Opinions/Editorials (OpEd) by Claire Guthrie Gastańaga
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Rules are Necessary when Professionalism Fails
Speak 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.

Where academic 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.

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