Professor Creepy Comes to Town
August 17, 2012 7:47 AM   Subscribe

Former professor made a pass at me. This was upsetting because I consider him a mentor and didn't think he had those kind of motivations towards me. Now he is in town and wants to take me out. What should I say?

He is much much older than me. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I always assumed he was my mentor and he was going to write recommendations for me for grad school. Now I doubt all the times he told me how smart I was. The way he made me feel was intensely unsettling to me. I thought I was over-sensitive, but other people around felt it too and I work with men all the time and never have this problem. I really don't want to see him again, but I suppose I don't have the courage as of yet to tell him and he keeps emailing me over and over again to ask me. I am considering just saying I'm away, but I worry he'll stalk me over the internet and find out I'm lying because I've gotten emails from him before "I saw on Twitter that you were at ZYX restaurants, how was it?"

I feel kind of devastated because I can't consider him a mentor any more and I can't ask for a recommendation in good conscience. But he is good friends with many top people in the field, so I'm hesitant to burn bridges, though I've certainly fantasized about it.
posted by idle to Human Relations (59 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
"Sorry, I'm booked solid."

(Also, I'd suggest switching your twitter account to private even if just for a few months.)
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:51 AM on August 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Decline and stay off Twitter?
posted by jerseygirl at 7:51 AM on August 17, 2012

Say no. No hesitation, no doubt. Don't ever do anything you don't like.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:52 AM on August 17, 2012 [30 favorites]

"Dear Whatever Your Name Is,

I can't see you.


No explanation offered. None required. If he asks for one, then give it if you feel like it. But don't let him pressure you into anything.
posted by inturnaround at 7:54 AM on August 17, 2012

This sucks. I do think you should consider the professional and academic ramifications, though. How would you feel about a daytime coffee "meeting"? Could you come prepared with lots of questions about grad school, keep it formal, and leave after an hour because you "have plans" right after?

On the other hand, even seeing him at all after he made a pass at you could give him positive reinforcement. So it's a risk.
posted by amaire at 7:57 AM on August 17, 2012

That is creepy, but don't let that stop you from using him as a reference. Just because he's hot for you doesn't mean that he doesn't respect your brain.

Write him back a cordial email:

Dear Professor Creepy,

Sorry I haven't responded to your emails, I'm unsettled by your romantic interest in me and since I don't reciprocate your feelings I feel awkward about our friendship. I've always looked to you as my mentor and I hope that we can retain that type of professional relationship. I've felt a rapport with you since I first took a class with you and I appreciated the interest you took in my professional development.

I'm very busy in the next month or so, so I won't be able to meet with you to catch up. Perhaps another time.


posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:57 AM on August 17, 2012 [51 favorites]

That's horrible.

The question that remains is how horrible is this guy. He's already shown himself to be in, let's say, the 90th percentile of horrible.

On the other hand, even among that top 10%, there are gradations. You should tell him (over e-mail, not in person) that you value your professional relationship with him and that there is no possibility of any kind of relationship other than that.

If he is in the 90th, but not 99th percentile of horrible, he will respect this answer, never speak of this again, and he will write you an honest and supportive recommendation for graduate school. Which you deserve, because you really did do the work. Why should his creepiness leave you without a recommendation from the professor who knows your work best?

If he's in the 99th percentile of horrible and doesn't respect the clear boundary you set here, then you face a different set of problems, which would merit a whole new Ask.
posted by escabeche at 7:59 AM on August 17, 2012 [9 favorites]

"Thanks for the offer, but I'm not not comfortable with the idea anything beyond a professional relationship with you."
posted by oinopaponton at 7:59 AM on August 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

(should be only one "not" there, unless you want to confuse the guy)
posted by oinopaponton at 8:00 AM on August 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Just tell him you're busy. Going forward, I would pretend like the romantic invitations had never happened and always be busy when he invites you out.

You can still use him as a reference. That reference is going to be important for years to come. But think of your career and try to compartmentalize the creepiness of the guy and use his reputation for your own benefit.

It sucks that you are dealing with this. It sucks also that there isn't a more satisfying or fair solution to your predicament.
posted by vincele at 8:04 AM on August 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

Now I doubt all the times he told me how smart I was.

Please don't. Your smarts may be one of the things that he found attractive. He was a creep, but don't turn that into a reason to doubt yourself.

