Former Student, Fair Game?

Institutions tend to either ban student-faculty dating altogether or where a supervisory relationship exists. But they don't ever say professors can't date students who were recently -- sometimes very recently -- in their classes.

May 22, 2019
 
'New York Post' headline

Last month, Princeton University’s 2016 valedictorian, Cameron Platt, announced that she was engaged -- to her former professor and mentor, Lee Clark Mitchell, Holmes Professor of Belles-Lettres.

Eventually “it became impossible to deny how fully we feel meant for each other, and neither of us has looked back since,” Platt wrote on Facebook. “Now here we are, more enthralled than ever wanting no life other than the one we make together.”

The ages of the couple -- her, 25; him, 71 -- are unusually far apart. The relationship doesn’t violate university policy, however.

Princeton, like a growing number of institutions, has banned all student-faculty relationships, including for graduate students. As one graduate student put it, “Students should be treated by faculty as scholars, not as potential sexual partners.” And even though most other colleges and universities ban student-faculty dating where a supervisory relationships exists, virtually no institution requires professors to wait any length of time before dating former students.

Platt has said that she waited until two years after her graduation to ask Mitchell out. Mitchell, who is currently on preplanned leave, is just one of a number of professors to engage in or attempt to initiate a relationship with a former student or students. The other examples don’t end in a glowing engagement announcement, however, suggesting that dating former students -- even when allowed by policy -- is questionable.

Still, experts with different positions on student-faculty dating advise against adopting any kind of timeline for dating former students.

No Sunset Provisions

Andrew T. Miltenberg, a lawyer who’s represented professors in numerous Title IX-related cases, said he hadn’t heard of any “sunset-type” provision in which faculty members can’t date former students for a given period of time. And in an environment in which more and more institutions are taking disciplinary action against professors who have had consensual relationships with students that then soured, he said, such a policy is not a good idea.

“What you should do is have a definitive policy one way or the other, where faculty and administrators decide which way is the best way to go -- not start to carve out situations,” Miltenberg said. “What if it’s a dean with no direct academic role for the student, or a professor in a different department, or an adjunct? There are a lot of questions that will arise, with too many anomalies as far as circumstances.”

A sunset provision might work in the future, when colleges and universities “start to offer a fair, transparent and equitable process” to all parties in a Title IX case, Miltenberg said. Just not now. He recalled a case in which a faculty member taught only a core class, meaning there was no chance he would teach his students twice. But a relationship between the professor and one of his former students “didn’t go well,” Miltenberg said. “There was a complaint, and the faculty member lost his job.”

That’s what happened to John Barrett, an assistant professor of developmental studies at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, in 2017. According to court documents, Barrett sent a student of his a Facebook friend request at the end of the spring 2015 semester, when she was in his class. The two corresponded over the summer about the student's writing. Back on campus in the fall, the student asked to meet Barrett for coffee, and they began dating. Their sexual relationship lasted through the next summer.

The pair remained friendly for a time after breaking up, but the student eventually confronted Barrett about a relationship he was having with a second former student of his. The first student later filed a complaint with the university, alleging that Barrett had touched her genitals while she was sleeping during their relationship. The university investigated and terminated Barrett based on his poor professional judgment and the alleged touching without consent (which he denied, and which the student never brought up during their relationship).

Barrett filed a grievance with his faculty union, and an arbitrator ordered his reinstatement. Bloomsburg fought the decision, but a state appeals court upheld it last week. Bloomsburg doesn’t prohibit student-faculty relationships unless a supervisory relationship exists, and it no longer did in Barrett’s relationships, the court determined. 

‘Toxic to All Involved’?

In another example, Hofstra University recently vowed to change its policies after an undergraduate student complained that a professor hit on her immediately after she finished his course. The professor didn’t technically violate the institution’s policy prohibiting relationships where there exists a supervisory relationship, since he was done teaching and grading her. But the student felt the overture verged on harassment, and she reported it.

