Inside Higher Ed: Relationship problems

By Kevin Kiley, for Inside Higher Ed

September 6, 2011

News that a graduate student had been killed the week before classes were scheduled to start rocked the University of Idaho last week. But local news coverage has been dominated by questions about the relationship between the student, Kathryn Benoit, and the man suspected of killing her, Ernesto A. Bustamante, who until a few days before Benoit’s death was a professor in the department in which Benoit was enrolled. Police found Bustamante dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound after an extended standoff with law enforcement officers.

The deaths and several other aspects of the Idaho case – such as news that Bustamante had been diagnosed with multiple personality disorder and had made violent threats against Benoit – make the situation distinctive. But faculty members at other institutions and higher education observers say the fact that a faculty member and student were romantically involved is not a shock. Other relationships between faculty members and the students they teach have recently made headlines in Colorado, where the university is investigating a professor accused of having an amorous relationship with a graduate student who worked for him and not notifying his superiors, and North Carolina, where a faculty member resigned after it came to light that he had been having conversations of a sexual nature with an undergraduate student over an instant messaging service.

“In my experience, this is not a rare occurrence, particularly at the graduate student level,” says Richard Carlson, a professor of labour and employment law at the South Texas College of Law, who has written on the subject of faculty-student relationships. “It’s much more common than it should be.”

Despite policies put in place at colleges and universities during the past decade that prohibit relationships between professors and the students they teach, and newer policies prohibiting all romantic and sexual relationships between instructors and undergraduates, professors on campuses across the country say that while such relationships are not common, they are more frequent than many expect.

“Sexual harassment has not disappeared from our campuses” and the “development of policies and programs has not eliminated the problem – and perhaps never will,” wrote Billie Wright Dziech, an English professor at the University of Cincinnati, and Linda Weiner, a former college administrator, in their book The Lecherous Professor.

Because of the stigma attached to such relationships, and the fact that they are prohibited on many campuses, tracking how frequently they happen is difficult. Higher education groups do not survey faculty members about their relationships, and students and faculty members would likely be reluctant to answer such questions honestly. It is also not in the best interests of an institution to discuss the prevalence of such relationships on its campus, Dziech says. “If you’re charging $40,000 a year, you don’t want parents knowing that a guy is sleeping with the kids,” she says.

When a recent case at the University of Colorado at Boulder became public, administrators said they typically hear from four to five instructors each year who are romantically involved with students. At Colorado, relationships between instructors and students are not prohibited, as long as instructors inform their superiors and avoid conflicts of interest.

Despite the lack of statistics, Dziech says that, from her experience dealing with such cases, the majority involve male faculty members and female students. The second most common type is between a male instructor and a male student. “The statistics haven’t changed since we started studying this,” she says.

Relationships between faculty members and students used to be fairly common. “You’ve got a highly concentrated environment of people, where a large proportion are unmarried and looking for dates and mates,” says Barry M. Dank, former professor at California State University at Long Beach. “People tend to date people they meet in their everyday surroundings. College campuses are a relatively safe place to date and mate.” Dank, who is married to a former student, is a defender of the right of faculty members to have relationships with students.

Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, campuses began to frown on such relationships and the potential for sexual harassment that they engender, particularly when there is a power imbalance between individuals, as in the case of a professor responsible for teaching and grading a student. Many sexual harassment policies are based on the idea that when there is a power imbalance between individuals, relationships can never truly be consensual. And critics also note that such relationships also create conflicts involving a student’s friends and a professor’s colleagues, with the latter facing the prospect of grading a colleague’s significant other.

Dziech says psychology research is providing a new justification for these policies. Researchers have found that the brains of traditional-age students have not fully developed and, because of this, they are prone to risk-taking behaviour, making them susceptible to exploitation.