I would suggest politely turning him down. Make a polite excuse and then go dark on twitter and facebook. If he pesters you more or challenges your excuse, then give him a response similar to Ruthless Bunny's above.
posted by Area Man at 8:07 AM on August 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

Just to follow up, I wouldn't put in writing anything about being put off by his romantic interest. If he's vindictive he could easily forward that e-mail on to people. Likewise, if you tell him you're not interested in him in a romantic way, he could sabotage your career. Just tell him you're busy and ignore him. Don't give him reason to feel rejected. He's already made this personal. In a few months time, he'll move on to harassing someone else.
posted by vincele at 8:09 AM on August 17, 2012 [9 favorites]

Teachers who try to leverage their mentor relationship to date former students are generally pretty horrible people. Teachers who stalk said students are absolutely horrible people.

One thing I have learned from harsh experience is that horrible people can't be interacted with like you or I. You can't expect them to do something because it's right, or professional, or considerate, or any of the normal reasons that an average person might have for doing something. The only reliably consistent method for motivating a horrible person's behavior is to have a viable threat along with the leverage to use said threat. (Which is not to say you start with the threat - that should always be your last resort - but you definitely need to have it as an option.)

Since this guy sounds like he is in a position to burn you, you need to save all the emails, along with screenshots of the Facebooks comments (in case he tries to delete them later), etc. Once he realizes you're not interested, I expect things may quickly turn nasty, and it's critical that by that point, you have collected enough evidence to get him fired or at least cause substantial damage to his career.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 8:12 AM on August 17, 2012 [18 favorites]

Three things:

One: Just because he has the hots for you doesn't mean he doesn't actually think you're smart. He's a college professor -- it's quite possible he's only attracted to smart women and would have no interest in you if you were not smart. So I wouldn't let his romantic interest in you make you question your faith in your own abilities and work.

Two: He is acting inappropriately in the context of your professional relationship and making you feel uncomfortable. You don't have to see him. At all. You do not owe him anything in exchange for a recommendation except the good academic work you have already done.

Three: If I were in your shoes, I would just tell him that you have a policy of not dating former professors. Don't apologize. Don't insult him, either (though he may deserve it). Don't make it personal. Just say "I have a rule: I don't date former professors."

Tell him this over email, too, so you have a written record to cite when you report him to the university later if he tries to sabotage your career over this or won't stop making inappropriate overtures.
posted by BlueJae at 8:18 AM on August 17, 2012 [14 favorites]

If you want to turn him down without any potential fallout for the recommendation, etc., you can provide him with a rejection that doesn't make it sound like he's the reason you're saying no. Yes, he's creepy and no, you are totally not interested, and yes someone should really tell him how weirdly inappropriate this is -- but that someone doesn't have to be you, and it doesn't have to be done now. If you want to do this, here's the line: "That's very flattering, but I'm afraid it's not possible. I recently resumed my relationship with an ex-boyfriend."

See, it wasn't him, it was just unfortunate timing! Distasteful, but if you can grit your teeth and type it, it forever destroys his hopes without negative consequences. And you can tweet away about your dinners, too.

If you do this, just a word of caution: Never provide any details about the mysterious ex-boyfriend because you don't want to slip up and get trapped forgetting a detail. It's just an old flame, and if pressed you'd "rather keep business and personal life separate." (That line is used directly before a redirect.)
posted by Houstonian at 8:18 AM on August 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah, stay off Twitter. People who stalk you on the internet seem to take any information you put out there as being directed to them.

I had a lawyer friend dictate a letter to me, to send to my former professor. It was a little less cordial than the one Ruthless Bunny sent-- nothing about being busy; more like hell no I don't want to get together-- but it was along those lines and aimed at getting him to see that the professional relationship was important to me and he better not destroy that. I had a good outcome from that. He wrote back a letter that sounded like it was also dictated by a lawyer and I had no further problems.
posted by BibiRose at 8:24 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Since he is a professor, I would bet money he finds you hot because you are smart (which doesn't guarantee he wouldn't promptly treat you like just a piece of ass).

Maybe you should watch "Silence of the lambs" and pay attention to the careful way the main character dodges similar trouble from men. Since he is important in the same field you plan on making your career, a little tact and benefit of the doubt would be in your best interest.

