Not So Hot for Teacher

How did we come to decide that relationships between professors and students are almost always wrong?
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How did we come to decide that relationships between professors and students are almost always wrong?


The University of Connecticut, by a unanimous vote of the school's board of trustees last week, has decided that from now on sexual interactions between students and professors are prohibited. That’s right: No more sleeping with your students. And no more sexting, either.

Wait, student-professor sex was allowed before this?

Actually, yes. The previous policy at Connecticut was to "strongly discourage" any relationship in which there was some sort of "power imbalance between the parties." In fact, the vast majority of American colleges have no specific prohibition against relationships or sexual interactions between professors and their pupils, though many have suggested that they may not be such a good idea. In many cases, colleges prohibit relationships only in instances where the professor has “direct, supervisory authority” over the student.

"[F]eminists on campus ... point to the inherent power imbalance between a professor who gives grades and writes recommendations and a impressionable young woman who is either flattered by the attention or fearful of spurning it."

The UConn students aren’t in session to comment but, given that the prohibition comes after the revelation that a longtime music professor at the university was in the habit of “visiting freshmen dorms [and] providing drugs to students” it’s probably safe to say that no one is sincerely opposed to a policy adjustment—on campus or off. That is, this new rule seems completely uncontroversial, but it’s a very recent development. Historically, no one much cared if (unmarried) professors wanted to date their students.

While there’s a troublesome power dynamic at work here—a tenure-track economics professor’s relationship with a freshman in his macroeconomics class, whose grade he determines, is obviously different from any relationship that student might develop with another economics professor; likewise, that freshman would have a different relationship with another freshman—nobody seemed to think this one was such a big deal.

In my own family, when my grandfather’s sister left Smith in the 1950s in order to move to North Carolina and get married to her geology professor, no one questioned her decision. He was such a smart guy, after all. He was an intellectual. This was a good catch. (The fact that he didn’t, upon marriage, stop sleeping with his students was the first indication that something might be wrong here.)

So what happened? If a professor were to approach (or text message) a student today to ask for a date it would strike many as incredibly inappropriate. Women’s rights.

While it’s true that that UConn prohibition extends to any professors and any students of every gender, the traditional dynamic here is a male professor and a female student. Research from 1990 about sexual harassment indicated that while harassment does occur between same-gender faculty and students and between female professors and male students, such cases were “statistically insignificant.”

In 1993, after many colleges started placing restrictions on sexual relationships, Jane Gross wrote in the New York Times that they seemed to be “inspired by feminists on campus, who point to the inherent power imbalance between a professor who gives grades and writes recommendations and a impressionable young woman who is either flattered by the attention or fearful of spurning it.” The issue, furthermore, was “propelled by growing recognition that sexual harassment is a serious problem that could land professors and administrators in court.”

A professor can’t sleep with his students for much the same reason bosses can’t sexually harass their secretaries without potentially running into real legal trouble: some of the victims started to speak up.

The first no sex policy came in 1984, when Harvard banned relationships between faculty members and students they taught. The University of Iowa followed. In 1986 it adopted a very specific policy barring romantic or sexual relationships between faculty and their own students, but allowing relationships with students professors don’t specifically “teach or supervise.”

Harvard Dean Henry Rosovsky, introducing the policy at his school, wrote that relationships between teachers and students were "always wrong." John Kenneth Galbraith, emeritus professor of economics at the school, publicly wondered how he, who had been married to a former graduate student for almost 50 years, should atone for his sins. The dean replied, basically, that the Galbraiths had nothing to worry about because they had met and married back when "amour -- instructional and noninstructional -- was in fashion." So the relationships were "always wrong" except, well, in the 1930s, when they apparently weren’t at all wrong.

A 1997 paper by Barry Dank and Joseph Fulda indicates that:

Starting in the 1980's, a feminist literature emerged calling for the banning of intimate, organizationally based, asymmetrical relationships and the subsumption of such relationships under the rubric of sexual harassment. Thus, when individuals in asymmetrical relationships engage in sexual behavior such a relationship is seen as sexual harassment with the person in the superordinate position viewed as the harasser and the person in the subordinate position as the victim.

More serious research into the nature of sexual relationships between faculty and students on campus finds that such interactions are, indeed, asymmetrical, much in the way many other types of sexual relationships are. As Richard Skeen and Joyce Nielsen wrote in an article published in Qualitative Sociology:

These relationships are in many ways like other sexual relationships insofar as they are based on mutual attraction, as well as sex-related, power-discrepant roles. Student-faculty relationships are problematic (i.e., unethical) not so much because of the power discrepancy between a (usually male) professor and a (usually female) student, but because there is a confounding of public and private roles. This study ... questions the validity of negative sex stereotypes explicit in the exchange model and examines student-faculty relationships in sociological terms.

The researchers also find that there’s on average a 10-year age difference between professors and their (romantic partner) students. This, of course, would be questioned by some even if the professor had no supervisory role.

But not everyone is on board with this trend of prohibiting professor-student sex. Cristina Nehring wrote a provocative piece for Harper’s back in 2001 arguing that the new prohibitions against professor-student relationships were discomforting because...

... [t]eacher-student chemistry is what sparks much of the best work that goes on at universities, today as always. It need not be reckless; it need not be realized. It need not even be articulated, or mutual. In most cases, in fact, it is none of these. In most cases, academic eros works from behind the scenes. It lingers behind the curtain and ensures that the production onstage is strong. It ensures that the work in the classroom is charged, ambitious, and vigorous. In most cases, it would be counterproductive for it to emerge, itself, into the limelight. That said, it occasionally does. And when it does, it must not be criminalized. For the university campus on which the erotic impulse between teachers and students is criminalized is the campus on which the pedagogical enterprise is deflated. It is the campus on which pedagogy is gutted and gored. This, unfortunately, is the scenario that confronts us today.

While there are other dissenters—sociologist Afshan Jafar argued in a 2003 paper thatstudents can give true consent for such relations” and that bans on sexual relationships between faculty and students “will harm the very women they seek to protect,” largely because it treats the female students potentially involved in such relationships as manipulated children, rather than free and capable adults—the sex prohibitionists seem to have largely won this battle.

Such relationships do sometimes still occur. And they're not always bad. (A year ago Columbia Law School's Philip Bobbitt, a man in his 60s, married Maya Ondalikoglu, who had been a student in one of his classes. Ondalikoglu withdrew from the class when the relationship started and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan married the couple after Ondalikoglu graduated from law school.) But even many professors are now on board with the new rules. The UConn policy comes with the support of the state university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which indicated that "The relationship can be once, it can be short term, it can be long term, it can be a marriage—everything in between. The intent is to capture it all.... When you see it, you know it." Or, rather, it can’t; no more relationships of any kind. The prohibition includes all faculty and staff, including adjuncts and, well, the housekeepers and janitors, who might sometimes be closer in age to the majority of the students.

Let's see how the school's "charged, ambitious, and vigorous" classroom work fares.