The idea is to protect both students and the institutions, but some argue that seeking to regulate lust and love between consenting adults is not only wrong but downright futile.
“It’s none of a university’s business if a professor has no professional responsibility over a student,” says Cynara Stites, who spent 31 years as a clinical social worker at UConn’s Counseling and Mental Health Services.
When Stites recently heard UConn was going to follow Yale University’s total ban policy (Yale enacted it three years ago), she says she was “just absolutely flabbergasted.”
“They can get sued up the ying-yang,” says Stites.
If you’re wondering about the enforceability of these no-love policies, consider that the chairman of Yale’s Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations Department was this year suspended because he violated the university’s three-year-old ban. John Darnell sent an e-mail out in January announcing his 12-month suspension and apologizing for his intimate relationships with a student and a professor — both of whom he had authority over.
Those affairs were, according to Yale Daily News sources, “an open secret within the department.”
Stites has long been in favor of colleges and universities adopting policies that prohibit sex between a professor and a student when the professor has some authority over the student. In fact, she says she lobbied for 25 years to get UConn to adopt such a policy and to get tough on professors who abused their positions and student trust for sex.
Stites says it’s clear from her experience and other research that “the most common participants” in professor-student relationships are grad students and that nearly all involved male professors and female students.
“It’s very rare among same-sex couples… or when it’s a female faculty member,” says Stites.
The debate and the stories surrounding professor-student sex have been going on for a very long time. Colleges and universities around the U.S. began establishing policies to discourage that sort of hanky-panky at least as long ago as the 1980s.
It wasn’t until the beginning of this month that UConn’s board of trustees finally went with the absolute no-professor-undergrad-sex policy.
UConn President Susan Herbst said when the new policy was adopted that the university had already been operating under guidelines that “strongly discouraged” any professor-student sexual or romantic relationships where there was “a power differential” between the two people involved.
That power differential is the key. If a professor has authority over a student’s or grad-student’s grades or chances for postgraduate work, then sex between them can get complicated fast. Is the student swapping sex for a good grade? Does the graduate assistant believe sex is required to get into that doctoral program?
Herbst also indicated she’d been surprised when she arrived in the president’s office a couple of years ago that UConn’s policy seemed a lot milder than those of many other universities and colleges.
Some Connecticut schools, like Trinity and the University of New Haven, have long-standing policies of various degrees of toughness governing student-professor affairs. Others, like Wesleyan University, still have no formal policy at all.
It probably wasn’t a coincidence that UConn’s board acted swiftly to approve the new policy just after an embarrassing sex scandal hit the headlines.
Police and the university are investigating allegations that a longtime UConn music professor named Robert Miller was giving drugs to students in freshmen dorms, having sex with students, and having sexual contact with children.
Miller, 66, was placed on paid leave after the accusations were made public. He’s the former head of the school’s music department and had worked at the university since 1982. The UConn part of the probe may be the least of his worries.
Connecticut cops are looking into claims that Miller had sexual contact with at least four boys (ages 10-13) that he met in 1992 as a volunteer at a Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for kids with serious illnesses. Miller was dismissed by the camp after parents complained about his actions.
UConn itself may also be under the gun here: documents indicate that some officials at the university were aware of the alleged sexual contacts with minor children and failed to report them for years. (Shades of Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky nightmare.)
UConn officials denied that the change in professor-student sex policies was triggered by the Miller scandal, insisting the revision had been in the works for a year.
The new policy essentially forbids professors or other staff members from having sex with any undergraduate students, even if there is no direct “power differential” (such as grades or employment) involved.
A faculty member could engage in a romantic fling with a graduate student, under the policy, as long as the professor didn’t have anything to do with grades or academic advice or employment. If any of those things are involved, then the total ban applies.
Violators of the no-sex standard with undergraduates or that “power differential” category of other students could face discipline or even firing.
And if a UConn prof is already getting it on with a student now, he or she better let the administration know in the next three months or there could be big trouble.
Trinity’s and UNH’s policies are keyed to those power relationships. If a professor and student get involved, the professor is required to notify his or her superiors and be removed from any authority over that student lover. Those schools also warn faculty to avoid those kind of romantic tangles if at all possible.
Generally, Stites praises Herbst for getting UConn moving on this issue after decades of neglect.
Stites says the key flaw she sees with policies like UConn’s and Yale’s is that they try to regulate sexual behavior between consenting adults when there is no power issue at stake. Why, she asks, should a university try to prevent a professor of engineering from dating a 21-year-old philosophy major undergrad who is never going to be in his class, never going to have him as an adviser, never going to need his support to go to graduate school or to get a doctorate in her field?
What if a professor’s wife decides to take classes and becomes an undergraduate at the same school? Can a university stop them from having sex?
“I think this is an overreaction,” Stites says, “that we’ve gone too far to the other side.”
Yale spokesman Thomas Conroy says officials at his university feel that undergraduates, even when they’re not in a direct power relationship with a professor, are “vulnerable to that faculty person’s institutional power” and that’s why all those kinds of affairs are banned. “They are more vulnerable than those students in graduate programs or in the professional ranks,” he says.
Court rulings have upheld the rights of universities and colleges to regulate professor-student relationships where the faculty member has power over the student, according to Stites.
During more than three decades of offering professional counseling to UConn students, Stites encountered many cases of professor-student involvement. She says virtually all of those cases created serious problems, if not for the two people directly involved, then for other students and people in their departments or classes.
We’re talking about perceptions of favoritism, questions about a teacher’s professionalism, jealousy within a department or class. And the damage to a student can be severe, Stites warns.
UConn students like Rebecca D’Angelo and Katie Bruell say they don’t think there’s much professor-student sex going on at their school. At least neither has heard about any involving undergraduates. D’Angelo adds she has heard about a couple of relationships between professors and teaching assistants, but not where the faculty member has direct authority over his lover.
D’Angelo, a history/anthropology major, calls UConn’s attempt to prevent professor-student sex “generally a good policy.” Now going into her senior year, D’Angelo is from North Stonington, Conn.
She says those kinds of sexual relationships can screw up and “confuse things” for students who are supposed to be at the university to get an academic education.
Bruell is a 21-year-old from North Chelmsford, Mass., who will be going into her senior year this fall. “Personally, I haven’t seen anything like that on campus,” says Bruell, who is secretary of UConn’s American Civil Liberties Union branch.
While she likes the UConn policy generally, Bruell thinks it’s going too far to ban professor-student sex “if there’s absolutely no connection to grade-giving or opportunity-giving.”
“They are consenting adults,” she says. In those non-power-relationship cases, Bruell believes “it should be at their discretion.”
At the same time, Bruell notes, lots of students do rate professors in different ways on college-student websites, including “a chili pepper rating on whether a professor is hot.”
“I don’t do that,” she laughs, “but still, it’s out there.”
Editor's note: This story has been altered from the original version that appeared on line and in print. The original version incorrectly characterized Cynara Stites’ views on the subject of sex between professors and students.