As students move out from under their parents’ roofs and into an independent life in college, professors become the prominent adult figures in their day-to-day lives. Students are advised to create professional relationships with their professors in order to make the most out of their higher education experience, but with professors and students working together so closely, the line between professional and romantic relationships becomes blurred.
A small but growing group of colleges and universities in the United States have recognized the problems that arise due to faculty-student relationships and created stricter policies regarding these romantic and sexual affairs.
Arizona State University is one of the most recent schools to put in place a tougher policy on dating between faculty and students.
According to ASU Provost Robert Page Jr., the former policy prohibited relationships between students and faculty members only when they were enrolled in a course taught by the faculty member. The revised policy extends restrictions to include any cases where a faculty member can “reasonably be expected to” exercise any type of academic or employment influence over a student. This now applies to faculty and students in the same departments or schools within the university.
“First of all relationships should be based on consent between adults,” said Page Jr. “I believe consent is not really possible when there are large asymmetries in power with respect to decisions that can negatively or positively affect the lives of students.”
The policy revision has come after a string of publicized faculty-student relationships, and most recently the dismissal of a professor who was sexually involved with a student from Barrett, ASU’s Honor College, according to the Phoenix Times, who recently ran a story on the close-knit community of Barrett.
“Even a single case of a relationship gone wrong is unacceptable,” said Page Jr.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, ASU is on the list of 55 institutions being investigated for violation of Title IX, which “prohibits discrimination of the basis of sex in all education programs or activities that receive federal finance assistance.”
Harvard University, also on the list of institutions for violation of Title IX, is the most recent university to ban romantic and sexual relationships involving professors and undergraduates. The policy revision also includes relationships involving graduate students and undergraduate students under their supervision.
The new policy, which extends farther than that of ASU, states, “No [Faculty of Arts and Sciences] Faculty member shall request or accept sexual favors from, or initiate or engage in a romantic or sexual relationship with, any undergraduate student at Harvard College.”
ASU and Harvard University join other universities such as Yale, which banned faculty-student relationships in 2010, and the University of Connecticut, which did the same in 2013, according to The New York Times.
The biggest issue with faculty-student affairs is that when there is power disparity there is no relationship, said Billie Dziech, a professor at the University of Cincinnati and author of the book “The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus”.
“The professor has the power of grades, power of recommendations, power of reputation, and persuasion of faculty,” said Dziech. “When you know the person next to you in class has had a relationship with a professor, the whole class is touched.”
According to Dziech, many policies regarding faculty-student relationships are not specifically tailored to its institution. A policy at a smaller institution such as a community college can’t be the same as the policy at a large public university. Policies need to be updated to fit the needs of the universities.
The University of Arizona has not updated its policy since 2007. UA’s policy states that faculty and students are not to engage in relationships if the student is in direct supervision of the employee.
“Prohibiting all student-faculty relationships strikes me as impractical,” said Allison Vaillancourt, vice president of Human Resources at the UA. “If a student is not in a faculty member’s class and the faculty member is not in a position to influence the student’s academic career or employment, I do not see the point of a ban. We have policies that promote discretion and good decision-making and believe they contribute to a healthy and productive living and learning environment.”
The policy hasn’t been updated because it has been working well for the faculty and students at the university. The UA has not received complaints or concerns about professors and students dating in previous years, according to Vaillancourt.
“I believe some schools have deemed it necessary to become stricter given some situations that arose on their campuses,” said Issac Ortega, University of Arizona student body president. “UA can chose to do so to be proactive or they can wait for incidents to get out of hand. I think students as a whole should be able to weigh in on how they feel about this policy.”
Megan Zamiska is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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