Saturday, June 19, 2010

Faculty - Student Relations

I heard about another case of a married faculty person having a sexual relationship with a student.

I can't get my head around it. It's like, if I ever met Bill Clinton, I'd want to ask, "Mr. Clinton, was it worth it? You didn't lose your job or anything, but your staffers had to put a whole lot of focus into things other than health care, international relations, women's rights, and so forth. Was it that much more special than if you'd just masturbated by yourself?"

I can't get beyond how unequal the power relationship is, and how unethical that makes it.

But I know the administrators are probably thinking:

1) X is my buddy; I'm sure there was no coercion.

2) I wish I could get some sweet young ass.

3) It's a one time thing; it won't happen again.

4) The student probably pursued X; it's the student's fault.

5) X needed to have sex with that student in order to be happy. How could I question X's happiness?

And my question: what to do? I'm not in the same department or anything, and the administration has very much given a silent nod to these in the past.

But I really do think it's highly unethical. If I'm wrong, then I hope someone will explain why. If I'm not wrong (about it being unethical), then we need to take it seriously, and not just avert our eyes because we can't be bothered or X is our buddy.

One possibility: we're supposed to talk about issues at our college meeting. This seems like an issue we should address.


  1. I agree! It is TOTALLY unethical. But people are glass-bowls about this for the same reason they are glass-bowls about other unequal power relationships. Add in our culture's general bizarre-ness about sex and you have a mess.

    Is it worth fighting about? Sure. It's always worth defending people who have less power and are being abused in unethical ways by people who have more power. But how to win that fight... I have no idea. :( I'm sure Hugo Schwyzer would lecture them about what naughty boys they're being if you asked him to, but I don't know that would help.

  2. it is wrong. there is a terrible power imbalance. it sends an awful message to students who are not sleeping with their profs. the wink and nod response is terrible for other faculty, who are trying to keep the place clean, AND a terrible example for the future leaders y'all are trying to train to go forth and do good.

    in my very different line of work, i had suspicions about a colleague -- and only found out a couple years later that he definitely was hitting on student interns. one university program director told her students not to apply for internships at our do-good nonprofit -- that's how i found out. my furiousness knows no bounds. that person was gone from the office by then, but i would have dearly loved to have kicked his sorry "i'm a feminist" butt right off the staff, had i heard the goods in a timely manner.

    tactically, i'd suggest lining up similar-minded folks before raising the stink that needs to be raised. aren't there some ethical standards you can draw in?

  3. Undergraduate? Non-traditional student? Graduate student? The specifics make a considerable difference to me. I have various colleagues and friends who have married graduate students, not always but sometimes in the same department. Then there's the case of already-established couples where one enrolls in the school where the other teaches. If they don't use the same name, this could give rise to gossip that, IMO, would be unwarranted. Hitting on traditional-age undergrads seems pretty sleazy to me, even unethical, but a relationship with an older student who has a career already . . . I'd rather it didn't happen, but I don't think it's *necessarily* a problem.

    Now I'd better duck while people throw stuff at me.

  4. Human, Thanks, yes, it is worth the fight, but it has to be a strategic fight, with a real purpose, if it's going to accomplish anything.

    Kathy A. Thanks, you're absolutely right about talking to other like-minded people.

    Dame Eleanor, Those are important distinctions. In the case(s) I've heard about most recently, the undergrad is a traditional aged undergrad.

  5. Very early in my faculty career, I had a student pour out in my office the sad story of a sexual liasion with a fellow faculty member. After giving the student emotional comfort and guidance (including a referral to student counselling and health services), I went to my very respected chair with an anonymized account.

    The administration got involved and it was clear that from both the student and administration's perspective, quiet was the preferred end. The faculty member took some unpaid leave while the student finished the degree program.

    Kathy? I know of a subprogram at a university to which no female student is recommended to apply because of one faculty member's sexual reputation. It's very sad that this person exercises such power over colleagues and an institution that they cannot protect the students' interests.

  6. Most sexual harassment policies have stuff about "consensual sexual relationships", but faculty/student is usually pretty no-no. (And as far as I'm concerned, consensual is not going on when one party is married.)

    However, how you handle it is tricky. If the student told you, you can ask whether and how you can share the information with authorities (i.e. anonymized, etc.) In that case, it could also involve (as in Janice's case) protecting the student from contact with slimy guy, and so on. If you know only by hearsay, there is nothing you can do, except raise the issue and ask the admin what the policy is on sexual relationships between faculty and students....

    And your list of excuses for not doing anything is so on target... The only thing I'd say is that these guys are often serial offenders, and eventually some student may blow the whistle.

  7. hearsay is enough to gather information and to make policies clear, in my book.

    and right, "eventually some student may blow the whistle" -- the problem is that the imbalance of power makes that very unlikely. it is one of my deep regrets, because i was nominally supervising the dude in question, that we did not manage to make the student interns comfortable enough to complain about what was in fact a clear violation of policies. and this was in a relatively small workplace. and at least half the lawyers at that time were women.

  8. I've heard excuse #4 way too many times. I don't buy it. Even if a student DOES come on to a professor, the professor is the person with authority and power, and it is his/her* job to say NO.

    *Yes, I've seen female profs get involved with male students, too.

    Some 20 years ago, I think things were looked at differently. Old-timers at my current university have told me about how new faculty were introduced to the student body: "This is Dr. Smith...and girls, he's single!" In other words, a student/prof relationship was entirely acceptable, and even encouraged! Now, though, I think we understand the imbalanced power that such relationships create.

    I'm not so worried about the grad student who dates a prof (if the prof doesn't teach the student, or preferably, is in a different department). But traditional undergrads really ought to be off-limits.

    I did date a (former) student once. I was a teaching assistant, and he was about 3 years younger than me. Disclaimer: I waited until LONG after the class was over--almost a full year, and 9 months after my contract had ended--before I finally agreed to go on a date with him.

    In our case, there was one consequence I hadn't considered: when we were dating, he saw me as the older, wiser woman (hah...I was only 26!), and as a result I had most of the power in the relationship. That's not healthy for either partner. So I ended it. (15 years later, we're still good friends, and the balance of power is clearly that of equals.)

    I think another reason the teacher/student relationship can be weird is the effect it could have on the rest of the class. In my case, the other students might not have gotten as much attention from their TA if I'd started dating a student. That's another consequence of student/teacher relationships, IMO--the rest of the students know that the student in the affair is going to get preferential treatment. And that's not fair. So I'm glad we handled things appropriately by waiting until I was clearly NOT a university employee any longer.