students. Unfortunately, when the evening was over many of those instructors would leave unhappy because they are not suppose to go any further and they knew it. I remember when I was hired at a west coast major college. My boss gave me the riot act about I can’t date office people, students or anyone on campus and I am widowed raising two sons on my own. I want to date-explore again. As the semester continues, the assistant director-a female whom was at that meeting is clearly seducing male students of a particular nationality on and off campus. Everybody on campus knew it including my boss, students and administrators. She has a history doing this. Yet, she gets away with it. I didn’t like what happened in this situation but I understand how professors and college administrators can’t always check their natural instincts, feelings, desires and emotions at the door because of old antiquated ethics established by
        conservative intellectuals of long ago.

  13. I’m a non-traditional undergraduate half-time student at an eastern private school. One of the professors I had my first semester and I have carried on a flirtation for six years now. We are beyond middle age as I am 52 and he is 62. At my school they changed the wording on this policy in the faculty handbook to include only traditional, residential students, because of the amount of faculty spouses taking classes here, as it is part of the employee benefits package. I am a support staff member in another area of campus. Does this still apply to us?

  14. After I graduate with my Masters, and I encounter a professor that I had in an undergraduate class (her class was an elective not realated to my major or masters), is it still unethical (on my side) to ask her out for a coffee? Is it unethical (on her side) to say yes?

    Thanks

    • “Unprofessional” is a rather vacant adjective/argument. Most professors don’t wear a suit and tie, although many consider that “unprofessional”. All office romances are “unprofessional”, which does not make them wrong, especially once conflicts of interest are no longer a concern, which is often the case in institutions with 10,000+ members..

  15. It’s certainly going to make the other former students uncomfortable. “What if Professor X was only helpful to me during office hours because he/she found me attractive too?”

  16. Potential for abuse of power over any student at any time is a good argument.

    On the other hand, where do we stop? Should professors not be allowed to have friendships with students? Should students not attend a school where their 2nd removed aunt teaches? Perhaps for every good student who gets an email from the professor, the professor should send an email to all of her students. Otherwise you’re showing differential use of power and influence, based on a biased, interpersonal favoritism none-the-less.

    It’s absurd to suggest that as an academic you can’t date or have non-professional relationships with anyone else in the academy, which is exactly what this argument boils down to. Talk about unethical–requiring people to sacrifice normal, quality-of-life determining relationships for the sake of “professionalism.” That demands a very dark humanity; one where efficiency and status carry more value than feelings. That’s disturbing.

    The fact of the matter is, these expectations and standards, like in most rigid ethics, are completely unrealistic and poorly defined. The only thing guiding them is an obsession with neurotic, rigid judgment, the sense that one knows and does what’s “right.” Being convicted in one’s righteousness is far more dangerous and harmful than violating any rule. It’s exactly why people war, enslave, and burn each other at the stake.

    • Not poorly defined at all. Don’t have unprofessional relationships with subordinates and those you have power over. Ever. It’s easy, if you care about conflicts and appearances. Everything else is a rationalization.

  17. Not persuasive. Why didn’t you give your own point of view and prove it, instead of commenting on others’?

    Even the only argument that you have is professor X’s idea.

    I thought I would find a good argument on this problem, but this is just crap.

    • I have no idea what you are talking about. My point of view is extremely clear on this topic. This is wrong, and I have said why. I have gone into more detail in other posts on the same topic, which you would have found if you expended the same energy using the search function that you did on this fatuous comment.

      Meanwhile, the summary in the post was 100% mine, though there is nothing wrong with quoting an opinion one agrees with. I wrote:

      Students, all students, must be off-limits as romantic partners for professors and administrators in universities, regardless of what rules are in place.Professors who date students risk their jobs because a student body is not their sexual smorgasbord, and it is a breach of trust and duty to treat it like one.

      Got that???

      • University students are adults. They can make active decisions. Calling them a “sexual smorgasbord” is degrading and removes their agency.

        I still haven’t heard a cogent argument as to why a student and professor with no conflict of interest shouldn’t date without allusion to some fantastical imbalance of power that could be used to argue against different racial, income, age, or even gender groups for dating.

        Sometimes it seems like mainstream North Anerican sexual ethics is based on Puritanism and melodrama not reason or concern for real people. Proscribing all risky behavior is not ethics. There can be rewards to romance outside of usual boundaries. Please prove me wrong.

        Oh and Plato thinks student-professor relationships are the BEST kind. Please read the Symposium to learn about true Platonic love. 😉

        • It has nothing to do with sex per se. The problem is vertical relationships in a heirarchical organization structure. Teachers are being paid to teach, not to scout out sex partners, and doing so, even if the student is not in a professor’s class, reinforces cultural approval of an inherently corrupting practice.

          • Let me ask what is “inherently corrupting” about a professor dating a student in a different department in a university with 10000+ students.? The professor is unlikely to even know anyone the student works with. I’d like something concrete here.

            • Because it makes the absolute ban impossible. Don’t date students, period is clear, unequivocal;, without exceptions or loopholes. As soon as some professors can date some students, then there is no clear ethics message…it’s just a rule.

              • I see your point Jack. It has a logic to it. I do respectfully disagree, though.

                Personally, I never found rule-based/deontological ethics that appealing, partly because there are exceptions and conflicts. Just to be rhetorical, Kant was famous for defending the rule “always tell the truth” even when it when an ax murderer asks you where to find your friend. The rule of not lying conflicts with the rule of protecting the lives of others.

                Other rule-based systems are usually based on religious, not philosophical ethics, and so they are harder to take as universal.

                While many openly denegrate sex and relationships, they are secretly much more important than they care to admit. It is easy for two people who work close to each other to meet, and they may actually be a great match. And I think it would be a pity to rule out so many potentially great relationships between people who are actively curious and intellectual people. I think of professors as being much like more advanced students. A rule that prevents potentially great things from happening for the sake of simplicity isn’t a great rule to me.

                I don’t put much value on simplicity. But it may be true that gray areas are prone to abuse from either those subject to rules, or those enforcing them.

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