are Necessary when Professionalism Fails
Out, AFT On Campus, February 1998.
"Do colleges need
stronger policies governing student/faculty relationships?
Rules are necessary
when professionalism fails
In 1977, a case
brought against Yale University sparked the first generation of
university policies governing sexual harassment. In Alexander v. Yale
University, a federal district court (later affirmed by the appeals
court) ruled that "it is perfectly reasonable to maintain that academic
advancement conditioned upon submission to sexual demands constitutes
sex discrimination in education prohibited by Title IX of the Education
Amendments of 1972." One would have thought it unlikely that any
university or faculty member needed a federal court to say it was wrong
to demand sex in exchange for good grades. Yet, even after the decision
was affirmed, one faculty member being disciplined for similar behavior
at another Ivy League institution argued that he should not be punished
because the faculty handbook did not precisely bar such conduct. So,
every university was forced to adopt an explicit policy stating the
obvious: it is unprofessional conduct for a faculty member to try to
force a student to have sex with him or her in return for academic
favors or to prevent academic punishment.
Now, twenty years
later, Yale University has announced that it plans to explicitly
prohibit any teacher from having "a sexual relationship with a student
over whom he or she has direct supervisory responsibilities regardless
of whether the relationship is consensual." In Yale’s view "any such
relationship jeopardizes the integrity of the educational process by
creating a conflict of interest and may lead to an inhospitable
learning environment for other students." According to press accounts,
Yale was prompted to move beyond its earlier policy warning against
such relationships and the potential for conflicts of interest because
of a grievance filed by a freshman that resulted in a private reprimand.
As much as I would
have hoped that professionalism and ethical behavior by faculty would
have obviated the need to adopt another set of rules stating the
obvious, there are three reasons why I am convinced that Yale has taken
the right step and that other institutions should follow its example.
First, I think this kind of explicit regulation is necessary to restore
confidence in the integrity of academic assessment and evaluation. For
too long, colleges and faculties have looked past inappropriate
student/faculty relationships ignoring the adverse impact the knowledge
of these liaisons has on the respect other students have for the
faculty member and department involved and the confidence they have in
the fairness of grading and evaluation processes. Professors marry
their graduate students, a senior member of a department has serial
monogamous relationships with foreign post-doctoral students in his or
her lab (whose very presence in the country depends on the professor’s
continued good will), and the faculty’s response seems to be that the
potion of "true love" or, at a minimum, consent cures whatever is
"wrong" with these relationships.
evaluation is supposed to be based solely on the merit of an
individual’s scholarly contribution, true love is unlikely to improve
the quality or the fairness of the professor’s assessment. The fact
that the professor involved appears to be blind to this reality and
takes no steps to protect against the obvious conflict of interest that
arises is no excuse for the unwillingness of his or her peers to
question the conduct in peer review or in other less formal ways. Yet,
this is exactly what has happened, and why institutions are now forced
to act to make explicit what should be implicit in the faculty’s
individual and collective sense of professionalism and ethics.
Second, this kind of
explicit regulation is necessary to protect students against unwanted
sexual behavior, i.e., sexual harassment, and the institution from
liability. One person’s true love is another person’s sexual harasser.
The difference is the answer not the question. An institution that
permits persons in power to proposition students or others they
supervise is creating an environment in which the question is not
whether sexual harassment complaints will arise but when. Liability
arises from the perception of the conduct by the person being
propositioned not from the intent of the person doing the asking.
Repeated requests for dates do not have to be intended to be offensive
for them to amount to illegal harassment. In order to avoid appearing
to sanction unwanted advances by faculty members toward students, the
safest course for an institution is to follow Yale’s example and
prohibit any such advances by faculty with direct supervisory
relationships toward students.
Third, an explicit
regulation prohibiting sexual relationships between faculty members and
the students they supervise will have a salutary effect on the
confidence of students in seeking mentors and on the comfort faculty
members feel in agreeing to enter these mentoring relationships.
Whether a student is an 18 year old freshman or a 45 year old student
returning to the classroom for the first time in 20 years, he or she is
likely to be vulnerable and somewhat tentative in approaching a faculty
member to act as a mentor. Knowing that the institution has defined a
clear line of appropriate behavior in such relationships will help both
faculty and students by alleviating any ambiguity inherent in what can
be a professionally and academically "intimate" advisory relationship.