Dating a former professor - bad for his reputation?
May 8, 2007 11:16 AM   Subscribe

Dating a former professor - bad for his reputation?

Almost two years ago, I took a class with a fantastic professor during my undergraduate time, in my primary major. I was a bit of an older student (thought he's still older than I, but not old enough to be my father - the age difference doesn't bother me). I'd hang out in his office sometimes or elsewhere on campus and we'd talk, he'd help me clarify my plans, and also get to know one another.

Fast forward to know - I've since graduated, and will be going to grad school in the fall at a completely different university. He's a good friend, where conversation for hours on end is effortless, with a nice blend of serious discussion, pure silliness, and getting to consistently know more about each other personally. I'm very, very much interested in him.

He has a live-in girlfriend of several years. While I've met her a few times and she's nice as can be, there are plenty of things he's said, and I've noticed, that boggle my mind why they're together other than the inconvenience of change (from different opinions about marriage, kids, religion, interests, and much more). Nothing between the former prof and I has ever moved past friendship, nor has there been any discussion of "more." There is plenty of simple, easy, definite chemistry, however.

I am thinking of saying something, but not sure how. I'd hate to be thought of as "the other woman" but I would like to communicate a bit of how I'm feeling. While all of our discussions, e-mails, lunches and walks have been purely platonic as of now, I'm well aware of the politics and gossip of academia.

Several of his colleagues were also my former professors, and from time to time I might have contact with them in a purely professional manner. I'm worred that, should things with his girlfriend officially end, it might look bad for him to date a former student of his.

For those of you who are university faculty or affiliated, what would you think of a respected colleague who got involved with a student (for not just a fling)? Would you look down on him or the former student for getting involved? Would it look horrible if he broke up with his girlfriend to explore this new path?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (44 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Kirklander at 11:22 AM on May 8, 2007

Do not, I repeat, DO NOT pursue this. Please. For a variety of reasons, the least of all being his reputation, this is not a good idea.
posted by hollisimo at 11:25 AM on May 8, 2007

posted by The World Famous at 11:26 AM on May 8, 2007

I think this totally depends on the maturity, and the rank, of the particular professor you are dealing with. Professor-student relationship are more common than many of us probably think.

The rumor mill is definitely there. One of my professors went through a similar situation in marrying one of his former students. Many other members of faculty, shall we say, hinted their disapproval, but by virtue of his seniority within the department, and the fact that he was one of the most liked professors on campus, the issue was a non-starter.

on preview: i don't understand the out-of-hand dismissals.
posted by phaedon at 11:27 AM on May 8, 2007

Looking at this situation as everyone involved just being peoples, it looks like you are trying to manipulate the guy you like into leaving his current live-in girlfriend because of things you have noticed/discussed with your and his filters on.

Methinks you are "the other woman." Stop it.
posted by spec80 at 11:27 AM on May 8, 2007

posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 11:28 AM on May 8, 2007

Screw reputation--if you are both adults that have no current master/student type relationship, I say go for it.


Except that you are the other woman. If he breaks up with his girlfriend on his own, fine, but don't go planting ideas in his head. If you really do love him, trust him to notice if his current relationship is making him unhappy.
posted by DU at 11:30 AM on May 8, 2007

"i don't understand the out-of-hand dismissals."

Because he is in a live-in relationship. Poaching is never, ever a good idea. Were he single, this would be a totally different matter, but all issues of reputation pale when the question is actually, "should I try to break up someone else's relationship based on a chemistry I perceive?"
posted by hollisimo at 11:32 AM on May 8, 2007

There's not a very nice way for me to say this, but: sometimes men in relationships enjoy the admiration of a young lady, without in any way intending to leave their primary relationship. And if you've hung out and chatted and emailed as much as you apparently have, and he hasn't indicated that he'd like to make mad, passionate love to you, etc etc... er, I worry, a little, that you're leaping to a conclusion that may be unwarranted, and that in fact you have an unreturned crush on an older male authority figure (heaven knows I'm prone to this one myself, so please don't feel that I'm Judgy McJudge here.)

That aside, I would be leery of getting involved with a man who lives with his girlfriend. Aside from the ethics involved - but, frankly, how can you leave the ethics of this aside? - I think that an affair would not be that great for his reputation.