Unless you learn that he has a long history of stalking former students, for the moment, I would be inclined to assume his questionable behavior is a case of not knowing how to act in this situation. He may be equally worried about bad repercussions for his career and very concerned that just asking will come back to bite him whether you say yes or no, but especially if you say no. He also just may be really nervous about the age difference if that is new for him. "Dirty old men" don't get born old. This could be the first time he has expressed interest in someone so much younger and he may be uncomfortable with liking you so much.
posted by Michele in California at 8:53 AM on August 17, 2012

Call me crazy, but I think you can use Houstonian's "rather keep business and personal life seprate" line even without a mysterious ex.

It's hard to tell what the consequences are likely to be if you tell him that you're not interested and you'd rather not hear about it again. He creeped you out and upset you, so that's a bad sign. But if he's respectful of your boundaries going forward, it may be possible to have a pleasant professional relationship with him. On the other hand, if he takes it personally or is offended or continues doing creepy things, probably you can't salvage this. Of course you have every right to just cut off all contact with him and never respond to his emails but you probably want to weigh that agains the potential professional consequences.

Without knowing more about your field and your institution, it's hard to know how your reaction to your professor's comen-on will be perceived by other people in your field. It could be that those "good friends" in your professor's field also think he's kind of creepy around his students but are willing to overlook it. Or it could be that his colleagues are all also hitting on their students and would think that you are overreacting.

I would be wary of lawyering up at this point, especially if you are in a small field. It could almost be like using a lawyer to deal with a family member, which is to say: absolutely necessary and desirable in some circumstances, but not without consequences.

If there's someone else in the department who you trust (another professor, an adjunct, a grad student?), you might want to talk to them about this, and see what their take is on the situation.

And definitely don't take this as confirmation that the professor never respected your work.

Oh, and a thing I do when I want to avoid meeting with someone but don't want a confrontation is just respond to their emails really slowly and vaguely so that we don't actually have any time to plan anything. The "Oh, yeah, we should really do something! But not *that* thing." response.
posted by mskyle at 8:54 AM on August 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think you should send him Ruthless Bunny's email, and identify an individual in his HR department that you can blind-copy it to.

Find some other colleagues for references especially those who perceived the guy as creepy. List them first (highest by rank) and list him only if required to do so and not without approaching HR first.
posted by tel3path at 9:05 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is he married? (Usually the creeps are.) You can always cite that as a reason not to get involved if that's available. I don't know about a fake boyfriend, though. The dude already stalks you online, he can probably already tell that you're single.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:12 AM on August 17, 2012

I like the "I don't date mentors" line. Turns him down in a kind way, but makes it clear you expect those recommendations. And be too busy to meet.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:13 AM on August 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

Yeah, this sucks, esp. the blow to your pride that his comments may have had ulterior motives, and the possible loss of recommendation letter.

Start with a letter like Ruthless Bunny's, do NOT give an excuse (if you started dating someone recently, hey maybe you'll break up and then he could be with you! Or if you have a "rule", maybe he'll be the one to break it! ... sigh). Just be straightforward and cold and unavailable.

If you get a response, now or ever, that isn't similarly professional and distant, then I suggest you go to the university's ombudsman. Ombudspeople are trained to deal with these issues, and can help you with everything from reading a rec letter before it goes out (or even storing the letter for future use, at some places), to getting counseling for yourself (maybe a good idea if this has been a real blow to your confidence), to pursuing disciplinary measures (if the guy doesn't take no for an answer or escalates his e-stalking to in person behavior).

The other thing the ombudsman can do-- is nothing at all. They can be an ear just to listen to your troubles, and point you towards available resources, but contacting them does not initiate any sort of procedure. It's low risk and could have a large upside.
posted by nat at 9:16 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Others have addressed how to turn him down, but I wanted to address how to deal with the letter of rec. How bad do you need his reference? Did you work on a major project with him? Is there no other professor who knows you as well? The thing is, his creepiness is probably a pattern with his students and is probably known among faculty. Profs can be gossipy like anyone else and his reputation may be known among the other schools you apply to. Think carefully about how that might impact your application; your work and his reputation as a scholar both come first, but if you can get an equally good letter from someone else, why put up with his crap and take a risk with your application?
posted by slow graffiti at 9:20 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

This was upsetting because I consider him a mentor and didn't think he had those kind of motivations towards me. Now he is in town and wants to take me out. What should I say?

