Agony aunt

July 23, 1999

Q

A colleague proposes to award first-class honours to a borderline student with whom he is having an affair. I expect the decision to be challenged but I do not know if I should reveal what I know of their relationship

A

Piers Benn Philosopher Leeds University There are many warnings given against staff-student affairs, especially in the United States, where students are routinely told to expect sexual harassment and academics live in fear that some allegation will bring their careers to a ruinous end.

But we should worry that a lecturer having an affair with a student might give unfair marks. On the other hand, no one lecturer is responsible for degree classifications, and exams are sometimes triple marked. Textbook examples of inducements to have sex with tutors ("sleep with me and you'll get a first") are unpersuasive in the light of this, unless there is more than one tutor involved.

There are things I'd want to know before offering advice. Is the mark in question for one piece of work only, with the student's other work marked by different people? If so, would an inflated mark for this piece of work be likely to affect the final degree class? But if it's a case of one lecturer proposing to raise the final classification, I expect that he'd have to make a case for it. If he persuades his colleagues, fine. If he can't produce a case, they will probably reject his proposal.

I also wonder how widely known the affair is. It is a good idea to avoid such affairs, but when they do occur they should be declared to heads of department. I would gently try to find out what is going on, and suggest to the colleague that he declare it if he hasn't already. But I would consider taking it further only if the first is about to be given without a sound academic or pastoral case made for it.

A

Geoffrey Alderman Pro vice-chancellor Quality and standards Middlesex University

I assume that all the scripts have been double marked, and that it is on the basis of a set of agreed marks that your colleague is pressing for a first. This suggests that the marks are close enough to a first for that class to be considered but that you feel the case does not stand up. If the case for a first is basically off beam, you need not worry because the classification board will surely turn it down. But what if the case is plausible?

Having affairs is a well-tried method of obtaining rewards in academia. There's a fair chance that the candidate has been having affairs with other members of staff. So your first step must be to compile a list of all staff with whom the candidate has been consorting and broadcast the fact that you are doing this (disguised, I suggest, as research).

Then proceed as follows:

You should discuss the matter with your colleague in private, and ask for her/his objective view as to whether raising to a first is plausible. You might suggest, in private, that the affair is known to other colleagues (or that if it is not, your research will make certain that it is), and that he will be committing a folly in asking for the class to be raised to a first. If your colleague looks like insisting that the class be raised, demand that all the candidate's scripts be scrutinised by the external and then ask that the first item on the agenda of the classification board should be "Declarations of Interests". Know what I mean?

Hopefully, you will end up by upholding best practice and getting something for the next RAE.

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