Some Universities Ban Sexual Relationships Between Professors, Undergraduates

Other universities have less strict policies in place

At San Diego State University, where investigations found that a professor had sexually harassed three women, consensual relationships between faculty members and students are out of bounds if students are enrolled in their courses or under their supervision.

But some schools have gone further by forbidding sexual or romantic relationships between teachers and all undergraduate students — Stanford, Harvard and Yale universities, The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and the University of Connecticut among them.

Stanford University, in its administrative guide, notes that the ban applies regardless of a professor’s academic or supervisory position “because of the relative youth of undergraduates and their particular vulnerability in such relationships.”

San Diego State University's policy on faculty’s professional responsibilities says that professors and other academic professionals shall “not engage in sexual relationships with students currently enrolled in their courses or under their supervision.” A violation not handled within an academic department should be taken up at the institutional level, the policy states.

Internal investigations concluded that the Spanish professor, Vincent Martin, had engaged in conduct that was deemed sufficiently severe or pervasive to constitute sexual harassment within the context of a professor-student relationship and in violation of the California State University’s system-wide policy on harassment, NBC 7 Investigates has reported.

The investigations found that he sent one student suggestive texts, and made a second uncomfortable by stepping close to her when he asked her to secretly take wine from a hospitality suite at an academic conference. He engaged in a consensual sexual relationship with the third student, the investigation found, and it was more likely than not that Martin made offers of academic advantage “in exchange for sexual favors.”

In the first two cases, the reports were referred to the university’s coordinator for Title IX, the federal gender-equality law, and Office of Faculty Affairs. In the last case, it was sent to the university’s provost and Office of Faculty Affairs.

Martin, who continues to teach, has not responded to requests for comments. His lawyer has said that he disputes the findings in all three reports and will challenge them.

The 23-campus California State University is considering adding the following language about consensual relationships to its system-wide policy or executive order prohibiting harassment and sexual misconduct: “No employee shall enter into a consensual sexual, romantic, and/or intimate social or personal relationship with a student over whom s/he exercises, has exercised or may exercise in the future, direct or otherwise significant academic, administrative, supervisory, evaluative, counseling, or extracurricular authority or influence.”

Linda Hanson, an assistant vice chancellor at the university, said the change was proposed because more than half of the campuses have some form of policy regarding consensual relationships.

“So given the fact that we had so many campuses that were addressing the issue we thought it was appropriate as we were revising the executive orders that we would include language that would constitute a system-wide policy on the matter,” she said.

The University of California, with 10 campuses, says in its faculty code of conduct that a romantic or sexual relationship between a faculty member and a student is inappropriate if the faculty member is responsible for academic supervision of the student.

The University of Southern California strongly discourages sexual relationships between faculty and students, noting that there is an inherent difference in power.

"These relationships may put either party at risk," the school's Faculty Handbook says.

Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences put its ban in effect in February, not because of rampant dating between teachers and students but as the university looked at broader problems of sexual harassment and assault, said Alison Johnson, professor of history at Harvard University, who headed the committee that wrote the policy.

“And it was socially, culturally completely unacceptable before we wrote it down,” she said. “But sometimes when you say something explicitly, it gives people an opportunity to revisit a topic even if what you’ve said is something they already believe.”

At the University of Connecticut, a previous policy, which the university reviewed in 2011 and 2012, strongly discouraged relationships between professors and students, said Elizabeth Conklin, associate vice president of the Office of Diversity and Equity and the school's Title IX coordinator.

“Our feeling was that that wasn’t in keeping with the federal guidance that was evolving at that point,” she said. “Nowhere did the government say you have to ban this, but we felt like the spirit of the guidance around sexual harassment really compelled a stronger approach.”

The College of William and Mary has prohibited romantic or sexual relationships between faculty members and students since 2001. Before that, a policy against such relationships between faculty members and students they taught or supervised had been in place since the beginning of the 1990s.

Such relationships are difficult to ban, said Anita Levy, associate secretary in the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance at the American Association of University Professors.

“While it might look like a good idea, it could end up being like Prohibition where you try to ban something that’s going to end up happening anyway,” she said. “So why not have good policies with regard to consensual relationships and good policies with regard sexual harassment complaints.”

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