Sex codes for safe conduct

December 29, 1995

The problems that arise when academics exercise their power and authority in the bedroom rather than the lecture theatre has led a growing number of universities in Australia and New Zealand to revise their codes of conduct.

In its latest annual report, the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association - the industrial arm of the vice chancellors' committee - says that several universities are investigating student allegations that they have been sexually harassed by academics.

The most notorious case involved the master of a residential college at Melbourne University who was accused of molesting two female students. The incident received widespread media attention and became the subject of a book by Australian author Helen Garner.

Similar coverage was given to an attempt by Queensland's James Cook University to dismiss a senior lecturer for serious misconduct after two female students claimed they were sexually harassed. The decision was later overturned in the federal industrial court and the academic was reinstated.

"Confusion exists about what constitutes 'harassment', what constitutes appropriate responses to such allegations, and what public message should flow about the allegations and subsequent investigations," the report says.

In New Zealand, the Victoria University of Wellington undertook a full-scale rewrite and consolidation of all its statutes relating to sexual harassment and appropriate codes of conduct. A university spokesman said the new code had attracted interest from New Zealand and Australian universities facing similar problems.

At Southern Cross University in New South Wales, a policy on personal relationships was drawn up when conflicts of interest had become apparent. The code gave detailed advice to staff about such conflicts and how individuals should respond.

"The requirement to disclose the existence of a relationship is based solely on the potential for or perception of a conflict of interest - that is, the possibility that a staff member's decisions may be biased or prejudiced, either in favour of or against, a person with whom there is a relationship," the policy states.

"Personal relationships between students and staff may involve serious difficulties arising from the unequal power of the parties concerned, as well as the difficulties in maintaining appropriate boundaries between professional and personal life."

A code of conduct adopted by the University of New South Wales warns that staff should not allow personal relationships to affect their own conduct and suggests they should consider the desirability "of intervening constructively where a colleague's behaviour is clearly in breach of this code and be prepared to report any suspected fraud, corrupt, criminal or unethical conduct to an appropriate university officer".

Staff should avoid situations that may require them to supervise or assess a student with whom they have, or have had, a personal, commercial, familial or other significant relationship.

Other universities are either considering preparing draft codes or have already drawn them up for staff discussion. But some academics have criticised these moves. One declared that any clampdown on sexual relationships between staff and students could promote mediocrity and blandness.

At Melbourne University, a mathematics lecturer publicly attacked a code on staff-student relationships drawn up by the university's equal opportunity committee. Marty Ross said it was highly questionable whether the code reflected the views of the university community.

Mr Ross said the code was moralising, a trivialisation of personal choice and the notion of consent, and came "complete with vague threats of punitive action".

"It is based on an unsophisticated view of human relationships and a great over-exaggeration of the fragility of students and the learning environment," he said.

But the critics comprise a minority as more universities follow those that have already established conduct codes in an effort to inhibit relationships between lecturers and their students becoming too personal.

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