Wiggle Room on Romance

Some say Virginia Commonwealth's student-faculty relationship policy reads more like an invitation than a prohibition.

September 4, 2015

In trying to shore up its policy on professor-student romantic relationships, did Virginia Commonwealth University create and then advertise a loophole? That’s what some faculty members think. But the university says it meant to strongly discourage student-faculty dating while at the same time leaving room for some relationships that don’t put either the student or faculty member at risk.

Earlier this week, Virginia Commonwealth shared via email its new interim policy on consensual student-employee relationships. The university’s near-decade-old policy was that employees “shall not engage in consensual relations with students whenever the employee has a ‘position of authority’ with respect to the student in such matters as teaching or in otherwise evaluating, supervising or advising a student as part of a school program or employment situation.” Such relations were to be immediately disclosed to a supervisor.

The new policy is similar but more thoroughly defines “position of authority” to mean “in any context, including but not limited to teaching, advising, training, providing recommendations for, evaluating, supervising, mentoring or in the context of any student employment situation regardless of full- or part-time status, for example as part of laboratory or other graduate assistant responsibilities, as part of clinical service or learning, or in the context of supervised graduate student teaching activities.”

In a memo accompanying the policy, Gail Hackett, university provost, said that Virginia Commonwealth "has adopted a revised policy restricting 'consensual relationships' between students and [employees], including faculty. … To summarize the essence bluntly -- it is almost never appropriate for a faculty member to develop a romantic or sexual relationship with a VCU student.”

That description struck Jeff South, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, as odd.

“‘ALMOST never’? ‘RESTRICTING’?” South wrote in a Facebook post [emphases his]. “Under what circumstances does VCU think it *would* be appropriate for a faculty member to have sex with a student? How would VCU officials answer that question for the parents of incoming students?”

He continued: “Let’s strike ‘ALMOST’ (‘it is NEVER appropriate for a faculty member to develop a romantic or sexual relationship with a VCU student’), and have a policy PROHIBITING such relationships between students and faculty members.”

In the alternative, South quipped, “be consistent and give a postmodern conditional twist to the VCU honor code: ‘It is almost never appropriate to cheat or plagiarize …’”

Some colleagues agreed that “almost” didn’t go far enough. One former Virginia Commonwealth professor wrote in response, “It’s too late to accept anything close to ‘almost’ which doesn’t make it clear that such relationships are prohibited.”

In an interview, South said he probably wasn’t opposed to the new policy as much as the university’s memo description. Whereas South and presumably other professors previously believed that student-faculty relationships were banned, he said, using the word “restricting” instead of “prohibiting” and “almost never” instead of “never” seemed to suggest loopholes that could be exploited.

“This way of describing it, to say that in essence it is almost never appropriate, to me was leaving the door open or almost advertising it,” he said.

Pamela D. Lepley, a university spokeswoman, said the institution was now soliciting public comment on the policy. But she said it doesn’t create loopholes so much as leave room for a few exceptional cases in which a student-professor relationship would not exploit the inherent power structure between a professor and a student.

Take, for example, the situation described in the interim policy’s frequently asked question section, in a which a professor in the College of Humanities and Sciences meets a medical student at a social event and wants to pursue a relationship.

In that case -- and in any number of others that could spring up on the two-campus university with a large population of nontraditional students -- Lepley said, a relationship wouldn’t necessarily be prohibited.

“Here a situation is described in which your faculty role has no overlap with the educational program at another school of VCU in which this individual is enrolled,” the policy FAQ reads. “Nor does there appear to be any potential that he or she would enroll in one of your classes or need or seek recommendations or professional mentoring from you in the future. However, if you do enter into a personal relationship with this individual, you should both be careful to ensure that you do not later assume a position of authority as defined in this policy.”

The American Association of University Professors doesn’t rule out student-professor relationships, but says that professors are “expected to be aware of their professional responsibilities and to avoid apparent or actual conflict of interest, favoritism or bias.” And when a sexual relationship exists, “effective steps should be taken to ensure unbiased evaluation or supervision of the student.”

Still, AAUP’s statement on Consensual Relations between Faculty and Students discourages such relationships, saying 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. … Even when both parties initially have consented, the development of a sexual relationship renders both the faculty member and the institution vulnerable to possible later allegations of sexual harassment in light of the significant power differential that exists between faculty members and students.”

Some institutions have changed their student-professor relationship policies following situations warned of in the AAUP policy. Northwestern University, for example, says that when a "consensual romantic or sexual relationship exists or has existed between people in positions of unequal power at the university, the person with the greater power must not hold any supervisory or evaluative authority over the other person in the relationship" -- and now requires that if a such a relationship exists, the person in the place of power must immediately report the relationship to a supervisor. Undergraduate-professor relationships also are now banned entirely. The changes took effect as Northwestern was handling a case in which a former professor of philosophy was accused of sexual assault by two women he had seen socially, including a graduate student whom he’d dated.

Anita Levy, an associate secretary with the AAUP, said she couldn’t say how many institutions might have dating “loopholes,” such as the one some say Virginia Commonwealth created. AAUP simply doesn’t track such policies, she said. But AAUP’s overall stance “does leave room for the conduct of such relationships with due attention to appropriate ethical and procedural constraints."


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