According to the American Association of University Professors, policies regarding relationships between students and professors vary across the country. Some institutions, such as the University of Michigan, do not expressly prohibit faculty-student relationships, but advise faculty members against them and require faculty members to notify superiors of relationships to avoid conflicts of interest. The University of Iowa prohibits faculty members from entering into romantic or sexual relationships with students they are instructing, evaluating or supervising. An instructor in such a relationship is prohibited from instructing, evaluating or supervising that student in the future.

In general, the AAUP advises against such relationships but does not say colleges and universities should prohibit them. “In their relationships with students, members of the faculty are expected to be aware of their professional responsibilities and to avoid apparent or actual conflict of interest, favoritism, or bias,” the AAUP’s stance says. “When a sexual relationship exists, effective steps should be taken to ensure unbiased evaluation or supervision of the student.”

In recent years, several campuses have implemented “zero-tolerance” policies. In 2003, the University of California adopted a policy prohibiting romantic or sexual relationships between faculty members and students they are teaching or have a reasonable expectation of teaching in the future. Last year, Yale University adopted a policy expressly prohibiting relationships between faculty members and undergraduate students, regardless of whether there is any chance the professor will teach the student. “Undergraduate students are particularly vulnerable to the unequal institutional power inherent in the teacher-student relationship and the potential for coercion, because of their age and relative lack of maturity,” the policy states.

According to the University of Idaho, “a consensual romantic or sexual relationship between any faculty member and his or her student, while not expressly forbidden, is generally deemed unwise”. The university policy prohibits relationships that can be construed as sexual harassment. In the case of Benoit and Bustamante, files say the relationship began as consensual when Benoit took a class with Bustamante, but deteriorated by May. Benoit filed a sexual harassment complaint with the university in June.

Dziech advocates for across-the-board prohibitions between faculty members and students, like the one in place at Yale. “They’re like red lights,” she says. “We know that occasionally people are going to break them, but the majority of people are going to stop at red lights.” She also believes that universities should make examples out of individuals who break the rules. She added that clear prohibitions also help the university guard against lawsuits.

In The Lecherous Professor, Dziech and Weiner say such relationships are an issue not only of sexual harassment, but also of professional responsibility. “Choosing to become a member of a profession means committing oneself to adherence to its ethics,” the two write in the book. “Physical intimacy with students is not now and never has been acceptable behavior for academicians. It cannot be defended or explained away by evoking fantasies of devoted professors and sophisticated students being denied the right to ‘true love.’ Where power differentials exist, there can be no ‘mutual consent.’”

While many campuses have such policies, the variation points to a lack of consensus on what exactly a policy should prohibit. Many colleges want to encourage close academic relationships between students and faculty members. And enforcing any kind of policy is difficult, since it is impossible to police the private lives of thousands of students and faculty.

Some faculty members say broad-based “zero-tolerance policies” have just pushed relationships between faculty and students underground, with both parties afraid of the stigma attached to them. Carlson says institutions also need to be wary of implementing such policies. “The truth is that a huge percentage of people who get married met their spouse at work,” he says. “People want to be able to have relationships with people they are interested in.”

In 2008, two male professors at the University of Iowa committed suicide within weeks of each other after they were accused of sexual harassment. Carlson says that the process of dealing with complaints at his institution is humiliating. “Once you’ve seen one of these things, you’d never want to be on the receiving end,” he says.

While most individuals on campuses are older than 18 – above the age of consent – the variety of ages and professional responsibilities on a single campus makes it difficult for colleges and universities to implement across-the-board policies. With a relationship between a 50-year-old professor and an 18-year-old undergraduate he or she teaches, the imbalance is easier to see, but what about when a 25-year-old graduate student tries to date a 22-year-old senior? What about a 37-year-old non-traditional student and a 35-year-old assistant professor? What about when the student leaves the class? Critics of policies tend to cite these sorts of examples.

Dziech doesn’t buy any of these arguments. “There are all these what-ifs, but I think the number of times people are actually falling in love is so minuscule that instances can be handled on a case-by-case basis,” she says.

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