An Amorous Professor –

A professor teaching in the college where I am the dean responded to anonymous accusations that he had an amorous relationship with a student by claiming the relationship took place only after the student graduated. Today, he confessed to me that he lied — the relationship did start before she graduated, but he said it did not influence her grades. He was in tears while telling me this. Although nobody seems to be hurt, he violated a policy that no intimate relationships take place between students and professors. Should I prosecute him despite the fact that he voluntarily admitted the offense? NAME WITHHELD

As dean, you are responsible for enforcing the existing rules of the university. This man has broken two of them (one with the relationship and another with his lie). He argues that his intimacy with the student did not impact the woman’s grades, but that’s not relevant: part of the reason such rules exist is that the machinations of attraction unconsciously change the way you view the work of other people. Even if he could prove that sleeping with this woman had no influence on her report card — if he taught an objective math class, for example, and he could illustrate how the student’s grade exactly reflected her performance — it still wouldn’t matter. The issue is his action, not his motivation. You must prosecute, unless you’re willing to contradict the nature and requirements of your job.

That said, I would advise rethinking how your school handles these types of situations in the future (and to factor in the professor’s remorse during the penalty phase of his tribunal). The policy should not be inflexible. These parameters try to control the sex lives of consenting adults; the inherent power relationship is problematic, but not indisputably immoral. Is this a pattern of behavior for the professor? How did the relationship initiate and progress? Are the involved parties authentically in love with each other? What are the larger consequences of this indiscretion? All these questions should factor into how this behavior is restricted.

As an authority figure, you have to impose the rule of law, but don’t ignore the possibility that the rule you’re imposing is flawed.


Five years ago, my dear friend A. was caught by surprise when her husband asked for a divorce. She was shaken, crying and in disbelief for months. Now, just a few months after her divorce was finalized, she has met an old boyfriend who is married to another woman, B. The women know each other, and A. has now told me that she will be married to this old boyfriend within the year. She told me that this man has made plans to announce to his wife that he wants a divorce. B., who is an acquaintance of mine, is completely unaware of the impending disaster; she thinks her marriage is fine.

I can think of several roads to travel here: One is to confront A. and remind her of her pain and incomprehension. Another option is warning B. about the brewing storm (and I imagine she will take actions to save her marriage). A third is to keep my mouth shut and record the disaster as a morality play. Am I ethically obligated to admonish A. or warn B.? NAME WITHHELD

The first part of your query is simple: You should confront A. and force her to consider what’s going to happen when she does this. I would be surprised if your admonishment had any impact, but it’s still a necessary conversation. Her decision is rash and hypocritical, and she’ll likely regret it later. Tell her this.

The second part of your question is more intricate: are we ethically obligated to warn other people whenever we recognize an imminent danger they cannot see themselves? To further complicate matters, you classify A. as a “dear friend” and B. as merely “an acquaintance.” So this is ultimately a conflict between the confidentiality of a specific friendship and your moral responsibilities to people in general.

Don’t fixate on the possibility that informing B. will somehow allow her to save her marriage. That’s unrealistic. What you need to reconcile is your relationship with A. If she’s truly a close friend (and will remain such, even if she pursues this affair to its conclusion), you should not intercede with B. Your buddy A. told you a secret about her life, and you disagree with what that secret entails — but simply possessing that information does not require you to become actively intertwined with how this disaster plays out. It’s not as if A. told you she was going to drive over to B.’s house, ring the doorbell and punch her in the face as soon as she opened the front door. She doesn’t pose a physical threat to anyone, or to herself. She’s telling you this story because she trusts you and believes your relationship allows for freewheeling dialogue. In all likelihood, she’s telling you this because she wants your input.

Tell A. that you disagree with what she’s doing and that her behavior will alter the way you view her character. Allow her to explain why she entered a relationship with a married man, but do so with a critical ear; don’t imply that you support her unconditionally, because you don’t. Remind her that B. is going to feel the same way she did five years ago. But don’t blow up your friendship because someone pursued a romance you find abhorrent. Humans make mistakes.

An Amorous Professor –

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