A number of colleges and universities banned faculty-undergraduate dating or otherwise shored up their consensual relationship policies after the Education Department published a reminder letter about sexual harassment liability, in 2011. Other institutions had adopted such policies earlier.
Now, in the era of Me Too, another wave of institutions has moved to restrict consensual relationships between students and their professors. And while many involved in or affected by these decisions support them as preventing potential abuse, others remain critical of policing connections between consenting adults.
“There’s still wide variation in terms of policies,” said Tara Richards, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Baltimore. “But more and more universities are moving toward policies that go beyond a sentence or two discouraging these relationships, to actually having thoughtful conversations among stakeholder groups -- faculty, students government and administrators -- discussing what’s going to work.”
Most successfully, Richards said, institutions have “proactive” discussions, taking into account their own student populations, norms and shared governance structures. Less successfully, she said, institutions change their polices in response to incidents on their campuses or elsewhere, “out of fear of liability.”
Richards co-wrote a 2014 study of 55 institutions’ student-faculty dating policies saying that consensual relationships were viewed in previous generations as "private matters” and ignored by administrators, except where harassment was alleged. Fear of legal liability and increasing acknowledgement of academic power structures changed that, leading institutions to adopt a mix of policies regarding these relationships. That mix led to subsequent “confusion” about community norms, however, according to the study.
At the time, within Richards's sample, only Yale University banned undergraduate-faculty dating. But as institutions increasingly came under scrutiny for their enforcement (or lack thereof) of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender-based discrimination in education, other campuses followed suit. In one example, Northwestern University -- which saw a case of alleged assault involving a professor and an undergraduate (and, later, a graduate student) -- banned dating all undergraduates in 2014. Its rationale for doing so, stated in the policy itself, sums up much of the thinking behind blanket bans on undergraduate-faculty dating.
“When undergraduate students are involved,” the policy says, “the difference in institutional power and the inherent risk of coercion are so great that no faculty member or coaching staff member shall enter into a romantic, dating, or sexual relationship with a Northwestern undergraduate student, regardless of whether there is a supervisory or evaluative relationship between them.”
Northwestern’s policy on graduate student-faculty dating restricting relationships where an evaluative authority exists reflects a Title IX-era trend, as well. Northwestern previously banned relationships between graduate students and faculty supervisors. But the new policy said that relationships between a faculty member and a graduate or professional student in the same department or program must be disclosed to the department chair, to manage the potential conflict of interest.
There is no hardfast rule about these policies. Richards’s institution, Baltimore -- a traditionally non-traditional student-serving institution -- has no policy against student-faculty dating, for instance. Somewhere in the middle of the policy mix, the University of Wisconsin System in 2016 banned faculty-student dating (graduate or undergraduate) where an advisory or supervisory relationship, or the potential for one, exists. Pre-existing relationships must be reported. The University of California System’s policy against professors dating the students they supervise academically has been in place since 2003. In terms of trends however, there was movement toward restricting student-faculty relationships in what might be called the Title IX era, and there’s new movement now.
New Wave of Restrictions
In the spring semester alone, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia and Duke Universities adopted prohibitory policies against dating undergraduates across the board, not only where a supervisory relationship exists. Syracuse University is considering something similar.
Just this week, Cornell University President Martha E. Pollack announced that that she’d largely accepted campus input on student-faculty relationships, and that the institution was banning sexual or romantic relationships between faculty and undergraduates altogether. Romantic relationships between professors and graduate or professional students “whenever the faculty member exercises direct academic authority over the student or is likely to in the foreseeable future,” also are prohibited. The latter policy was a compromise, following debate over an ealier version that would have banned dating between graduate students and professors in the same program.
Additionally, “Any member of the Cornell community who has, or has had, a sexual or romantic relationship with a current student or current postgraduate is prohibited from exercising academic or professional authority over that student or postgraduate.”
Most sweepingly, Berklee College of Music -- which has faced recent allegations that it tolerates a culture of harassment -- adopted a ban on all romantic or sexual relationships between employees and students, graduate or undergraduate, this month. Such a strict policy remains rare, since even other relatively restrictive codes allow for graduate students to date professors where no evaluative authority exits.
Apart from blanket bans on dating undergraduates, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for the first time this spring banned student-faculty dating where an advisory relationship exists. (A standing policy at Amherst College merely “discourages” these relationships and requires that professors remove themselves from any advisory role.)
Similar to Richards, Erin Buzuvis, a professor of law at Western New England University and moderator of the Title IX Blog, said that policies probably depend on a student populations.
“I can imagine some institutions, particularly large publics with age-diverse student bodies, permitting consensual relationships -- especially pre-existing relationships -- between faculty and undergraduates with whom they have no contact,” she said, noting that a friend recently went back to college to to take care of her university employee husband's tuition remission. In a blanket ban scenario, that wouldn't be possible, she said, even if they had no contact on campus. So a policy such as UMass’s make sense to Buzuvis.
“There should be a professional norm in teaching just like there is in other professions, that regards dating as incompatible with the objectives of the profession,” she said. “Just like a counselor-client relationship is compromised by the introduction of a romantic component, so too is a faculty-student relationship.”
Still, faculty-student dating constraints remain controversial. Richards said that they’re notoriously difficult to enforce, since they typically rely on the couples’ disclosure. It's hard to get the details right: outstanding faculty questions about what a proposed policy on consensual relationships at DePaul University really means delayed a vote on it. Bamshad Mobasher, professor of computing and president of DePaul's Faculty Council, said council members had questions about what constitutes a “romantic” relationship and the potential impact of some policy language on "opportunity hires" involving spouses of faculty candidates.
Other legal experts say it is costly — up to $250,000, on average — to get rid of a faculty member found to have violated a policy, whether in quiet agreements or litigation. Some raise ethical arguments about agency and consent, even calling blanket bans anti-feminist.
Neil McArthur, a professor of applied philosophy at the University of Manitoba wrote a paper last year arguing against blanket bans (while urging caution to those who engage in such relationships), “because adults have a fundamental right to engage in intimate relationships without interference,” for instance.
Brett Sokolow, who advises campuses on security and legal issues as executive director of the Association for Title IX Administrators, also opposes blanket relationship bans.
“Quid pro quo harassment is already prohibited on every college campus" and behaviors “that cross the line are already addressable under existing policies,” he said. "Perhaps there is some value in consensual relationship policies for their ability to protect the institution, but the Draconian rules being implemented on many campuses now are both infantilizing and over-broad.”