Help! Should I Tell the University My Friend Is Sleeping With a Research Student She Supervises?

Advice on manners and morals.
Aug. 12 2013 2:50 PM

Sex and the University

In a live chat, Prudie advises a woman itching to spill the beans on an improper school affair.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

See Emily live! She will be talking to Slate editor David Plotz and taking questions at Sixth and I in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11. For tickets and more information, click here.

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.

Q. Wish I Didn't Know About Friend's Affair: I have an emotionally unstable 30-year-old friend, who has been in therapy for over a year but dismisses most of the therapist's advice. This friend, "Sarah," is a staff member at a university research center and is having an affair with one of the students. She is one of his supervisors and has influence over his grades. "Tom" is older, married with children, emotionally manipulative, and verbally abusive toward her. This affair has been ongoing for around nine months, and he says many clichéd things about his relationship with his wife. Their relationship is against university policy, and it is causing problems with other students who suspect something is going on between Tom and Sarah. Tom is treated favorably in comparison to the other students by Sarah and Sarah's boss. I have a professional relationship with the university, but am not directly affiliated. On the one hand I feel it is not my place to get involved, but feel terrible for the wife. On the other hand I feel I have an obligation to inform the university of their transgressions as it is affecting the working and learning environment. This feeling was complicated further by hearing that Tom may soon have authority over some of the other students. I have evidence of the affair from detailed text messages and chats with Sarah, and she has told others who share my feelings. So what is my role here? Is there a "right" thing to do?

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A: If you act you must know that you possibly will end Sarah's job at this institution and potentially her academic career. Tom's livelihood will be in jeopardy, too. However, these two sound as if wherever they go they will wreak havoc with the careers and futures of others. This is the kind of dysfunctional department that sends people fleeing. Among Sarah's qualities is being a blabbermouth, so you'd think word of her activities would have made it back the administrators. But all too often the people in charge just don't want to deal with sticky problems. If you were in this research office, I'd say you'd have to speak up. But you are not employed by the university and not directly affected. Presumably, Sarah has been speaking to you as a friend in what she thought was confidence. I think you have to up the ante with her. Tell her that she is putting her entire career in jeopardy with this affair. She is violating the rules and people know about it. If she doesn't end it and stop favoring Tom, someone is going to speak up and she will get hurt. Then if she doesn't take your advice, you should stop being her confidante. But I think word of this den of intrigue should go to the higher ups from those directly involved.

Dear Prudence: Blackballed Son

Q. My Kid's Friend's Disorganized Mom: My 8-year-old daughter has a friend whom she adores. Unfortunately, the kid's mom is totally disorganized—always late and frequently missing play dates altogether. Last year, she forgot to bring her daughter to my kid's birthday party. Last Saturday she blew off a play date that we had had planned for weeks. I hate to see my daughter disappointed repeatedly, but I don't know how to explain to her that we probably need to stop pursuing this friendship. Thoughts?

A: Cut out flaky Mom as the middleman. When you make arrangements for the girls to play, just say, "So I'll swing by and pick up Eliza at 10:00 to take them to the playground." When they get together after school, just have Eliza come directly to your house. For group events try to help make sure there's a carpool that sees to it Eliza gets there. Yes, this is a little extra work for you, but think of how awful it is to be the little girl who misses her best friend's birthday because her mother has trouble functioning. Don't punish your daughter and her friend, instead be an oasis of reliability so that Eliza knows some adults can be counted on.

Q. Relationship With Father-in-Law: My father-in-law has been emotionally abusive to his wife and daughters for over a decade now, including a period of time when his wife was going through serious medical issues. Lately he has been escalating to physical abuse with my MIL—the police have been called, although no charges were pressed, and my MIL is currently seeing a therapist to whom she was referred by a domestic violence help line. But they are still together, act like a normal couple most of the time, and a future separation is not clear. My wife is going through the process of deciding how to deal with this situation. Although she dislikes being around my FIL, she isn't sure whether to try to make a break with her father, and is still dealing with the effects of his abusive behavior toward her. I don't feel I can have a relationship with this man, given how he has treated my wife and her family and remains unrepentant or even willing to admit there is a problem. If I continue avoiding him or not being friendly at family functions, things are going to come to a head eventually. How can I deal with this without unduly pressuring my wife to have a confrontation with her mother and/or father that she may not be willing to have?

A: Growing up with an abusive parent means your wife has to deal with her own issues. I think you should encourage her to see a counselor who specializes in abuse to help her sort through what she experienced and what she wants to do going forward. It would probably be helpful for you to attend a few sessions and explain what you've said here—that you want to support your wife, but you don't feel able to carry on a "normal" relationship with her father. However, I think it's fair for you to tell your wife you find her father's behavior so repugnant that you aren't able to keep up a pretense with him. You can tell her you will not make a scene at family events, but your plan is to do no more than nod your head to your father-in-law, say hello, then move away.