"I've considered you a mentor and didn't think you had those kinds of motivations towards me. Frankly, it makes me question all of our interactions and the sincerity with which you guided and advised my journey to where I am now. I'd like to keep our relationship strictly professional. I'd appreciate your respecting this propriety."
posted by phoebus at 9:38 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Former professor? You no longer have any student relationship? Professor/former student relationships do happen and they aren't always unwanted. Wouldn't consider it myself. To me, professors who monkey around with students are spectacularly stupid, but I can think of more than one professor who's married to a former student. If you're still in his classes (or might be in the future) then the guy should be fired.

Here's the reason I'm asking. You've earned a good recommendation from someone respected in your field. (He's not giving you a recommendation; you've earned a recommendation.) Severing your professional relationship puts that recommendation at risk. That is a huge loss to you.

Personally I'd be clear that it's a no-go romantically, but that I still respect his knowledge and professional advice. After that, keep it public and professional. Meet him for coffee at the school coffee shop, but not in his office. However, it's up to you if you can continue to see this person professionally.
posted by 26.2 at 9:46 AM on August 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

So he made the pass after you graduated? I don't see why you need to go to the ombudsman or HR or the police or anyone else. Turn him down like you'd turn down any other unwelcome guy and look for another professional reference. Maybe he held his passion in check while you were a student but once you graduated, he could no longer restrain his ardent love for you. Maybe he's a creep, maybe not.
I think it's a bit much to send him some email about what a cad he is-=-you're not a Victorian wilting flower, you're a grown woman.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:48 AM on August 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

Idle, were you on good terms with your other profs? If so get recs from them.

Tell Prof Creepy "Back off".

Being involved with another isn't going to stop a creep from harrassing his target.
posted by brujita at 9:52 AM on August 17, 2012

It's not the only field I can go into and frankly there are other issues in the field with sexism and misogyny that make this for me, pretty much the last straw. I have other people who can recommend me and other skills.

I will simply tell him I am not available.
posted by idle at 10:06 AM on August 17, 2012 [7 favorites]

Then he's going to push and ask when you are available.
posted by brujita at 10:16 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

This may be a minor point, but I always try to avoid saying "I'm busy" or "I have a boyfriend" or "I'm away" when I'm turning someone down. You should be clear about saying no (explanation of his creepiness or not) and not use business or boyfriends as a hedge. This will just give a pursuer an excuse to continue to pursue you (i.e. she'll be less busy next week, maybe she'll dump her bf, etc.).

I think you should continue to plan to ask him for letters, but only if he is the absolute best person to do so. If you were active in your department, then you will likely have other recommenders. If he's the only person in the entire department who can speak to your skills, then that's a problem in and of itself. If he's the best person to ask, then be aware that you can always NOT waive your right to see any letters that go out on your behalf and therefore you can be sure he's not saying bad things about you because you turned him down. Be sure to plan for the contingency that he does and have other letters on hand or other people willing to write letters (this means getting the letter from him well before any due dates).
posted by mrfuga0 at 10:26 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I like Ruthless Bunny's letter EXCEPT for the part about "felt a rapport." He's going to read that as a possible spark of hope and continue to harass you. I think you can leave that sentence out and it'll read perfectly well.
posted by dlugoczaj at 10:29 AM on August 17, 2012

It's not the only field I can go into and frankly there are other issues in the field with sexism and misogyny that make this for me, pretty much the last straw

if you don't need to maintain any professional relationship, my advice is even simpler: no excuses, no face-saving fibs that can be falsified by following your Twitter feed: a simple "I'm sorry, but that won't be possible," followed by no response to further e-mails. Yes, as others have said, there are some people so messed up that they will try to push past this, but most people won't.
posted by escabeche at 10:31 AM on August 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm going to put on my student adviser hat for a minute.

When we started this question you were considering grad school in this field. Someone respected in the field thinks you're a very promising student. (Even though he's a creeper, he knows the subject matter.)

If you truly think this field of study isn't for you, then fine. Before you make that decision, please take some time. Of course, there are other things you can do and other fields you can explore. However, it would make me very sad to see a student forced out of a career field where they have genuine potential.

