The Don Juans

March 10, 1995

Are academics who have affairs with students guilty of an abuse of power? Pam Carter and Tony Jeffs assess whether institutions should curb such relationships. Should university staff enter into sexual relationships with their students? Can a university condone such relationships or ought it actively to seek to discourage or forbid them? Should we view such liaisons as an inevitable result of mature adults meeting and working together in a shared environment or as examples of a misuse of power by academics or students?

Questions such as these have recently attracted a great deal of attention. Relationships between academic staff and students have become a controversial issue. Articles have appeared in most national and many local newspapers, radio and television have displayed similar interest and the topic has been debated at union and academic conferences. The Association of University Teachers and National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education over a number of years have both struggled to arrive at a policy. Such debates have exposed a clear conflict of interest among the membership. A division between those committed to curtailing the exploitative behaviour of colleagues and those anxious to protect themselves and others from interference in what they argue are "private" relationships.

It appears that after decades of indifference students, academics, university administrators and the media have become aware of a problem that many are now seeking to understand. Questions are being asked regarding the impact of such relationships on the lives of not only the staff and students directly involved, but also upon their colleagues, peers and institutions. This public, as opposed to the furtive, discussion of what are often called consensual sexual relationships has generated a policy debate within numerous institutions. A debate around both the question of whether universities should impose regulations to "manage" such relationships and the form ordinances might take.

"Consensual" relationships between staff and students are not new to university life. "Sexual intrigue" has always been a feature of the campus novel. It is also a staple ingredient of the campus film and television drama or series.

Universities have no difficulty in labelling as wrong the coercion of students by staff leading to the former paying money for marks or advantageous treatment. Similarly they condemn the theft of academic property by staff from students. Institutions recognise staff may misuse their authority to gain professional and monetary benefits. No one would be naive enough to imagine that students would dig lecturers' gardens or clean their houses out of friendship. But for years universities and colleges have deluded themselves that sexual relationships between staff and students are freely entered into, unproblematic and unexploitative. What is undeniable is far more staff exploit students for sexual rather than financial reward. To quote one student officer: "In all the cases I have come across the relationship involved coercion in one form or another. I now just assume that the only basis for the relationship was sexual gratification on the part of the staff." Yet although students are protected from a form of coercion and exploitation they are unlikely to encounter, they are not from another that is commonplace.

The story of true love in the academy is now a familiar one. The accounts we have heard bear little resemblance to this familiar narrative. Sadly they reveal a much sleazier side to academic sexuality. As one mature student put it: "I could not believe what was going on. I gave up a good job to come here for training. I was shocked to find lecturers regularly using their power to seduce students."

That such behaviour contains a strong element of planning is borne out by these comments from a university equal opportunities officer: "When lecturers ask students to go out with them, or meet them informally, students think this is to do with building a good professional relationship or to discuss work. They may be pretty naive but they sometimes go along two or three times before they confront the reality that the intentions of the lecturer are anything but professional."

But it is the serial nature of the relationships on the part of staff that is their most damning indictment. As one student put it: "He was much more helpful than the rest. Always willing to help with your essay and that sort of thing. He took a real interest in my work and was very encouraging. I suppose in some ways I was his star student. Soon discovered he had one every year, didn't I?" Among the cases we encountered almost all involved male lecturers and female students. This is not to argue that women staff never engage in such relationships, nor does it mean that there is an absence of gay and lesbian liaisons involving staff and students. But such relationships are often already treated with suspicion by colleagues and managers. It is the informal and institutional collusion with the heterosexual relationships of male staff that we have found to be a problematic aspect.

Undoubtedly there are happy outcomes to staff-student liaisons - many men and some women told us about these. However, in case after case we also encountered situations where the result of the relationship was women students feeling forced to leave, change courses and miss out on valuable educational opportunities. These educational costs were often added to by more personal ones.