If he were single, I see no particular problem with someone dating a former (mature) student. If you were 19 when you were in his class, I think it's a little murkier, but if you were anywhere in your 20s, I wouldn't find it bothersome. However, I know someone who married her professor, and I do have the impression that people talked about it a lot, and that it wasn't and isn't always pleasant, particularly for him.

PS, can I tell you something, one girl to another? Don't fall into the trap of thinking that his girlfriend is an evil witch and bad for him and treats him terribly. That's not sisterly of you, man.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 11:34 AM on May 8, 2007 [4 favorites]

I'm not one to categorically argue that everyone who feels "simple, easy chemistry" for anyone else needs to take it to the bedroom and wait for the dust to settle, but come on. Am I supposed to bow to the altar of the live-in relationship? Screw that. Pack your bags, don't let the door hit you on the way out.

And to call it poaching? If anything, the professor would be the poacher. In any case, I think the OP was just trying to be clear about the details, not to hear your harp on hurting the other girl's feelings. The meat of the question is, how does the campus rumor mill deal with professor / student relationships?
posted by phaedon at 11:37 AM on May 8, 2007

I don't think it matters so much that you were his student, it matters that you essentially want to pursue a man who was in a committeed relationship. People do this all the time, so I'll be the last person to say "this is always and in all circumstances against the rules!" but it's not a cool thing to do whether or not there is chemistry and/or promise.

My Dad married his secretary which is another fairly stereotypical boy/girl realtionship. He didn't leave my Mom for her. She is super nice. She's been my stepmom for almost a decade. However, she will never really get out from under the "you married the boss" stigma as far as feeling that he and she had some sort of normal courtship/dating life before marrying (they didn't) or that they don't have a terrific power imbalance in their relationship (they do) or that her early retirement (coinciding with his retirement) was in some way something that secretaries who don't marry the boss would ever normally do.

I have no idea if any of this applies to you and I don't know you from Eve, but if you make the moves on a guy with a live-in and start having a committed non-fling relationship with him, you may ultimately find happiness, but you can't escape being "the other woman" and it's not unlikely that you may find yourself on the reverse side of the occasion at some future possible point where you are the long term live-in girlfriend and someone else is the hot younger student.
posted by jessamyn at 11:37 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't understand the out-of-hand "yeses" here.

You're no longer his student; you're not even at his institution. There's no ethical issue with you two dating. I've known people in similar situations, and while there will always be gossip, it's certainly not perceived as "horrible".

That said, I think there might be other, bigger, problems with your plans here, as other answers have pointed out.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:40 AM on May 8, 2007

I think the OP was just trying to be clear about the details, not to hear your harp on hurting the other girl's feelings. The meat of the question is, how does the campus rumor mill deal with professor / student relationships?

I think that's a good point, but I also think those circumstances of the relationship and its inception are going to have a big impact on how the rumor mill responds to this. If it's something that a lot of people here think is a questionable move, then there's a pretty good chance of colleagues being less than charitable...
posted by svenx at 11:51 AM on May 8, 2007

Hello, cart; you're waaaay ahead of the horse.

Look, he already has a serious, live-in relationship (regardless of your presumptions about the quality of that relationship, and regardless of the chemisty the two of you may very well share) -- worrying about the damage (or lack thereof) to his reputation if the two of you start dating is pretty low on the list of main issues right now. If they break up -- and that would be their choice, not yours -- and if you and your former professor seem to then be in a place where you would mutually like to start a relationship, then you deal with the issue of his reputation. (And I personally think dating a former student shouldn't do much than briefly raise a few eyebrows.)

I am thinking of saying something, but not sure how. I'd hate to be thought of as "the other woman" but I would like to communicate a bit of how I'm feeling.

Sorry, you can't have it both ways (believe me, I speak from experience: I once faux-innocently "said something" to a male friend who I had a crush on about his obviously failing long-term relationship, and it became infinitely more complicated and painful for everyone involved than I could have ever imagined). Either you insert yourself into their relationship as the other woman (even if "just" emotionally) and potentially reap the whirlwind, or you don't.

