Student / teacher romances: Off limits
When students and faculty at the nine University of California campuses returned to classrooms last fall, they faced a new rule governing their interactions.Skip to next paragraph
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It's a rule that, for the vast majority, will have no impact on their lives, and yet - perhaps because of the taboo scenarios it evokes - has gotten outsized attention.
Put simply, professors can no longer date their students.
Or, to be more exact, teachers can no longer date students in their classes, or students for whom they "should reasonably expect" in the future to have academic responsibility. That goes for deans, too, or anyone else in a supervisory role.
For some, it's a rule that seems like a no-brainer, an articulation of what should already be basic professional conduct. Others see it as protectionism - a throwback to an "in loco parentis" version of the university that doesn't account for the myriad complexities of individual relationships and that could, more widely, put a damper on even nonsexual friendships between faculty and students.
Either way, it highlights some questions about the ethics of relationships, especially when they involve a difference in authority, and who has a right to govern those relationships. And it's a question that more and more universities are wrestling with.
The University of California's decision is unusual in its scope - it affects an entire system - but it's hardly leading the pack. In the past decade, schools such as Yale, Duke, Ohio Wesleyan, and the College of William & Mary have enacted similar bans, some stricter, some more lenient. The majority of universities may have no official policy at all, but more are moving from vague statements "discouraging" faculty-student relationships to specific bans.
"I always say the real story is, what took us so long?" says Gayle Binion, a professor of political science at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the chair of the academic senate when it developed and approved the new rule. "We recognize that among graduate students and faculty, these relationships develop, but it's not appropriate while you're overseeing a student's work."
Aside from a group of Berkeley professors who were vocally opposed, as well as the student representative to the Board of Regents, Dr. Binion says they heard few objections. If the policy had been in place a year earlier, it might have prevented the scandal involving the dean of the Berkeley campus's law school who resigned after a student - whom he claimed he was seeing consensually - accused him of sexual harassment.
In some ways, sex between students and their professors is part of the mythology of academia. It turns up regularly in film and literature, from "A Beautiful Mind" to J.M. Coetzee's "Disgrace," with scenarios that typically involve a young female student seduced by her older and more knowledgeable teacher. But marriages that began as a teacher-student liaison aren't uncommon on most campuses.
It's not surprising, then, that efforts to eradicate those relationships have met with some resistance. Many, like Binion, see the stricter policies as clarifying what should already be an ethical norm. But others wonder what right the university has to interfere in something so personal, especially when policies against sexual harassment and unfair grading already exist.
Barry Dank, a sociology professor at California State University at Long Beach, wouldn't have been allowed to date his wife under such a policy. They met in 1998 when she was a student of his. They started dating after the class ended, but she later enrolled in another of his courses. "She asked if it would be a problem for me, and I said 'no,' " he recalls. "I didn't treat her any differently."
For the record, he notes that his wife is actually two years older than he is - a reminder that not all teacher-student liaisons fall under the stereotype of older male professor and vulnerable young woman.
Professor Dank also worries about what he sees as a chilling effect on even the most innocent of teacher-student friendships. "When I started teaching in 1968, I would walk across campus with a female student with no one else around, maybe have a cup of coffee," he says. "Now, people are much more reluctant to do that. There's been a huge change in terms of the degree of impersonality."