Such relationships often polluted a department creating unwarranted tensions as staff were forced to choose between condoning, ignoring or condemning the behaviour of their colleagues. In some cases staff even contemplated resignation: "The head of department who taught on the course started an affair with one of the students. She told me, and he must have found out I knew. Later I saw them together miles from here by sheer accident. From then on it was difficult to put your finger on it but he was difficult to work with and obviously trying to catch me out. It got me down to the extent that I decided to leave but then thought better of it. Why should I move? Instead I resigned as course leader but working relationships are terrible."

Because of the furtive nature of many of these relationships it is impossible to estimate the scale. However one American study found 26 per cent of male academics admitted to sexual involvement with women students. The authors of that study believed this was probably an underestimate and it does not seem to us to be an outrageous figure. The majority, however, are not serial exploiters. But it is these institutions are driven to protect in order to avoid dealing with the many who are involved in only one or two relationships during the course of their careers.

We believe formal policies in this area are necessary. Informal "unwritten rules" invariably protect the powerful. One equal opportunities officer spoke to the vice chancellor about a professor who had been involved with a string of students, some of whom had subsequently complained. She was informed he was a "leader in his field . . . an asset the university could not afford to lose". It was then made abundantly clear to her she was employed to calm the students and not upset the professor in the process.

But we are nervous of advocating one policy as a model for all institutions. Clearly these need to emerge from debate and discussion and to be adapted to local needs and traditions, perhaps above all to match existing policies on sexual harassment. These are some of the policies we have encountered.

* The general advisory model, in which "staff are advised to avoid sexual and romantic relationships, especially with students they are likely to assess".

* The declaration model, in which staff are required to report such relationships and the institution indicates via policy statements a reluctance to endorse such behaviour.

* The no-defence model - here the institution expresses a refusal to condone sexual exploitations. It recognises that sexual relationships between staff and students cannot be prevented but acknowledges the inequalities of power. In so doing it defines them as unprofessional. Thus it does not allow consent as a form of defence if subsequently a student complains of exploitation. This policy is linked to the enforcement of strong sanctions for those who offend.

* The expressly forbidden model - this simply states that all sexual relationships between staff and students where a teaching or other professional responsibility exists are forbidden.

But policies will not in themselves necessarily achieve the change in informal institutional cultures that is required. In particular they need to recognise men's lower threshold of awareness on these matters. This is particularly important where it concerns staff-student relationships where a number of male lecturers place harassment and regular affairs with students in totally different categories. One student told us: "I could not believe X. I saw him at a conference condemning sexual harassment but he chatted students up relentlessly even though he was married. He also traded essay grades for sex." Some such characters may be totally cynical, but others may well genuinely not recognise the impact and meaning of their own actions.

We must acknowledge there are complex linkages between private and public lives. Challenging the effects of power differentials is unlikely to come about only through bureaucratic and procedural means, although we might seek to use these where we can. For that reason it is essential to continue the development of new and imaginative policies, but unless these are linked to educational programmes and, where required, disciplinary measures it is unlikely current levels of exploitation and harassment will fall, although they may become less overt.

In any discussion of academic power we must not in our desire to extend or acknowledge student autonomy overlook the obvious. The relationships we have described take place within certain parameters that cannot be wished away. Staff in higher education are granted a great deal of power over students irrespective of whether the latter are male or female, young or old. Some, perhaps the bulk, of that power flows from the authority vested in them as lecturers, but some is inherited from outside the institution where patriarchy seeks to elevate men above women, while the family and education energetically teach the young to defer to the old. Fuse those elements together and it becomes apparent the university must seek to ensure that all students are protected from exploitation. Protected from staff seeking to abuse the authority and power they inevitably have over students.

Pam Carter and Tony Jeffs teach social policy at the University of Northumbria. They are the authors of A Very Private Affair, published by Education New Book, 114 Arundel Drive, Nottingham, GN9 3FQ, price Pounds 6.

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