Again, if your former prof breaks up with his girlfriend, and if things start moving along from there, great. But don't actively stir the pot! I know you're hoping that by just "saying something," you'll set in motion the course of action by which he breaks up with his girlfriend and starts dating you instead, right? But even putting aside A) the ethics of being the other woman, B) his reputation due to dating a former student, and C) the complex situation that you may unleash that's not going to be fully within your control, that's rarely good footing for any relationship to start on. So honestly: back off.

(on preview: seconding Jess.)
posted by scody at 11:52 AM on May 8, 2007

Another thing to consider: I've seen several profs who have dated former students (I don't recall if any ended up marrying said students), as it happens all male profs with female students. In some cases, they got together when she was still a student, in other cases, no one knows, but in every case a lot of people really suspected, given what happened later, that he had been sleeping with his students.

So, given the rumor mill, people might not be willing to leave it at "he's dating a former student" (on the ethics of which, I more or less agree with mr_roboto), and might feel compelled to go on and assume he had done something much less ethically acceptable. So realize that even if you're not doing anything wrong like that, many people will assume you did. That's just the way it works.

On the other hand, nobody I'm thinking of got fired over their relationships, even the one who did date a student. It's good to have tenure, I guess.
posted by rkent at 11:53 AM on May 8, 2007

I can't get over how selfish you sound. First off - how do you know that you're not just interpreting things he says about her/their relationship to be what YOU want to hear? Just because you're attracted to him does not mean that he's attracted to you, even if you have the chemistry to make great friends. If HE doesn't take the first step by breaking up with his g/f or making a pass at you or whatever, then clearly he isn't interested. And by the way, it is really awful of you to think about ruining someone else's relationship. Would you want someone to that to you? Have you ever been cheated on or had another woman very obviously try to steal your man? I bet you haven't.

If he was single, then it would be a completely different story, and no it wouldn't be much of an issue for him to date a former student (this happened while I was in graduate school between a prof and former student - they're married now, actually)
posted by echo0720 at 11:57 AM on May 8, 2007

It's not that big a deal if you're no longer a student and you're somewhat close in age. I don't think his colleagues will give much of a shit. I know it from both sides. Some profs even like the reputation, especially if they have tenure and are careful not to cross any technical lines. It's a mystique, and bad boys cultivate it -- look how charismatic *I* am, my ex-students want to sleep with me, etc. Sometimes just being a flirt (which your man may well be) does the trick.

But that isn't the real question, as everyone is saying here. He could be a lumberjack, but he's still off limits unless you want the non-career-specific hell you'd be buying for all concerned. And you don't need anyone to tell you so if you have any experience in life.
posted by spitbull at 11:58 AM on May 8, 2007

Does your former professor have tenure? No? Then stay the hell away.

He has tenure? In that case whatever rumor mill there is might not be as harmful to him professionally. But I still would not go around presuming anything about his current relationship. I mean, how much do you really know about the nature of their relationship? How much of your perception of their relationship owes to your own interest in the professor?
posted by needled at 12:01 PM on May 8, 2007

I teach at a community college, and am currently a graduate student, so I may not be precisely your target respondent.

That being said, one of the major pieces of gossip amongst the undergrads at my BS institution was the relationship between two of the professors, which had begun while one was a student. Incidentally, it was the woman, who is ~15 years the male prof's junior.

Today, it isn't an issue for faculty or staff, but the male professor was the type that really couldn't care less what his colleagues think of his personal choices. I think that it won't matter in the slightest once you're not an undergrad in the eyes of the community (e.g. once you start grad school).

More relevant might be the fact that he's dating someone already.
posted by arnicae at 12:02 PM on May 8, 2007

There's lots of reasons why pursuing a relationship with him is a bad idea. However, the fact that you were previously his student is NOT one of them. That is now irrelevant.
posted by dendrite at 12:02 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

and I've noticed, that boggle my mind why they're together other than the inconvenience of change (from different opinions about marriage, kids, religion, interests, and much more).

