Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


bad-apple

(PHOTO: WAVEBREAKMEDIA/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Not So Hot for Teacher

• August 15, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: WAVEBREAKMEDIA/SHUTTERSTOCK)

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.

Daniel Luzer

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.