Student / teacher romances: Off limits

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When students and faculty at the nine University of California campuses returned to classrooms last fall, they faced a new rule governing their interactions.

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.

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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."

But for those favoring the bans, the biggest issue is the power dynamic. We don't want to meddle in intimate affairs, the argument tends to go, and we even recognize that there are gray areas - grad students and teaching assistants, for instance. But just as more workplaces are banning relationships between superiors and their employees, we need to guard against unequal liaisons that could lead to favoritism or retribution in the classroom, in recommendations, in career paths.

Some schools, such as Duke, even allow the relationship to continue as long as the professor notifies a superior and gives up any supervisory role.

"We felt it was more productive to frame it that way than to condemn the relationships and to in effect run them underground," explains Peter Burian, a classics professor and the chair of Duke's Academic Council when the policy was passed a couple years ago. It was a rule, he adds, that created more of a stir than any other issue he dealt with on the council.

But the power-dynamics defense angers some professors.

For one thing, notes Jane Gallop, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, professors don't really have all the power. They're employees of a university, and often risk their career by getting involved with a student.

Professor Gallop had her own run-in with two female students who accused her of sexual harassment over a decade ago. She was cleared of the charges, but the investigation took a year and a half, and the university criticized her for having "consensual amorous relations" with one of the students, whom she had once kissed in a bar.

Gallop, like Dank, also notes that professors face all sorts of conflicts of interest when evaluating students. One might be a close friend, or the child of a colleague, or an outspoken racist. "It's one of the complicated ethical things teachers have to deal with all the time," she says. "These bans suggest sexual relations are unlike every other kind of relation."

But her main issue with the bans, Gallop says, is the way in which they confuse sexual harassment with consensual relationships.

"You can't start banning relations for people with more or less power, because it takes even more power from that person," she says. "One of the ways people understand sexual harassment is the belief that when women say no, they really mean yes. These policies say that when they say yes, they really mean no." Just because a few such relationships end badly, she adds, isn't a reason to ban them all.

Still, some say that protection is important. Virginia Lee Stamler, an Iowa City psychologist who co-wrote the book "Faculty-Student Sexual Involvement," says all the justifying theories don't take into account the reality of most student-professor relationships.

When she worked as a counselor at schools like the University of Iowa and Boston University, Dr. Stamler remembers, "these students would come in, and would have these problems, they'd be depressed. Then I'd find out they'd been involved with a professor, they'd felt they were special, and then it would be dissolved and they'd be extremely distraught."

The issue of objective grading is important, she says, but even deeper is the power that faculty members have simply by virtue of their title. "It's the status of the individual, the admiration the student has, the knowledge and expertise the student assumes the person has. That puts the student in a vulnerable position."

Nearly always, she adds, the student involved is female. And quite frequently the student's perception of what's consensual changes over time - a development that makes Stamler question just how consensual such a relationship can be.

Just as those in her profession outlawed relationships with patients, Stamler believes professors will eventually need to relinquish the right to date students. "I don't see it as an individual right so much as a professional responsibility," she says. "Professors don't understand the amount of power they have."

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