Most of the long term, happy relationships that I'm privy to are between people who, on the surface of it, seem to have nothing in common. I think you're just looking for excuses to steal someone's s/o.
posted by zarah at 12:09 PM on May 8, 2007

It doesn't really matter if you confess your feelings to him but trying to initiate an affair is Not Good. Bad for his career. I say this not for moral reasons but because IWIAU - I work in a university.

there are plenty of things he's said, and I've noticed, that boggle my mind why they're together other than the inconvenience of change

Yeah. This is how affairs happen between women and men who do not intend to leave their partner. This is how it starts. Believe me -- BELIEVE me. This is an old, old story.
posted by loiseau at 12:09 PM on May 8, 2007

Dating a former student, accent on the former, will probably not be a big deal in and of itself. If he's 55 and you are 23, people will notice that.

Other factors:

Is his girlfriend in the same discipline as you, or even just an academic in another field? If so, this is a bad idea, especially for him. This would be shitting where you eat.

Are you going to grad school in his field? If so, any relationship you might end up with will be doomed to very severe inconvenience. Life is very hard for dual-academic couples, especially when they'd be in the same department. If you go for it and everything goes swimmingly and it's Prince Charming and Cinderella happily ever after, expect that either you will live apart for a very long time, or one or both of you will have to make very serious career sacrifices so you can both work in the same metro area.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:10 PM on May 8, 2007

You'll be making one of the largest mistakes in your life. Men in relationships will sleep with other women without any intention to start a relationship with them. It's trivially easy to seduce a man. But you will find that the fallout will destroy everything that has taken so long to build up.

Forget it. Find another boyfriend and let the prof be. By sleeping with him, there will be 3 victims. Avoid that situation.
posted by markovich at 12:29 PM on May 8, 2007

I think I'd worry more about your reputation than his, especially if he's in your field. (And even more especially if his not-currently-ex is in your field.) He is an established scholar in the field, which presumably is what you would like some day to be. But if you hook up with him and cause him to dump his live-in partner, you will not be introduced to others in the field as a scholar. You will be introduced as an item of gossip. It will be very hard to win the respect of others if they initially encounter you as the hot young thing for whom Scholar X left Scholar Y.
posted by craichead at 12:38 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have to reiterate what everyone else is saying here: the professor/student angle is not the problem. I dated a couple of my professors, back in the wild late 80s and early 90s and there was no fallout, particularly with the one I dated fairly seriously a couple years after I had left school.

However. He's been living with someone for seven years. Girlfriend, he is a Married Man, period, full stop. Call a spade a spade and recognize that. That's a recipe for a world of hurt. Step away from the man. Step away now and don't look back.
posted by mygothlaundry at 12:43 PM on May 8, 2007

Yes ... but only a little. People will say "Oh, Professor so and so ... he's dating X, one of his former students." (knowing look). If he already has tenure, it shouldn't matter. If he's brilliant and going for tenure and a shoe-in, it probably won't matter. If they're looking for any excuse to deny him tenure ... well.
posted by Comrade_robot at 12:46 PM on May 8, 2007

I'm not going to say 'absolutely do not do this', simply because I know of occasions when something along these lines has happened, and it hasn't always been an unmitigated disaster. People will, inevitably, talk, as you yourself point out. One thing to bear in mind is that if you perhaps got into Grad School assisted by a good reference from the Professor in question, then people will talk smack; they will assume things were going on back then, and that will not be good for his reputation, nor your own burgeoning one. Following that thought through, if you do embark upon a relationship with him, you will never ever be able to use him for a creditable reference, and nor should he ever offer. These things matter. It's true that as a former student, there aren't necessarily any 'ethical concerns' in the present, but as a number of people here have pointed out, what tends to happen is that people assume that this will have been going on longer than it in fact has.
posted by hydatius at 12:47 PM on May 8, 2007

My mom married a former professor shortly after college. If you're good together, go for it.

The other woman of course is an added variable, but unrelated to whether he's a professor or not.
posted by chundo at 1:00 PM on May 8, 2007

How would you feel if you were in his girlfriend's shoes? You can't judge the validity of their relationship the way they can and you have no right to interfere.
posted by koshka at 1:12 PM on May 8, 2007

Two of my undergraduate professors dated former students.

