Blog confidential: The forbidden zone

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online

May 27, 2010

This week: The forbidden zone

I am worried about a colleague in my department who has become closely involved with a student - perhaps too involved.

At first I thought nothing of it: a lecturer who provides more support to a struggling student is admirable. The student in question is academically unexceptional, even slightly below average. However, in the subject my colleague teaches, her marks have improved remarkably.

A few weeks ago, I popped back to the university in the early evening to pick up some marking, and noticed my colleague was still in his office with the student. They did not see me. My concerns grew when I saw them holding hands late one evening.

I think that something is going on. She is only 20 and my colleague is over 40. He has a "reputation" of sorts and I understand that this is not the first time something untoward has happened (if it is happening). Any suggestions?

This is an area often ignored by the academy. Sexual contact between staff and students is problematic, although in this case things are not clear-cut.

In schools, the law is rightly very clear on this issue, as it is in professions such as therapy or counselling that deal with vulnerable individuals. American psychotherapist Peter Rutter has written a number of books on the subject. He likens academic-student relationships to supervisor-supervisee contact and says a coercive element is always present.

In a previous job, I knew of two colleagues who became involved with students. Both relationships ended badly. In one, the student became unstable and needed psychiatric help; in the other, the lecturer assaulted the student when he demanded more commitment. On the other hand, I know of a student-lecturer relationship that survived the initial infatuation stage and flourished: they are still together 20 years later.

There are, however, always power inequalities in such liaisons. If your colleague is a serial "abuser" who targets young people for personal gratification, he must be disciplined. Some universities have clear guidelines on the subject and these need to be clearly communicated.

In the case you describe, the age differential, coupled with a range of complications in relation to students living away from home, create problems. Parents do not expect teachers, professors or academics to act in ways that are inappropriate or exploitative.

I suggest you proceed carefully. As you acknowledge, you may be mistaken. Perhaps they are related? My niece attended my university a few years ago. I would meet her for lunch, we were affectionate with each other, so I was sure to inform my colleagues who she was. However, this sounds unlikely in this case.

If your institution has guidelines in this area, as a first step, why not copy them and place them in your colleague's in-tray? A steer such as this could bring him to his senses. Such situations can turn into crises and even end tragically.

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