Danger in strict codes of conduct

March 17, 1995

I was appalled by the article on campus "Don Juans" by Pam Carter and Tony Jeffs (THES, March 10). Granted there are, regrettably, occasions when students are harassed and pressured by tutors into sexual relationships and Claire Sanders's tutor ought certainly to have been disciplined. University managers have to be prepared to do this when it is necessary. Equally, however, there are occasions when such liaisons result in happy marriages or long-term and stable relationships.

I dispute Carter and Jeffs's suggestion that such behaviour is common. In a career spanning nearly 30 years I have known only occasional cases and most of these have been dealt with in ways which have protected both the people involved and the integrity of the universities' assessment processes.

To suggest that 26 per cent of academics in the United States do it is no reason to believe that the same is necessarily true here. In any case, having just spent a year teaching in a US college, I very much doubt that they do.

What is required in dealing with such cases properly is a sense of proportion, honesty and professional integrity. Where these are lacking, the consequences can indeed be disastrous but I would suggest that staff-student liaisons are by no means the only or even the most serious occasions on which this danger lurks. Relationships between senior members of academic staff and their junior colleagues are also fraught with danger for themselves and their colleagues unless they are handled with discretion and integrity. The position of a departmental or divisional head when a dean is having an affair with a junior member of his or her own outfit is very uncomfortable because he or she ends up trying to manage in a goldfish bowl.

Unless the partners abstain from talking about work when they are together, the departmental or divisional head is unable to make a mistake without his or her superior finding out. This could be every bit as threatening and unjust as any of the situations described by Carter and Jeffs.

Above all, however, the proposals the authors make are unbearably illiberal and will create the atmosphere of a police state. Students who do not like their tutors or who dispute their marks will be able to cry foul against a tutor for the slightest fault or none at all.

A university in which an "unwanted glance" is to be regarded as harassment, as I have seen seriously suggested in my own institution, will rapidly lose the sense of community which is essential to scholarship. What is more these proposals, if they are implemented in the manner the authors suggest, will make the institution concerned a laughing stock.

It will become a parallel with the mirth aroused by the antics of the authorities of Antioch College when it produced a requirement that permission be sought at each stage of the sexual act. This is the world of the madhouse and we embark on such regulation at our peril, quite apart from the opportunities for genuine and harmless happiness we shall destroy.

Let Cater, Jeffs and supporters ponder thus:

"Who would you be

If He, which is the top of judgment, should

But Judge you as you are?"

(Measure for Measure, Act II, scene ii).


Professor of government

University of Northumbria at Newcastle

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