One had a semi-secretive fling with a student. She had been part-time, and whether the affair started while she was still enrolled or not was a cause of much speculation. Even though she was an older student, well...she was 29 or so and he was at least 55. We all knew, and yes, a lot of people (both faculty and students) lost some respect for him, though he was entrenched enough at the school that it didn't really hurt him professionally. It did also open him up to an immense amount of armchair analysis -- he was my drama prof and therefore directed a lot of plays, and her tipsy at the cast party" game.

The other fared better. He was a younger prof who dated a former student -- she is perhaps ten years his junior. His reputation took a few hits early on, and it was something that the students learned through the grapevine for years (it didn't help that he was also one of the more controversial and non-stuffy professors on my small, conservative campus.) But by the time they had been married five or six or seven years and she was pregnant with his second child, even the naysayers had to acknowledge that there wasn't much to see there. Oh, and he was later made department chair.

But you're jumping the gun, of course. He's not single. My rosier scenario #2 above didn't include the prof leaving his wife/girlfriend, which is a whole 'nother level of gossip and moral indignation.
posted by desuetude at 1:19 PM on May 8, 2007

should be "did he cast her to see her tipsy at the cast party" game.
posted by desuetude at 1:20 PM on May 8, 2007

If you are interested in a career in any way related to academia or any field where his colleagues or professors in his field will have any sway over your future, do not touch this situation with a ten foot pole. It will ruin your career.
posted by decathecting at 1:24 PM on May 8, 2007

little reality check.

you have written nothing that would suggest he feels the same about you. quite the opposite: he lives with someone. do you have any reason to believe he would end that relationship for one with you? what tells you that she isn't having a similar connection with him?

also: you are not looking at him as a great match - you looking up to him. how can this ever be a relationship among equals?

I think you're getting a bit lost in a dreamworld.
posted by krautland at 1:29 PM on May 8, 2007

you have written nothing that would suggest he feels the same about you.

A good point. It's possible to have great chemistry with someone at a friendly/collegial level and not have that chemistry signify mutual romantic interest. For example, I have several very close male friends (one of whom was a former colleague) and a current male colleague with whom I have plenty of fun, easy, silly, even flirty chemistry. (My boyfriend's the same way -- he has friendly/flirty chemistry with a couple of his female friends and coworkers, and he's as steadfastly monogamous as they come.) Doesn't mean any of them want to leave their partners for me, or I for them, though I will admit to initially mistaking (due largely to wishful thinking) the chemisty I have with my former colleague as mutual romantic interest.

posted by scody at 1:48 PM on May 8, 2007

From scody: I personally think dating a former student shouldn't do much than briefly raise a few eyebrows.

I personally know three male professors in my field who have married former students--all were young and untenured when they were dating their former student, and the relationship hasn't appreciably hurt their careers. As far as I can tell, scody's personal opinion is often correct, even for younger faculty.

This is still a bad idea, anonymous, for all the reasons others talk about, and not the least because you might well be misinterpreting the entire situation. As scody later points out (isn't she smart?) lots of people flirt--I have "simple, easy, definite chemistry" with a number of women, including some former students, but I can't imagine life without the soon-to-be mrs. Kwine and would never leave her.

It sounds like your professor is a nice friend for you and my advice for you is that you should not rock that boat.
posted by Kwine at 2:14 PM on May 8, 2007

you you you you you
posted by Kwine at 2:16 PM on May 8, 2007

I can't tell you what to do but Yes, it will look weird if the age difference is huge. But you know what, academics are eccentric so they do shocking things. In my department, two professors married each others grad students. Two other profs ended up marrying grad students as well.
posted by special-k at 3:14 PM on May 8, 2007

It's ethically ok to date a former professor. It's not so hot to try to lure someone out of their current longterm relationship. It's also not pragmatically a great idea for a younger woman just starting her academic career to date an older more established male academic.

It happens often enough, but it's typically the younger/woman in the relationship whose academic reputation is more damaged. If you're going into academia in the same field it will be bad for your reputation, in ways that will not be obvious but might seriously affect your career prospects.

