Kudos to University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst for proposing a real faculty-student consensual sexual relationship policy. It took 25 years, a changing perspective on professors' ethical responsibilities and a woman president at UConn to get this policy proposal.
In 1988, I met with then UConn President John Casteen and senior administrators and I described some consensual sexual relationships occurring between university faculty members and their students. I got firsthand accounts from those students at the Student Mental Health Service where I was a psychotherapist. Those students and their academic departments experienced damaging fallout from those relationships.
Professors, like other professionals, have ethical obligations to avoid conflicts of interest and the appearance of favoritism. Their student lovers may not feel that they are really free to refuse to consent to sexual relationships with professors who have power and authority over their academic progress. These students may fear reprisals if they try to extricate themselves from sexual relationships with professors who teach, grade or advise them.
It has been 25 years since I suggested to President Casteen that the university should adopt a faculty-student consensual relationship policy modeled on one used at the University of Iowa. That policy would prohibit consensual sexual relationships between a faculty member and a student over whom the faculty member has authority (teaching, evaluating, supervising or advising). At that time, however, the university attorney insisted that a university cannot prohibit relationships between consenting adults.
Instead, UConn adopted a non-enforceable "non-policy": "The university strongly discourages romantic and sexual relationships between faculty and student or between supervisor and employee even when such relationships appear, or are believed to be, consensual." This non-policy is merely a statement of the university's preference, not a real policy that prohibits a violation. In contrast, UConn has a real, enforceable policy prohibiting parking on the grass instead of merely discouraging people from committing this minor violation.
Just before UConn president Philip E. Austin took office in 1996, a male senior administrator quietly removed this non-policy from the annual notice to all university employees. When I informed Dr. Austin of the "non-policy's" disappearance, he reinstated it. At least twice in the ensuing 11 years, the "good ole boys" in Gulley Hall thwarted the efforts of some female faculty members to get UConn to issue a real, enforceable policy.
I am pleased that the university's board of trustees will soon vote on a real consensual sexual relationship policy that will prohibit a sexual relationship between a professor and a graduate student over whom the professor has some authority. This is a good policy because the professor's authority over the student is easily discerned and that authority gives the university a legitimate reason to prohibit such relationships. A professor has an unethical conflict and competing interests being both a graduate student's teacher/adviser/supervisor and lover.
In addition, the university's proposed policy will ban consensual sexual relationships between faculty members and undergraduates. This proposed ban goes too far. Because universities treat all students who are age 18 or older as adults, UConn policies about professors' sexual relationships with undergraduates or graduate students should be the same.
A more significant problem with the proposed ban is that it violates a professor's right to privacy and First Amendment right to freedom of association when the professor has no authority over his student-lover. What if an engineering professor were dating a nursing student whom he will never teach, grade or supervise? What about an English professor who refrains from teaching or advising an undergraduate who is his wife in order to comply with the university's nepotism policy, but is still violating the consensual sexual relationship policy because his wife is an undergraduate? A university that tries to prohibit such a relationship could easily find itself on the losing side of a civil lawsuit.
I hope that President Herbst will correct this flaw in the proposed policy so that UConn will finally — after 25 years — have a real, fair and enforceable policy on faculty-student consensual sexual relationships.
Cynara Stites was a clinical social worker at the University of Connecticut Student Mental Health Service for 31 years. She wrote two chapters on faculty-student consensual relationships in the book "Sexual Harassment on College Campuses: Abusing the Ivory Power."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun