Help! I’m Infatuated With Another Professor. Can I Ask Her Out Without Being a Jerk?

Help! I’m Infatuated With Another Professor. Can I Ask Her Out Without Being a Jerk?

Help! I’m Infatuated With Another Professor. Can I Ask Her Out Without Being a Jerk?

Another reader asks if he should discourage his wife from air travel to reduce emissions.


Dear Liza,
I’m in an unexpected situation: I’ve found 
myself (a man) single and infatuated with another professor (a woman) in my department. Our 
department is large; we don’t see each other often; and while we collaborate occasionally, it is minimal. The university’s rules wouldn’t preclude us from dating, but I fear that even letting her know I’m interested could create discomfort for her. How should I approach this situation?

—Lovesick Professor

Dear Lovesick,

If you make your feelings known, you do face some risks (aside from the usual danger of heartbreak). She may, as you fear, experience your interest as sexist, especially if you’re in a discipline where women struggle to be taken seriously. Even worse, she may feel harassed. What if she rejects your overtures? If you’re in a more senior position or, in the future, have some authority over her (as department chair, for example) and make a decision that isn’t in her favor, she may suspect retaliation.

But professors have always fallen in love, and it would be ridiculous to stop. People spend all day at work and form relationships there, some of which—we can hope—will be romantic. If you can continue to navigate this with tact and care, don’t rule her out.

You don’t seem to know whether she is attracted to you, Lovesick. To find out, you must get to know her. Suggest opportunities to spend time together outside of the department that won’t be awkward for her to decline if she chooses: Throw a party and invite her, or offer to give her a ride to the airport if she’s traveling. If she says no, then she’s not interested, and you must move on. If she accepts, perhaps you’ll become friends. If, at that point, you still don’t know how she feels, ask her. If she rejects you, pretend you have no hard feelings, and go out of your way to remain collegial ever afterward.

Dear Liza,

I am a professor who travels to international conferences once or twice a year. One of my research concerns is climate change. Long-haul flights add significantly to one’s carbon footprint. I know a few academics who have given up otherwise useful conferences to reduce their carbon footprint. Is forgoing such flying a duty?

On a more personal level, my wife, who is not a professor, has seen far less of the world than I have. She is about to retire and is looking forward to traveling more. From an impartial point of view, such recreational trips seem even less justifiable than traveling to climate-change conferences. Yet I feel like a Grinch when invoking this concern, given that I’ve enjoyed the privilege of seeing the world.

My provisional answer has been to note that the problem of reducing carbon emissions is a collective one that requires collective solutions. But this strikes me as letting oneself off the hook too easily. Shouldn’t we each try to prefigure the personal conduct we would engage in if the world were better than it is? Without significant changes in individual behavior and attitude, how will we ever generate support for the needed collective action?

—Climate Hypocrite

Dear Hypocrite,

Air travel in its current form does make a huge contribution to climate change (accounting for as much as 5 percent). And while emissions in other sectors are decreasing, the aviation industry has resisted change, and governments struggle to regulate it.

You are right: Policy solutions are needed. Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal recommends expanding high-speed rail so dramatically that air travel within the US becomes unnecessary. We also need to tax rich people enough so they can’t afford to fly so often, whether in first class or in private jets.

Yet we should change our behavior, too. Policy changes like plastic-bag bans or municipal compost programs come about in part because people change their habits—or try to—and then demand large-scale reforms to make it easier. If we fly less, our own carbon footprint is lower (good). If more people do this, we all feel social pressure (better), and industry and government might have to take action (better still).

That being said, Hypocrite, I’ll quarrel with your priorities: Work need not take precedence over romance and leisure. Seeing this stunning world with your wife, expanding your horizons, and enjoying each other’s company on vacation is more important than most academic conferences.

The trend of academics forgoing meetings that require air travel is a good one. Many businesses have been switching to videoconferencing, also for climate reasons. Every so often, there might be a conference so world-changing, and your participation in it so crucial, that the flight is worth it. But most professional events aren’t like that.

By contrast, vacationing with your wife will bring joy to you both. Even if you’ve traveled enough, it’s not fair to deprive her of this pleasure. If she wants to travel, insisting on giving up aviation altogether could cause tension. It’s never good to impose one’s own moral crusade on a reluctant partner.

You’d be right to favor alternatives. Don’t fly domestically when you don’t have to, and travel a lot within the US (if that’s where you live). Although our rail system isn’t (yet) as good as those in Europe or Asia, train travel is still more relaxed than flying and allows you to see more of the landscape. When it’s time to buy a new car, get a hybrid or an electric one and take road trips. Another idea is Ecoship, probably the world’s first sustainable cruise ship, which will offer educational, socially engaged trips beginning in 2020.

But do fly now and then. Most environmentalists suggest taking an international flight just once a year and making the most of it. Stay at least two weeks. Calculate the carbon footprint of a given trip (there are online calculators to help) and plan other changes to balance it out. Choose more efficient airlines; the International Council on Clean Transportation ranks them. If you go to Europe, take trains or rent electric cars to travel within the continent; European infrastructure makes this easy.

Bon voyage!

Have a question? Ask Liza here.

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