Are there any women in the field you could approach for some mentoring/guidance? Is there a professional association?
posted by 26.2 at 10:41 AM on August 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

No, this is a very niche field and there are no women in it. I got involved with it through him. I was not necessarily considering grad school in this field. In fact, non of the grad programs I'm applying to really have much to do with it. I do not believe his research will have much lasting impact. I do not respect him very much, especially having been mentored by more competent people recently, though I did in the past. I am not sure this is colored by his behavior towards me, but I went back through his published papers and I think they have significant flaws. I would not study under him. This would be much harder if I thought he was particularly intelligent and I would be missing out on a promising field because of him.

I confided in a female mentor and she said I should avoid him if possible.
posted by idle at 10:54 AM on August 17, 2012

I am sure he will reply asking why I don't want to see him since he has sent emails like that to me in the past. I guess I should just tell him I do not feel comfortable seeing him.
posted by idle at 10:55 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Block his email and other social media
posted by brujita at 11:11 AM on August 17, 2012

I heartily recommend the Miss Manners', "I'm sorry, that just won't be possible."

If he asks why, you just repeat. You don't owe him an explanation that he can use to try and find a way around.
posted by rhapsodie at 11:18 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Jeez, am I glad that I don't have to deal with that kind of shit. If I were in your position I would probably go nuclear on the fucker and ruin my chances of ever getting a recommendation within my department let alone from this particular guy. That said, I think you're getting some solid advice here and I would suggest you handle this in a similar (but larger-scale) way as I myself handled a creepy professor last semester (who wasn't being creepy to me, as I'm a dude, but who still got under my skin enough with his unprofessionalism that I felt like I had to do something.

What you need to remember is that you only need to preserve a semblance of a professional relationship to this guy for as long as it takes to get into grad school. (In my case it was just a matter of waiting for grades to be posted.) After that, you don't need anything from him and can burn your bridges (in an appropriate fashion).

Right now you just want to document. Start a file on this guy in which you document the inappropriate overtures that this professor has been making toward you. Save screenshots of Facebook comments, save copies of e-mails, create journal entries for any instances in which he makes unprofessional remarks toward you in non-permanent formats such as on the phone or in person. Save this for later, when he can no longer hurt you.

In the meantime, reduce contact to the minimum required by professional civility. As far as his creepy date invitation is concerned, just tell him "I'm sorry, I won't be able to do that." Don't explain -- treat it as if he had asked you about a professional meeting that you won't be able to make it to. An explanation is not required in such circumstances, even though it's standard practice. It is totally OK to just send a terse, one-or-two-sentence e-mail in which you state that regretfully you will be unable to attend. Do not suggest another time or provide an excuse, as that will only give him an opening to pursue the matter. If he pushes you for an explanation (ugh, I am so sorry you have to deal with this) then you'll have to just say "I'm sorry, I just can't meet outside of school. Thanks for your understanding." Leave it at that.

Do ask for a recommendation. You deserve one, you've done the work. And he's into you, so as long as you haven't told him off yet he'll probably still write you a good one. Try to keep communication with him to e-mail as it allows for some distance and also is self-documenting. Keep personal meetings as brief as possible. Fortunately it's good practice to ask for recommendations early in the semester, so you'll be able to get that hurdle out of the way quickly.

Then just go about your life, keeping as little contact with this guy as possible. Document everything he does that makes your skin crawl. Wait until you are safely ensconced in your new grad program. Then send the chair of his department an e-mail in which you explain this guy's creepy-ass actions toward you, and forward a copy of your file. Feel free to also tell off your ex-mentor at this point and explain that his actions were unprofessional and creepy and that you don't want to hear from him in the future. Try to keep your tone civil, but feel free to make your position quite clear.

It's quite possible that nothing will come from this (especially since he's not your current professor) but then again, it might. And even if nothing comes from it then, there will at least hopefully be some prior documentation the next time some poor undergrad goes to the department with complaints about this guy. There *will* be a next time, these guys don't do this shit just once, it's almost always a pattern of behavior. The next poor woman who has to deal with his crap may have a better chance of getting some result if there's already an established and documented history of this kind of thing from that professor, and you can try to console yourself with that.

That's what I would recommend, anyway. Document, partially withdraw, get the recommendation, and then drop your bomb once you're safely away. Good luck and, again, I'm sorry you have to put up with this shit.
posted by Scientist at 11:28 AM on August 17, 2012

I feel like there's a chunk of the story missing: what does "take me out" mean, exactly?
posted by rhizome at 11:31 AM on August 17, 2012

I don't agree with those who are telling idle to still get the rec from Prof Creepy. He behaved badly and is no longer entitled to further interaction with her.

