Editorial: Banning faculty-student romantic relationships was sensible
Published: Sunday, August 25, 2013
Updated: Sunday, August 25, 2013 23:08
On August 7, all members of the university community received an email from President Susan Herbst outlining a new school policy. The new rule explicitly bans romantic relationships between several categories of people, perhaps most notably between faculty or staff and undergraduate students. This policy, though it may cause dismay among that new freshman with a crush on their liberal arts professor, is sound. It should probably never have needed to be written in the first place, but clearly it did.
Some critics claim that as long as both parties are 18 and consenting, the actions are perfectly legal and nobody gets hurt. Indeed, some states are moving towards that direction of thinking – last year, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down a state law banning sexual contact between teachers and students, provided the student is 18 or older. However, as Herbst explained, “The power difference between faculty and staff as compared to students means that any romantic relationship between a faculty or staff member and a student is potentially exploitative or could at any time be perceived as exploitative.” This is the real issue here. The key word is perceived: Even if no exploitation actually occurs, the public impression could still be construed that way.
It is worth noting that the Board of Trustees vote was unanimous, since that is hardly a regular occurrence. The Board contains student representatives as well, indicating that people across the age spectrum supported this change, if it can truly be called a change. It is mostly a codification of what was previously considered highly discouraged behavior.
Herbst also wrote, “It should be noted that the university has been shaping this policy for approximately one year and it is not in reaction to any specific instance or matter.” While that may be true, the announcement’s timing coincided with this summer’s scandal regarding Robert Miller, a professor and former head of the UConn music department. Allegations of sexual misconduct against Miller had been reported dating back to 2006 and continuing all the way through 2011. One major difference is Miller’s charges involve minor children, which everybody can agree is a far worse offense that sexual contact with graduate students in their mid-20s. (Miller has not been convicted and is currently on administrative leave with pay.)
Under the new policy, any faculty or staff employee currently involved in a relationship with a student has until November to report it to the university. This self-reporting does seem highly unlikely to occur. Still, for the most part these new guidelines explain what does and what does not constitute acceptable behavior. Hopefully, such power imbalances resulting from sexual conduct will never occur on this campus again.