January 2, 2005

Relationships between faculty and students

Today's St. Petersburg Times covers USF's faculty debate over faculty-student relationships and the appropriate policy: discourage or prohibit? The article is pretty good for journalism: I didn't catch any inaccuracies, and it covered at least 60% of the substantive issues on campus. (There's only so much you can do given the news space even in good papers like the Times.

The problem is not in discouraging such relationships: I think they're stupid, regardless of defenses like bell hooks's ("Erotic student/faculty relationships," Z Magazine, March 1996). You don't have to patronize students to say that student-teacher relationships are destructive to the academic environment. The problems are in the practical contortions necessary to regulate faculty's private lives and student's rights.

Ban all relationships between faculty and students who are taking any courses in their departments? Then what happens with a faculty spouse in another area needs to take a required course in the spouse's department? (That happened to my wife—let me declare that personal bias here.) Carve out an exception for spouses and you run into sexual-orientation discrimination on campuses with such policies (including USF). Say that it's okay for a partner to take a course in the department but not be a student majoring or specializing in that area? Then some students in a course you don't teach are "off limits" but others aren't. Decide that the issue is starting relationships and then you get into the muddy area not only of regulating sexuality but defining it (never mind you're there already).

Suppose you narrow it down to prohibiting sexual relationships between a teacher and students of that course or between an advisor and student, as one respected colleague of mine suggests (or pleads for at least that much prohibition)? But then you're left with the issue of students who don't take one's courses but are in the program area, up for scholarships, etc. Ban undergraduate-faculty affairs and you're leaving the more serious problem on a large university campus of graduate student-faculty relationships.

There are three fairly clearly-defined concerns that one can address without a strict prohibitionist policy:

  1. Sexual harrassment. Most campuses, like USF's, already have a sexual harrassment policy, but egregious harrassers can and apparently do use the prior existence of a consensual relationship as a defense. You can simply prohibit that as a legitimate defense. (I don't know the legalities involved, but I suspect it would hold up. States often explicitly prohibit specific defenses, such as the DUI offender's claim that the time she or he was driving was the time when the alcohol had been drunk but not yet absorbed into the bloodstream.)

  2. Conflict of interest. The general approach to conflicts of interest—appearances of impropriety as well as egregious favoritism—is the management of apparent conflicts of interest. Faculty preparing grant applications involving a private company have to disclose investments, and the university then manages the conflict. "Disclose and manage" might seem like an incredibly dry phrasing for handling affairs of the heart, and I'm well aware that it puts chairs on the spot, but it's feasible, has parallels to other policies at large universities, and most importantly, provides a clear bright-line standard that serious abusers are sure to violate. And that, in the end, is what a policy needs to handle.

  3. Ethical guidelines. Several of the prohibitionists on my campus (including one chair interviewed by the reporter at the Times) are from psychology, where ethical guidelines do clearly prohibit sexual relationships in a broad range of professional areas. And a sensible policy would require faculty to observe the ethical positions of their disciplinary bodies. I think prohibitionists would like to believe that a clear prohibitionist policy provides that guidance and only a prohibition provides the necessary guidance. Hmmn... on that basis, we should prohibit students from quoting any secondary source for fear that they might plagiarize from a lack of judgment. Instead, we take the view that education is the better route, even if it's highly imperfect. I think the same is true here.

I may be on the losing side of this argument locally. That's acceptable, because these are differences in approaches, not our reaction to student-faculty affairs. (My "ugh—gross!" wasn't quoted in the article, somehow...) And, more importantly, I'm confident that the faculty judgment here will decide the shape of the policy, rather than its being handed down from the administration without collegial governance.

So I'll take the results, no matter what they are, as long as it's at the end of faculty deliberation. To paraphrase Warren Rudman's comment at the Iran-Contra hearings, the faculty have the right to be wrong. And I don't think they're going to be too far off at USF, no matter how it ends up on this policy.

Listen to this article
Posted in Random comments on January 2, 2005 11:37 AM |