Student Well-Being

On College Campuses, a Gradual Move Toward Addressing Faculty-Student Sex

By Julie Blair — October 18, 2007 5 min read
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Few people go to college with the intention of falling in love with a professor.

But at colleges and universities around the nation, it is fairly common for students to have sexual relationships with faculty members, those who study the phenomenon say.

A few such liaisons will lead to marriage, but most of these consensual relationships are doomed from the start, experts say. Differences in age or life experiences eventually surface. Many students soon begin to feel exploited by those who have control over their academic futures.

A Trust Betrayed

The fallout from such affairs can be severe: shattered emotions, ruined careers, sexual-harassment lawsuits.

Despite the havoc, institutions often balk at addressing such matters. Nonetheless, in many ways, the higher education world has been out in front of K-12 schools in terms of confronting the complex issues raised by consensual sex between faculty and students.

While many officials and academics are concerned about the ethical implications of faculty-student dating, others fear an invasion of privacy if they try to restrict such relationships between adults. Students generally want strong sexual-harassment policies, yet say they are mature enough to make their own decisions.

Only 20 percent of colleges and universities in America address sexual relationships between professors and the students they supervise, said Billie Wright Dziech, a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, who has been studying sexual harassment on campus for the past 20 years.

“At best, they write these vague policy decisions saying that they advise against [consensual relationships],” Ms. Dziech said. Often, she added, “they never tell professors what the penalty will be. They never tell students.”

The American Association of University Professors, which counsels hundreds of colleges and universities on their sexual-harassment policies each year, warns of potential exploitation but stops short of recommending a ban on consensual relationships. The policy instead discusses the importance of unbiased evaluation of students’ work by faculty, and suggests that “effective steps” be taken to prevent such reviews from being tainted.

“For many years, people didn’t necessarily see it as a serious problem,” Jonathan R. Alger, a counsel for the Washington-based AAUP, said of faculty-student sex. “It is very hard to draw the line because students live on campus and are interacting with faculty at all hours of the day and night. They are dealing with significant emotional and personal issues as part of the learning process.”

Concerns About ‘Distance’

At least one academic who has studied the issue, however, contends that banning intimate relationships inhibits the learning process. Jane Gallop, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says that deep, meaningful relationships are an important part of education, whether or not they are sexual.

Just as many co-workers become friends and share the details of their lives, healthy relationships evolve between teachers and students, she says. Policies that prohibit sexual relationships will scare professors into shutting down even the most benign friendships.

“They are going to create more and more distance between teachers and students and make [school] a businesslike relationship, which education shouldn’t be,” said Ms. Gallop, who has written a book on sexual harassment.

She says she engaged in sexual relationships with her own professors while she was a graduate student and conducted affairs with students she mentored later in life. In 1992, two years after joining the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee faculty, however, she was accused of sexual harassment by two female graduate students, one of whom she acknowledges kissing in a bar. She was found in violation of the school’s policy and reprimanded.

What Is Consensual?

Some institutions, fearing that the potential costs in human and financial terms could outweigh any positive aspects of intimate faculty-student relationships, have taken steps to deal with the matter. The University of Michigan tried to ward off lawsuits by writing a policy in 1993 that requires professors to disclose such relationships to their supervisors. The policy, one of the most specific in the nation, seems to be working, said Jeff Rumpkin, a spokesman for the university in Ann Arbor.

Faculty members “need to raise the issue with someone in the administration,” Mr. Rumpkin said. “Most likely that’s the department chair.”

The University of Virginia made headlines in 1993 when administrators discussed banning all consensual sexual relationships between students and professors. Instead, officials opted to revise the institution’s conflict-of-interest policy, said Louise M. Dudley, a university spokeswoman. The university did not want to give the impression that students involved with professors “would get a sweet deal or be graded more generously,” Ms. Dudley said.

Yale University last year adopted a policy that prohibits consensual relationships between teachers and students.

Still, so-called consensual relationships are not always consensual, and disclosing them does not change that, said Bernice Sandler, a senior scholar in residence at the Washington-based National Association for Women in Education who has studied sexual harassment on campus.

“From the point of view of the person who has the power, it may be consensual, but it may not be for the student who is feeling pressured,” Ms. Sandler said. “It can become sexual harassment once she starts pulling away. That’s not uncommon.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 1998 edition of Education Week as On College Campuses, a Gradual MoveToward Addressing Faculty-Student Sex

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