As she posted, she can get recs elsewhere, and the main point of them is to let schools know what sort of student she'll be.
posted by brujita at 11:48 AM on August 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Brujita, I can't speak for anyone else but all I was saying is that if the OP feels like getting a recommendation from this guy is worth the hassle of interacting with him, that's her choice to make. It sounds like she doesn't feel that way. Of course this guy isn't *entitled* to interaction with her, but she is entitled to a recommendation from him if she wants one.

If you really don't need anything from him, OP, go ahead and burn those bridges! Say, "I don't want to see you or talk to you, period, ever. Please don't email me; I won't open the emails. I'm not going to explain." There's no rule that says you have to give him an explanation.
posted by mskyle at 12:04 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I understand that you are creeped out. However, that doesn't necessarily make him a creeper.

If he had made a pass at you while you were a student in his class, then he would be a creeper, and it would be an issue of some concern on a greater scale, too, as he would be misusing his role of mentor to take advantage of you, and possibly other female students. If you had already told him no and he kept emailing you, then he would be a creeper, IMO, too, because that's getting into creepy stalker territory.

I understand your unsettled feeling, and the way you are doubting yourself now. I would feel the same way. But the class is over now, and you haven't actually firmly told him you aren't interested. So this is more about how you feel about what he did than what he actually did, if you can appreciate the distinction.

It would have been much easier if you had gone on blissfully unaware of his crush. But since you have to deal with this, you really, REALLY need to tell him that you are not interested in him romantically, PERIOD.

Rather than say, "I'm busy," or "I'm not available," say, "I'm sorry, but I have always viewed you only as an instructor and as a professional in my chosen field, not in any romantic light. I am not interested in establishing a personal relationship with you."

That "I'm sorry" is not an admission of anything you actually need to feel guilty for, btw, because this is all on him. It's more a way to soften the blow; we all know that it feels bad when you are attracted to someone who doesn't return that feeling. Leave it off if you want to.

Rereading your papers and doubting yourself now is not productive or healthy, either. He may well have been attracted to you, as others have already noted, because you are passionate and knowledgeable about the subject he was teaching, and that is something the two of you have in common. His interest doesn't detract from your abilities one bit. Of course now, knowing more than you did then, you see the errors in your earlier work, but you were learning then and you weren't supposed to know everything already!

Turn him down and move on.
posted by misha at 12:23 PM on August 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

Take me out = take me to a nice restaurant for dinner alone
posted by idle at 12:24 PM on August 17, 2012

In response to your updates, let me Nth the "just say no and don't explain" advice.

If you give any reason why, whether it is a polite cover story or genuine objection, you are opening the door to rebuttal. It doesn't matter how genuinely nice someone is, at that point, the more they explain that your assumption is in error (or whatever), the creepier it will get until there is no salvaging it, even if it was simply a dreadful misunderstanding to start with. The bible says "lead me not into temptation". I am not Christian but I think that is good advice. Do him and you both a favor and leave zero room to discuss, debate, rebutt, convince, etc. Just say no. Be polite but firm. Do not explain.
posted by Michele in California at 12:53 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, I see now. The "take me out" is separate from the "making a pass."
posted by rhizome at 1:09 PM on August 17, 2012

Unfortunately the damage that established professors (and other professionals) can do to an up-and-comer in their field is one of the reasons why they feel free to behave badly. They place people between a rock and hard place - I don't think anyone can determine for anyone else whether the "rock" or the "hard place" is better. Basically, I think it's irresponsible to say, "who cares about the rec.! Report him!" when there's only been discomfort, not a breaking of law or hard ethics (dating current students is considered unethical in many colleges, but I know a number of couples that are actually professors and former students.... it does weird me out, but it's actually more common than one might think).

Does it suck not to be able to call people out when they do shit like this? Yes. Would it be great if more people stood up to people that did shit like this? Yes. But for some people engaging in the righteous cause is simply irresponsible, based on their current situation.

ANYWAY. Based on the update that says you don't care about the rec, and don't care about the field, then I think telling him your last encounter with him made you feel a bit uncomfortable is fine.