Is he tenured? If so he doesn't really need to worry about his reputation. You are in the powerless position here and you have plenty to lose by this. (Here's some elaboration in my answer to another question about a professor/student relationship.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:42 PM on May 8, 2007

At my grad program, one former graduate student has been through THREE of her former professors, married all three of them. First one they got divorced (he's dead), married second one then cheated on him with third one, divorced second one and married third one, to whom she is still married. Apparently many years ago when this was going on (all these dudes are pretty old & near retirement), 2nd and 3rd professor got in a fistfight in the department office. Fun times.
posted by papakwanz at 3:45 PM on May 8, 2007

I don't think there's anything wrong with telling this guy you're attracted to him. As long as you're willing to accept the likely truth that he is not interested in leaving his girlfriend for you, and make it clear you do not want to be the other woman, but if circumstances were different, then you would be interested in pursuing something, I think you're in the clear.

I mean, it's not illegal to like someone who is in a relationship, and it's not unethical to tell them you like them. It's only unethical if he cheats on her with you, and even then, most of the responsibility lies on his end.

If you like him that much, and are aware that he is most probably going to stop hanging out with you, and that the odds are against him leaving his lady, and you are okay with that, then tell him. Better than harboring a go-nowhere crush for forever.
posted by mckenney at 4:15 PM on May 8, 2007

Until he is single, your question is moot.
posted by Savannah at 5:50 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Your headline really isn't the question here. It shouldn't be just about whether its bad for his reputation. If he were single, I'd probably say go ahead. As someone who is about to move in with a future professor, I say back off! In all seriousness though, it's been two years. If "discussions, e-mails, lunches and walks have been purely platonic" it doesn't sound like your feelings are returned or that your professor is interested in pursuing anything. It's pretty natural to develop a crush in this sort of situation, but in this case I don't think going through with it is prudent. You probably stand a higher chance of your friendship turning all weird than it turning romantic.

To answer your question, and this is just anecdotal, but some family friends are a professor/student couple. Not sure of the details surrounding the start of their relationship, but 30 years later it isn't a big deal. Or rather, maybe it is, how many "how they met" stories do you know of random family friends? This is the only one I know. However, they are no longer at the original university so that may have something to do with the "no big deal" attitude.

At my undergrad institution, a young-ish professor had relations with a student (though not one of his) and his contract was not renewed. As I understand it, he had a hard time finding employment elsewhere in academia, though I do not know if that was related. Of course, this is all speculation that his personal life had something to do with it, but when you get into that sort of territory, people are going to talk/think things like that.

Should things end with his girlfriend naturally (without any intervention on your part), I think it would be acceptable for the two of you to date. Otherwise, you'll be known as the other woman, regardless of your original relationship with him as a student.
posted by ml98tu at 6:56 PM on May 8, 2007

how does the campus rumor mill deal with professor / student relationships?

Okay, I want to take this question at face value because I think it's interesting.

As a university professor, I will attest that the campus rumor mill exists, yes, and your professors and peers will find your hypothetical relationship interesting enough to discuss among themselves "behind your back." Especially considering the issue of "home-wrecking" that the other commenters raise.

The question about how the campus community will treat this hypothetical relationship would depend on the kind of campus, the social politics of his department, the way that your discipline (particularly if you share one) might run on gossip. But as others have mentioned, it also depends on your professional profiles. Are you concerned that rumors will affect his career ambitions? If so, shouldn't he be concerned with that himself? And are you concerned about how the general knowledge of this relationship, hypothetically, would affect your own academic ambition (you don't seem to indicate that in your question)?

As others have noted, your hypothetical relationship would not be all that unusual. In some instances, high-powered academics (or those who think of themselves as high-powered) exercise their power in their field by sleeping with whomever they want. I will refrain from sharing anecdotes but women professors do this as well.

One can have concrete evidence (not just hearsay) that a colleague has harassed a student or enjoys suspicious or strange relations with only a certain kind of person, and yet that colleague can still get promotions, book contracts and awards.

My banal point is that sexual, gender and racial politics exist in academia, and the rumor mill functions for people to deal with those politics.

I don't think it's possible to gain any kind of permission for your desire to date or sleep with this person. I'm wondering whether you are seeking some measure of how illicit your desire is to break the social boundary between student and professor. It's not so illicit in the academic world; the chemistry between student and teacher is one we value -- just as the chemistry between therapist and client or, to crib from "Ugly Betty," hair-apist and client. But as for how you deal personally with what feels like illicit desire is really another queestion.
posted by kiita at 7:37 AM on May 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

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