Relationship minefield must be flagged

May 18, 2017

Five female scholars from the University of Guelph recently stated that “ There is no liberal right to sex with students ” (4 May, Opinion) and argued that there must be boundaries regarding amorous relationships between professors and students. I am writing to concur because I had a relationship with my PhD supervisor that concluded with marriage (we have been together more than 20 years) and has produced joint publications and a successful career.

Our relationship began in the early 1990s before there were protocols. I insisted that he report it to the head of department, and we were as above board as possible. But I still had to change my thesis topic in order to secure a new supervisor because there was no one who could take on the original topic (consider the impact now when student funding is tied to the institution, not to the student).

I had to deal with the hostility of his colleagues, which led to exclusion from segments of the department’s academic community; on more than one occasion I was told that I had achieved one thing or another only because of the relationship, although we were no longer in the same field.

The thesis that I wanted to write has never been written, and it has now become a retirement project. I am successful, but the evidence of the derail is there.

When we became a couple, one of the hardest things to negotiate was the shift in the power dynamic. It was real, complex and intense. A student is not an equal partner with a supervisor, however confident that student.

Not all relationships are coercive, but all training of supervisors should warn of the very real consequences for students of relationships, the possibility of relationships, and any element of coercion. So far, I have taken four in-house training courses on supervision at different universities, and not one has included this issue. That is simply irresponsible.

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