Even if you didn't care about the field but wanted the rec. (which you deserve!), if he wants to meet you offer public and professional alternatives. "Oh, I'll be going to X symposium next week! Are you going? I'll find you at lunch!" If he offers with a movie or dinner or something, completely ignore that offer and keep going on about the public meetings, "Oh - I'm meeting profs Q___ and R____ for a review of my work - at the student center you can stop by!" or something.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 1:51 PM on August 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Given your additional information, I agree. Send him a terse message, "I'm unavailable." And leave it at that.

There is nothing more liberating that telling an asshole that you don't need him for anything, and having it be 100% true.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:26 PM on August 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you have other recs, this is a non-issue. Leave it be. I wouldn't even contact him to tell him to get lost, nicely or not nicely. Just let it be. Don't answer, don't respond, etc.. Block him on social media, block his email, etc.. Unless there is some other reason you must preserve a working relationship with him. But you've got your other letters. Leave it alone.

If he really is a creep, then your response, however nicely phrased, is not going to get him to change his ways and leave other students alone. On the contrary, the attention may well be flattering, thinking he's getting a rise out of you, etc..

If he's not a creep, but just a normal guy who likes you and made a SERIES of mistakes by approaching you repeatedly, then he will know what you mean when you say and do NOTHING. He doesn't sound too normal. But let's say he was.

Leave it be. Block and ignore.
posted by skbw at 3:03 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Idle, I'm getting the hunch from your posts that Prof Creepy has been "missing stepped" (I can't remember if I saw this term on the Captain Awkward creeper post or the link on it to the Pervocracy) for a long time. Are the others who felt uncomfortable (does this include female mentor?)willing to come forward?
posted by brujita at 4:55 PM on August 17, 2012

Don't lie - just say you're not interested. It's not a guaranteed fix, but if he's harmless, he will go away. So far, though, you've not really told him you're not interested.

Look - you have other recs, he may have a rep for doing this (this is unclear - certainly with you it seems he does), other people think you're smart and capable, you don't believe in the validity and professionalism of his work, and you've already told another mentor about him.

It just seems like you don't really need to keep placating him at the expense of yourself - you're in a position where you have a great deal of power and now you just need to learn to establish some clear boundaries with someone who wants to overstep them.
posted by heyjude at 5:28 PM on August 17, 2012

since it seems ok to talk about the professor in this thread, eg all the comments about him being creepy, i'm going to talk about him too: i don't think it's all that creepy, and i think you would do well to not see it that way either. the key here is FORMER professor. he is not your professor any more. now he is some guy you know.

it would be better for you to frame it as: you met him in such and such way, that situation ended, you still communicated socially, he gestured in the most polite, face-saving way for both of you, to escalate the relationship, but you're not interested. this is the way it's SUPPOSE TO HAPPEN. and you're suppose to politely decline him, and if he makes explicit his intentions you're suppose to tell him you're not interested in that kind of relationship.

the less you think of him as "omg creepy old dude, yuk yuk yuk" the less that vibe will come across in any further communication with him, the less he'll be embarassed, and the less likely he'll retaliate.
posted by cupcake1337 at 5:38 PM on August 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I re-wrote your question:

Dear Former professor
I was upset when you made a pass at me because I considered you a mentor. Now I doubt all the times you told me how smart I was. The way you made me feel was intensely unsettling. I thought I was over-sensitive, but other people around felt it too. I really don't want to see you again. I feel kind of devastated because I can't consider you a mentor any more.

But I think you're wise not to burn bridges because He is good friends with many top people in the field.

You absolutely can ask for a recommendations for grad school in good conscience. He is a professor. It is his job to write you honest evaluations.

He keeps emailing me over and over again. I worry he'll stalk me over the internet and find out I'm lying because I've gotten emails from him before "I saw on Twitter that you were at ZYX restaurants, how was it?"

I think you should email him and say "I have always considered you a mentor and I don't feel comfortable going out with you. Best, idle" If he persists "I don't feel comfortable going out with you. Please stop asking. Best, idle" and then ignore any email or communication from him.

Maybe he likes the chase, maybe he is mad about you and has never dated a previous student before (not likely), maybe ... who knows. You should check him out on and consider warning other students about him. Hang on to the emails and tweets from him, in case he continues to behave inappropriately. Professors get away with this crap because they wield influence, and are allowed to behave badly with no consequences. It's really not okay. It's not your fault, and you should not be penalized for his bad behavior.
posted by theora55 at 6:15 PM on August 17, 2012

I have had older men and even people who formerly taught me express interest in me before. I have even dated some of them. I have had some bosses in the past who made sexually inappropriate comments, but they were not to the degree of this. I was able to remain cordial and interact with them on a daily basis, though I certainly was not happy with their behavior.

