Dating the Dean

Resignation and litigation at Stanford point to complications when an administrator has a relationship with a faculty member in his or her unit, but few colleges have formal policies about such situations.

September 16, 2015
Stanford University
Garth Saloner

With the changing scope of federal regulations and increased scrutiny regarding sexual assault and harassment on college campuses, more and more institutions are strongly discouraging and even banning consensual romantic relationships between students and faculty members. But what about faculty-faculty relationships, or faculty-administrator relationships?

An ongoing legal case resulting in a dean’s resignation from Stanford University raises questions about what policies or best practices govern employee romance. Experts say that while these relationships tend to be too specific and fluid to fall under any general policy, involved parties should proceed with caution and avoid pairings that may be or even appear to be exploitative or allow for favoritism.

Earlier this week, Garth Saloner, dean of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, announced he was resigning, due in part to a lawsuit against the university brought by a former professor -- one who happened to be the estranged husband of the woman the dean is dating, another professor at the business school.

James Phills, who was let go from Stanford this year, alleges discriminatory treatment by the university due to his entanglement in the dean’s love life. Stanford denies the claim, saying that Phills -- who had been a nontenured faculty member since 2003, several years after his wife was appointed to a tenured position -- was terminated for failing to return after multiple leaves of absence to work in Silicon Valley. The university in a statement said those leaves were “beyond what is normally allowed by university policy,” and that Phills “ultimately chose to continue his more lucrative employment at Apple.”

Citing increased media attention surrounding the suit, and its potential to distract from the business school’s mission, however, Saloner announced he’s stepping down at the end of the academic year.

So did Saloner do anything wrong? Not according to Stanford, which -- unlike lots of universities -- actually has a policy governing faculty-faculty and faculty-supervisor relationships. The policy doesn’t ban these relationships outright but says that romances “between employees in which one has direct or indirect authority over the other are always potentially problematic. This includes not only relationships between supervisors and their staff, but also between senior faculty and junior faculty, faculty and both academic and nonacademic staff, and so forth.”

The policy says that where such a relationship develops, the person with greater authority must recuse himself or herself from matters involving a romantic partner to ensure “that he/she does not exercise any supervisory or evaluative function over the other person in the relationship.” Where such recusal is required, the recusing party must also notify a supervisor, department chair, dean or human resources manager, so that person can ensure adequate alternative supervisory or evaluative arrangements are put in place.

Stanford says that Saloner properly disclosed his relationship from the beginning, and that others at the university took responsibility for final decision-making matters about Phills and his spouse.

Still, adhering to policy didn’t inoculate Saloner from being implicated in a lawsuit, or the related media scrutiny -- including a story in The Wall Street Journal. And outside experts said they weren’t surprised, since these relationships transcend regulation. Instead, experts said, best practices should be applied.

The Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences, a national association for arts and sciences deans, for example, has no official statement or position on faculty-dean relationships. So Christopher K. McCord, a member of the organization’s board of directors and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Northern Illinois University, addressed the issue based on his experience working within public universities. He said most institutions are “very sensitive to power relationships” and “also keenly aware that university communities can be home to many complicated personal relationships.” So they’re also aware of the problems that can arise when those two concerns mix.

At Northern Illinois, McCord said, administrators “tend to manage the intersection of consensual personal relationships and workplace relationships as conflict-of-interest issues.” Separate from that, he added, there are also much stronger policies on sexual harassment, which can be invoked “if someone attempts to abuse their power in the workplace or classroom to force a personal relationship on someone.”

McCord said he thought Northern Illinois’s stance -- trying to manage relationships rather than ban them -- was “fairly typical.” He noted that the institution also has a nepotism policy that requires an alternate supervision plan when family members are in an employee-supervisor relationships. This comes up most often at the departmental level when, for example, one faculty member who is married to another faculty member becomes chair, he said. But there’s no formal policy regarding unmarried couples.

If someone raised the issue, McCord added, “they would probably be counseled to take the same approach." In other words, the individual in the supervisory role should recuse himself or herself from oversight.

Raymond D. Cotton, vice president of higher education for ML Strategies and a leading negotiator of contracts for senior administrators in higher education, said supervisor-employee relations are “never a wise course for people because you have disparity of power between you, and when there’s a breakup it could be alleged by the person being supervised that the supervisor did something wrong.”

These relationships can be equally harmful to the subordinate, he added. Supervisors have the ability to promote or demote, and they’ve also got a say in discussions about compensation.

Cotton said most institutions don’t have a firm policies articulating these concerns. But he said avoiding employee-supervisor relationships is certainly a “best practice.” (As a side note, Peter Capelli, the George W. Taylor Professor of Management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and director of Wharton's Center for Human Resources, said colleges and universities might be more likely than other kinds of businesses to have formal rules about employee dating. But in business it’s “far more likely to have someone senior or in HR tell you it's really a bad idea to date subordinates,” he added.)

Herman A. Berliner, former provost at Hofstra University, said he pushed hard to establish the institution's policy prohibiting romantic relationships between employees and students where a supervisory or evaluative relationship exists. Hofstra also has a policy in which an employee can’t supervise a faculty member when they are in a relationship.

Policy notwithstanding, it's "very hard to prohibit personal relationships, especially between colleagues," he said. That's in part because faculty members enter and leave the administrative ranks more fluidly than they do in other sectors.

“The faculty member in the next office could easily be the next department chair or dean or head of the faculty personnel committee,” he said. “Being a supervisor in higher ed is often more fluid than in many other industries. How in situations like this, or just between colleagues, can you prohibit relationships, even if those relationships could ultimately be problematic?”

From the faculty perspective, the American Association of University Professors also has no policy regarding faculty-faculty or faculty-supervisor relationships. Anita Levy, associate secretary for tenure, academic freedom and governance, said the issue rarely if ever comes up.

Michael Olivas, William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston Law Center and director of its Institute for Higher Education Law and Governance, and former general counsel for the AAUP, said that’s probably true, and that cases like the one at Stanford make news because they’re rare. Olivas said the higher up employees go in the administrative ranks, the more likely they are to build a kind of “Chinese wall” between themselves and faculty members to stave off scandal, or at least perceptions of bias -- good or bad.

The closer administrators get to the faculty, the more complicated things become, however, Olivas said. For example, he took issue with the idea that all faculty members “report” to deans.

“I consider myself quite independent," he said. "I love my dean and give him the time of day but I've been here 33 years and outlived six or seven deans. I don't report to them."

It’s also hard to discern who else has regulatory authority over faculty members. Whereas a professor clearly shouldn’t date a student whom he or she grades directly, faculty members’ working conditions may be affected by chairs or other administrators in complicated ways.

Despite so much gray area regarding faculty-faculty and faculty-administrator relationships, Olivas said that indirectly related policies can provide guidance. AAUP’s statement discouraging student-faculty relationships due to the inherent power dynamic is instructive, he said, as is AAUP’s statement on professional ethics.

“You can’t fully lay out every single possibility that’s going to occur,” he said. “But there are interlocking sets of principles that should govern our behavior.”

Berliner took a similar view, saying there’s no “perfect solution,” but that “you need to rely on the professionalism of the individuals involved.”


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