Friday, August 24, 2007

Faculty/Student Romances

In the Aug. 17, 2007 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A8, A10, Robin Wilson interviews Prof. Paul Abramson about his new book from MIT Press Romance and the Ivory Tower . Prof.Abramson asserts in his book that the Ninth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects a (presumably) penumbral right to romance between faculty and students. That amendment is a handy one,

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Our university began working last year to re-write and create a university-wide policy on sexual harassment which includes banning relationships between faculty and any current student. This is a subject about which I actually feel pretty strongly. When I was a law student, way, way back in time and far, far away, there were persistent rumors that certain of my female colleagues improved their grades through liaisons with certain faculty members. I really could care less if they wanted to do such a thing, EXCEPT, that these rumors damaged the entire community in several ways.

First, there was the damage to the students' perception of fairness and anonymity in grading. Students worried that their professors set them on a curve that was warped by these grade inflationary affairs, and they worried that the faculty could breach the security of the exam number system. And even if the professor never has the lover-student in class, there is a perception that faculty colleagues could be pressured to offer better grades. These are not good things for law students to believe. It's very corrosive to the school's atmosphere.

Second, there was the damage to the women about whom these rumors swirled. If they were not, in fact, having affairs with their professors, how unfair to be branded! And if they were having an affair, any grade they received was automatically tainted in the minds of their colleagues. I don't know if these rumors followed the women when they went looking for jobs, but if so, how damaging! Both their grades and their reputations would have been shredded, not just in law school, but also in the job market and the surprisingly small world of law practice.

And lastly, all the professors were somehow tarred by the rumors. If Prof. X could be "bought" with a quickie, who could say that Prof. Y was not similarly bribe able? I think the issue of faculty/student romance should focus on the destructive effects it has on the community, let alone the potential for damage to the individuals.

And there is certainly a strong argument for banning it on the grounds of potential for sexual harassment. Whenever there is a power differential between one lover and the other, there is such potential for pressure. The fear to break up with or even to turn down, a professor who moves on a student would make it very hard on the "junior partner" in the affair. A student would have to worry about retaliation if they wanted to refuse a professor's advance or break off the affair. A student even
rumored to be having an affair with a faculty member is also isolated from student colleagues. Perceived to have an unfair advantage, to be cheating and possibly to have low morals or poor ethics, the student lover is going to be hated by all the other students. If you really love the individual, take care of their interests by waiting until after graduation!

So, I hope we can move forward with a strong and clear rule that no faculty should ever have a romantic relationship with a current student. The issue is ticklish and must be carefully presented to the faculty. Many of my colleagues have married former students. I don't know any details because all this was before my time. But I think we need to present this as a matter of times changing and the school has to change with it. Without pointing any fingers at past relationships, I hope we can move forward with a clear rule about an important issue.

So, Prof. Abramson, I think the answer to your argument is that, while there may be individual rights to associate and love whom you please, there are strong reasons for the University or school to make a rule in the interest of the community. Let them pick up a relationship after graduation.

See Prof. Abramson's blog entry here, and Chronicle blog entry here. Find the book at Amazon here.

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