Affair with your professor? Bad idea, says Harvard.

Colleges and universities are confronting legal and ethical issues involving sexual relations on campus between faculty and undergraduates. Instead of a ban in cases involving 'unequal status,' Harvard moved to a 'clear prohibition.'

Brian Snyder/REUTERS
A statue of John Harvard looks over Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Harvard has banned its professors from having sex with students.

Like other institutions of higher learning across America, Harvard University is working through the legal and ethical issues concerning sexual relations on campus, including those involving faculty and students.

Harvard announced this week that no member of the university’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences “shall request or accept sexual favors from, or initiate or engage in a romantic or sexual relationship with, any undergraduate student at Harvard College.” Graduate students are prohibited from relationships with undergraduates “if the graduate student is in a position to grade, evaluate, or supervise the undergraduate.”

Harvard said in a statement Thursday the change came as part of a formal review of its policy on Title IX, the federal civil rights law prohibiting sex discrimination in education.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences Committee on Sexual Misconduct Policy and Procedures determined the university's language on "relationships of unequal status" was not strong enough. "Therefore, the Committee revised the policy to include a clear prohibition to better accord with these expectations," Harvard said in its statement.

The university has about 2,400 faculty members and about 6,700 undergraduate students. Previously, its policy prohibited professors from having sex with students under their direct supervision. The policy now specifically bans professors and undergraduates from having any romantic or sexual involvements.

The relationship between professors and students can be seen as a subtler version of circumstances in the US military, where romantic affairs involving subordinates by rank can end careers – or worse. Likewise, such on-campus relationships can come with the same policy complications as those between bosses and employees in the business world.

In its report on campus romantic relationships, the online higher-education website notes that “most college-age students are legal adults, past the age of sexual consent in their respective states, meaning that it isn't illegal or theoretically immoral for romantic relationships to occur.”

“Another factor is that many colleges foster a culture of closeness between professors and students, with everyone operating on a first-name basis and in a relatively informal social structure,” according to this report. (Such relationships were alarmingly portrayed to shocking conclusion in David Mamet's two-person play and film “Oleanna.”)

It may be impossible to know the extent to which problems exist, but there’s no doubt that they do.

“Some schools have a tiny minority of professors who use their popularity and prestige to empower themselves, and students respond to it,” University of Cincinnati professor Billie Wright Dziech, coauthor of “The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus,” told Bloomberg News. “This is a very, very serious problem for higher education.”

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) does not recommend a ban on professor-student romantic affairs. But the organization warns that “sexual relations between students and faculty members with whom they also have an academic or evaluative relationship are fraught with the potential for exploitation.”

“The respect and trust accorded a professor by a student, as well as the power exercised by the professor in an academic or evaluative role, make voluntary consent by the student suspect,” the AAUP states in its policy recommendation. “In their relationships with students, members of the faculty are expected to be aware of their professional responsibilities and to avoid apparent or actual conflict of interest, favoritism, or bias. When a sexual relationship exists, effective steps should be taken to ensure unbiased evaluation or supervision of the student.”

The AAUP notes these examples of college and university policies:

• The College of William and Mary "prohibits consensual romantic and/or sexual relationships between faculty members and undergraduate students as well as between faculty members and those graduate students for whom the faculty member has direct professional responsibility."

• The University of Michigan does not prohibit such relationships, but provides that such relationships are "potentially exploitative and should be avoided."

• The University of Iowa policy provides: "No faculty member shall have an amorous relationship (consensual or otherwise) with a student who is enrolled in a course being taught by the faculty member or whose academic work (including work as a teaching assistant) is being supervised by the faculty member."

• At Ohio Northern University, "faculty and staff members should not have sexual relations with students to whom they are not married."

• The Duke University policy provides that: (1) any situation of authority be terminated when a consensual relationship between a student and a professor exists or develops; and (2) the relationship be disclosed to the faculty member's supervisor.

“It’s a highly charged, ethical issue,” Anita Levy of AAUP told The Boston Globe. “But if [such relationships] do occur, the faculty member should take every precaution to remove him or herself from having any kind of supervisory role with the student.”

 This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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