The professor of music, Lee C. Carter, attached a handwritten letter to the student's final graded project, saying, “At the risk of embarrassing myself, I confess a foolish and dangerous attraction to you.” Saying he was experiencing either a midlife crisis or a schoolboy crush, Carter added, “I’ve felt this way for well over a year, but have tried to conceal it to protect both you and myself, but also everyone around us. Such feelings from a teacher toward a student -- while inevitable given that we’re only human -- are usually toxic to all involved when expressed openly.”

There was no quid pro involved. But antiharassment activists often say that this kind of move breaks trust and hurts students nevertheless, as they may then wonder whether their accomplishments in a class were due to their effort or their professor’s relationship aspirations.

Professional Norms and Power Differentials

Catherine Prendergast, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where there is no policy governing student-faculty relationships, said she opposed any kind of undergraduate-faculty dating when students are still enrolled. To her, the issue is less legal “than one of sound professional norms.”

Student-faculty relationships don’t happen in a vacuum and are instead “part of a community in which trust in one’s professor to treat all students equally is paramount to the educational experience,” she said. If a professor dates a former student who is still on campus, "that changes the community."

On Prendergast’s own campus, economist Joseph Petry recently announced that he was retiring as part of a resignation agreement related to a Title IX case, according to the The News-Gazette. A former student of Petry’s accused him of offering to change her grade in exchange for sexual favors. He’s admitted to communicating with the student online and sending photos. But he says that they first engaged on a personal level via an online platform, and that when they eventually met in his office nine months after he taught her in a large class section, he realized that she wanted him to change her grade. He also says he refused. In a strange twist, the student accuser was arrested last month for allegedly threatening a man with a knife to delete information from his computer.

Miltenberg said he was professionally agnostic as to whether colleges should allow student-faculty relationships where there is no supervisory relationship or whether all they should ban student-faculty relationships outright. But as a father of a child in college, he said he would prefer that his daughter not date a professor, given the inherent power differential between students and faculty members that seems to exist even when there is no supervisory relationship.

As for professional norms, Miltenberg said those were too subjective and differed too much between fields and institutions to be helpful.

Brett Sokolow, a higher education lawyer and president of the Association of Title IX Administrators, opposes blanket bans on student-faculty relationships on the grounds that students who can decide whether they’ll sleep with other students can also decide whether they’ll sleep with faculty members. He said he opposed any notion of a time restriction on dating former students for the same reason -- among others.

“How long is enough for a cooling-off period? Five days? Five months?” he said. “Of course there was something there before. But how about we say there can be no flirting. How about we say human beings can’t be attracted to each other?”

He added, “I just don’t know why we want to infantilize students and take away their autonomy.”

Asked why there’s still a collective recoil at these kinds of relationships, Sokolow said, “I think there’s a recognition that in our society May-December relationships don’t really work out, and that there’s some sort of leverage there, some attraction based on the person’s accomplishments.” That implies a power differential, of course, Sokolow said, but “attraction doesn’t happen in a vacuum. That’s not how the world works. People are attracted to power,” no matter the gender dynamics at play.

‘The Dynamics Shift’

The laws of attraction aside, Prendergast said that if the relationship goes south, it’s “always the student who loses something.” Even if they’ve left campus, they can’t ask that professor for a reference “or any other form of professional support that sustains alumni in their careers.”

Of course, sometimes these relationships actually work out, and even develop into loving, lifelong partnerships. An academic who did not want to be identified, given the complexity of the issue, said she began dating her professor after her first year of graduate school in the early 1980s. She was single, and he was 20 years older and divorced.

There were no prohibitions against faculty-student dating at the time, and there were other professors in the department who had married students. She took a course with the professor after the relationship started, and he participated in her preliminary exams, as did all instructors. But the effects of the relationship were felt "most acutely" in her interactions with other graduate students, she said, recalling one who was concerned she might have access to the woman's seminar paper.

“Looking back, I realize how uncomfortable it was in many ways that I didn't fully appreciate then,” she said. When there is a personal relationship, “the dynamics shift.”

Her own view on student-faculty dating now? Undergraduate students should be “protected from the moment they arrive on campus until they have no more dealings with the institution. Period.”

Graduate students are “another matter,” however.

It seems “sensible to prohibit relationships where there are any supervisory responsibilities,” she said. Otherwise, “adults should be left to determine whom they date or marry.”

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