Q. Re: Disorganized mom: I did invite the kid to come directly to our house last Saturday. They never showed and the mom has not returned my calls. Obviously the mom has to be middleman to some degree; 8-year-olds cannot drive!

A: I said when you make a plan you be the one to swing by and pick up the other child. You've already seen the other mother can't be relied on to follow through. Someone wrote in to say clearly the other mother has a substance abuse problem. We don't have anywhere near enough evidence to make that clear. She could simply be irresponsible. She could have ADHD. And, yes, she could also be a lot more troubled. Despite your annoyance with the mother, at even its most benign something is wrong in the functioning of that household. Instead of telling your daughter she needs a new best friend, continue making an effort to connect with the other girl. She is in need of friends and stable adults.

Q. Estranged Parents Don't Know I'm Pregnant: I have stopped speaking to my abusive parents a few months ago. My parents will not speak to me unless I apologize to them for becoming angry after another one of their abusive tirades. This vicious cycle has been going on my whole life (they do something horrible, I become justifiably angry, they make ME apologize for being angry). I plan on never speaking to them again. However, my sister is getting married. When my parents ruined my wedding, she did her best to keep things together. I am going to the wedding with my son and husband, but I will also be pregnant. I haven't told my parents that I'm expecting again (primarily because they want me to apologize to them first), and I don't want them to think I'm inviting them back in my life. How can I tell them I'm pregnant, so they're not blindsided at my sister's wedding? If I don't say anything beforehand they will make a scene.

A: Your sister is apparently still speaking to them, so she should tell them. But please don't give these people the power to "ruin" weddings. If your parents like to throw temper tantrums at public events, then your sister should designate a few people to step in and guide mom and dad outside until they have cooled off. Since you sound happily married, I don't think you should give your parents the power to destroy your memories of your happy day. You married a wonderful guy. If your parents made fools of themselves, everyone else there saw them for the sad sick people they are.

Q. Re: Affair friend: I have repeatedly pressured her to end the affair, taking a variety of tactics ranging from "think of your career," to sympathetic "he is a real jerk," to no avail. I have also asked her to stop talking to me about it, and upon her continuing to overshare, gone radio silent in response to anything to do with him. Nothing has changed his or her behavior, some of the students have complained, but Sarah's boss has a blind spot toward anything negative about her. Am I understanding you correctly that it is time to take it to those in charge?

A: For someone not affiliated with that research program, you seem very affiliated if you know the students are complaining and that Sarah's boss is incapable of acting. I didn't say you should talk to those in charge. I said since you weren't directly involved, those who are should be the ones to act. If you were someone at the university who was aware of the global dysfunction in a department you would have an obligation to bring it to the attention of higher-ups. But you aren't a university employee and your information comes from your friend. That complicates this morally for you. But you've tried and had no effect in addressing this directly with Sarah and you see that others are being hurt by her recklessness. If you weigh your obligations and conclude it's time for you to take this to an administrator who will act, that is a fair call.

Q. Opt-Out Wants Back In: I am one of the professional moms who decided to opt out to raise my kids and now my kids are grown. As a result, I am trying to get back into the workforce. I have been volunteering at a fairly serious level the past few years, expanding my job skills and keeping up to date with technology. I don't expect to step back in where I was when I stepped out for obvious reasons, but I have been looking for almost a year, both in and out of my field, and have very few responses to my applications. How do I keep up my confidence in the face of a professional world that seems so uninterested in the advantages I have to offer? In my younger days, I was from such a good school and got such good grades and professional reviews that getting a job was a no-brainer. By the way, I do not regret the years I spent with my children and also taking care of my mom and my grandmother (who have both since passed on). It seems that these things are not valued in today's world and it is discouraging.

A: You are not alone. Journalist Judith Warner had a story in the New York Times about women in your situation and she found that a small elite were able to step back into great jobs but most have struggled to find jobs paying a percentage of their previous salaries. Some of the successful ones were able to turn volunteer opportunities into actual work, and the key seemed to be the ability to network aggressively. So, hard as it is, you have to get out there. Take people you have even a tangential relationship with out for coffee and tell them about what you're looking for. Often the best leads come from those outside your immediate circle. The world of job search has changed technologically since you dropped out, so make sure you're up to date on LinkedIn and other resources. Don't fall into self-pity. You decided to take a long break from employment to do things meaningful to you. But you surely knew that potential employers weren't going to credit your years raising children and caring for elderly relatives into their workplace needs.

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Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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