Professors Dating Students, Professors Harassing Students


“As for the fact of being a lecturer in bed with undergraduates in particular, there was no possibility of avoiding the charge that this was an abuse of my position.”

Those are the words of Ted Honderich, now 85 years old and emeritus professor of philosophy of mind and logic at University College London. They were published in 2001 in his memoir, Philosopher: a Kind of Lifeand refer to a time in the mid 1960s, when he was in his 30s.

He continues:

But it was not easy to make clear sense of the charge. It was not as if my partners were reluctant, which they were not. They were not seduced, or hardly more seduced than me. To use a term not then current, there was no harassment worth the name. Nor did they act from the promise or anticipation of academic favours, or fear of reprisal if they declined my casual invitations. If they were impressed by me in my position, which very likely they were, I did in fact possess the attributes in question. Being impressed was not in itself being a victim. Evidently I was breaking a tacit undertaking to Sir John Fulton [a university administrator] and to others of his mind. But was the conventional view of the weight of this obligation correct? Why was there no explicit rule? It did not escape me either that I was not alone in my ways. There were others than our Abelard who were not burdened by their tacit undertaking.

So I would have said in setting out to defend myself. In fact, in these buoyant times, I did not reflect a lot on my actions and my moral standing, or suffer guilt, partly because of the optimistic feeling that if I worked at a defence, a confident one might be constructed. I was never called on to provide one. (pp.128-29)

This passage and related ones were brought to my attention by Joshua Habgood-Coote (Bristol), who discussed them on Twitter. (It is unclear whether these students were ones Honderich had any supervisory role over.)

I’ve reproduced the passage here not to provide an occasion for excoriating Honderich. It isn’t obvious today that it is wrong for professors to have consensual romantic or sexual relations with students at their university over whom they have no supervisory role, and it is not clear to what extent such a judgment was seriously entertained 55 or so years ago. Further, even if one thinks Honderich acted wrongly by engaging in those relations, whether and how he should be blamed or otherwise held responsible for them today is another matter. (To be clear, it’s not that I’m endorsing relativism here; I am, however, saying that judgments about how to react to these kinds of cases are complicated by uncertainty and social and temporal distance.) I would add that Honderich’s personal life was widely discussed in reviews following the book’s publication, and we needn’t rehash all of that here. (Though I would recommend reading this excellent review by Catherine Wilson.)

The circulation of these passages, rather, presents an opportunity to discuss some of the disputes over romantic or sexual relations between professors and students. I’ll raise just two here: (1) arguments over blanket policies that some schools have adopted banning any such relationships, and (2) arguments concerning the treatment of philosophers who’ve engaged in such relationships.

(1) Blanket Relationship Bans

One consideration relevant to relationship bans arises in another passage of Honderich’s book that was part of the Twitter discussion:

Feminism had begun, with books and marches, but it did not include the charge of harassment by teachers. Harassment there certainly was, once by me in at least one mind. A young woman of good family told me of her sad marriage to an Indian gentleman, I sympathized too much, and did get an idea in my head. Something was said to Richard [Wollheim, then chair of the department] of this, and he found her another tutor. It was a good lesson of a kind. It preserved me from an undergraduate or two with the invigorating idea of an extra-curricular connection with their tutor. (p.189)

That’s one worry about professor-student relationships. Even if we suppose that there are some that are consensual and otherwise unproblematic—“successful”—we need to look at the ongoing context in which such relationships might come about. An ongoing context that produces some successful relationships probably involves a greater number of relationship attempts. Some of these attempts fail, and it is likely that some of these attempts will involve sexual harassment. So a context in which such attempts are not discouraged is one which may lead to more sexual harassment (this sounds plausible but is ultimately an empirical question so if you know of work on this feel free to share it). If that is so, it should be taken into account in reasoning about whether to have such policies.

Now in this latter case the student Honderich admits harassing is one he has institutional authority over. Can we at least agree that professors have very strong reasons not to attempt relationships with their own students? Whether such relationships would involve a power imbalance that undermines the possibility of consent, I don’t know; I think the diversity of actual cases means that this is hard to generalize about. However, such relationships clearly violate widely-accepted and well-justified norms regarding conflict of interest, and there is no sufficiently compelling reason in these cases to override these norms. Many universities now have policies that prohibit such relationships (or, in cases in which the lines of institutional authority are less clear, policies that require disclosure of the relationship to the relevant administrators).