I did not put more details on here about the way he made a pass at me, but it was deeply unpleasant and unsettling. It is really too specific and also I do not want to write about it. I do not think I am being harsh to call him a creep, though I also think he just lacks social skills. Even if the initial pass was not so awful, his persistance is unpleasant as well.
posted by idle at 10:50 PM on August 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

thanks for the update, based on your original post i got the impresson that the only thing he did was asking you out.
posted by cupcake1337 at 8:28 AM on August 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

One thing that is absolutely standard to these sorts of situations, and depressingly common, is to contact the chair of your department to let them know and then ask them to screen the any letters of recommendation coming from the professor in question. This simultaneously addresses creepiness getting into the letter, confrontation affecting the letter, and documenting the fucked upedness. If you do not have a female chair I have heard of situations where students have requested that the chair perform this duty with a female chair of another department.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:50 AM on August 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

[Please do not debate other people's answers. Thanks. ]
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 5:17 PM on August 19, 2012

One of the reasons why I posted that it wasn 't a good idea for idle to still get the rec from prof Creepy is that I think that her personal safety takes predecence over what he might do if she approaches him for a rec. He behaved badly to her ONCE. There is no reason for her to be subjected to this again.
posted by brujita at 5:52 PM on August 19, 2012

Because you have dated in the field before - here's something I've said: "I've seen relationships amongst professionals/colleagues go badly before and have firmly decided that this is something I don't wish to happen in my own social life." And then no more details except to reiterate that "I have strong personal feelings/experience that makes me very firm in this decision." I have some stories, but I personally wouldn't want to get chatty about relationships with this guy except to note that none will happen. This allows the guy to think "well, it isn't me personally" - and in theory make him less annoying afterwards. Only a theory, doesn't work all the time. Sometimes they think "ah but I'm the exception" - and at least this will let you know what level to raise the "ugh, this is a problem" meter.

I think you're totally right to listen to the warning signs here and your feeling that you need to not engage with this guy. We develop that sense of discomfort/alarm for a reason, and whether anyone thinks you're overreacting or not (because women get told that a lot, sadly) - keep your interactions with him only to what you feel comfort with. So email is fine, phone at last resort, personal meetings a no. I'd also keep off any social media that you can't set to private, and not make any note of anywhere you're going until after you've left the area. (You probably know or have decided all this anyway, but I've added it because, damn, this is a crappy thing to have to deal with. Just wanting to cheer you out of the self-doubt part, because that also sucks.)

Everyone's also right about the recommendations (I was formerly in academia) - all profs are used to getting a phone call after a student's left asking for a recommendation. I've even called profs from years ago - all they needed was for me to chat over the phone with them, talk about which class I took, paper I wrote, etc. to remind them who I was. And also right is the idea that "other people in his dept. may know this prof's a problem in this way" - it takes a long time for faculty/dept. head to get enough info on a prof to either have him removed or confront him. So you may actually have other faculty members ask about getting a recommendation from this prof - hoping you'll say something about your uncomfortable situation. (And go with your gut on that part too. You can always call again later if you change your mind.) I do also know a handful of profs that married former students - so it's very hard to tell how much of this is "normal" or how normal other folk in the field think it is. I've always thought it somewhat creepy myself, but then that's me.
posted by batgrlHG at 12:21 PM on August 20, 2012

BatgirlHG, I'm inferring from idle's last update that she was physically assaulted; not just getting warning signs.

20 years ago I acted on the warning signs: calling me pet names, demanding that I sit up front in his class, wanting me to participate in an event intended for the black students on a campus where their percentage was in the single digits. I called a harassment hotline, who recommended that I talk to the person in charge of my department, who was able to help me drop his class without encountering him. A few months later I saw him in a bagel shop and he gave me a sad panda look, but didn't say anything.

After I graduated I read his autobiographical novel, in which he described raping a woman from his community because he didn't want to look bad to his friend. Had I read this before I read the course description I would have never signed up for his class.
posted by brujita at 6:47 PM on August 20, 2012

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