On the other side of the debate over blanket bans are the goods of romantic or sexual relationships and sexual liberty. Last year, philosopher Neil McArthur (Manitoba) published an article, “Relationships between university professors and students: Should they be banned?” in Ethics and Education, arguing against bans of professor-student relationships (also discussed in this Times Higher Ed piece). McArthur acknowledges  that “romances between faculty and students are minefields, both emotionally and ethically, and they should be approached with the utmost care and trepidation.” However, “such matters are far too complex for the blunt tool provided by outright prohibitions, and that such prohibitions cannot be justified” (p.138).

On whether such relationships are likely to be nonconsensual, McArthur looks at some empirical work:

In Glaser and Thorpe’s (1986, 49) survey of 464 former graduate students, all female, about their sexual involvement with professors, nearly all reported that they ‘felt no coercion or exploitation whatsoever.’ Bellas and Gossett (540) similarly found that, among those in their smaller survey, ‘none of the students felt coerced to initiate or to sustain their relationships … students believed that they entered into them freely—their relationships were, at least in their own minds, consensual.’ We must consider, too, that it is by no means always the professor who initiates romantic contact. Skeen and Nielsen (1983, 39) reported that in only three of the twenty-five cases they studied was the sexual interaction initiated by the professor. (p.136)

(See below for a criticism of McArthur’s intepretation and use of some of this data.)

Part of McArthur’s argument against blanket bans is that enforcing them well would be problematic and difficult. For example, interestingly, he claims that such bans would make the aforementioned conflicts of interest harder to detect and avoid. He writes:

Supporters of relationship bans will say that such relationships often create conflicts of interest, such as cases where a student is involved with his or her supervisor. This is certainly true, and these conflicts must be dealt with. However, they can be easily addressed non-punitively, such as by transferring supervisory responsibility to another faculty member. But banning relationships outright actually works against, not in favour of, this important goal. If we are to prevent conflicts of interest, it is crucial that the conflicts be reported as they arise, so that they may be managed. The threat of punitive action for consensual sex makes it impossible for professors to disclose a relationship that creates a conflict, and so these relationships, when they develop, will be kept secret. It is only by removing the threat of punishment that universities can ensure they know about, and can thus eliminate, conflicts of interest. (p.134)

This seems to assume that compliance with a policy that bans professor-student relationships will be low, and that compliance with a policy that merely requires their disclosure will be quite high. Without these assumptions in place, it could be that the overall reduction in the number of student-professor relationships brought about by the ban is so significant that, while it still results in some such relationships remaining undisclosed, there are fewer such undisclosed relationships with the ban in place than without it. Are those assumptions about uneven compliance warranted? I doubt we can make an informed judgment about that at this time, but in general, when comparing policies, we should guard against just helping ourselves to empirically unsubstantiated assumptions of differential levels of compliance.

That said, I think McArthur is smart to draw our attention to what the potential costs of certain versions of blanket bans would be, especially since they would be administered by imperfect human beings.

Along those lines we might ask about the “right to sexual intimacy” or to “sexual activity in private” that McArthur thinks is threatened by a blanket ban. How much of a threat is it, really?

We should note that such bans amount to saying to professors: “Given your position, you cannot attempt to exercise your ‘right to sexual intimacy’ with the small number of particular people who are currently students at your school. However, you may (a) exercise your ‘right to sexual intimacy’ during this time with any of the billions of other adults in the world who consent to it, (b) wait a little while until the particular people who are currently students at your school are no longer students at your school and then exercise your ‘right to sexual intimacy’ with any of them who consent to it, or (c) abandon your position in the school and be free right now to exercise your ‘right to sexual intimacy’ with any of them who consent to it.”

Framed this way, such blanket bans seem like less of an incursion on people’s rights to sexual intimacy—especially at schools in well-populated areas. It should be acknowledged, though, that people at more remote schools may indeed be more negatively affected by them. (See, also, this previous post: “Are Bans on Faculty-Student Sex Unjust to Students?“)

After Times Higher Ed wrote about McArthur’s article, it published a response piece by five philosophers from the University of Guelph: Maya J. GoldenbergKaren HouleMonique DeveauxKaryn L. Freedman, and Patricia Sheridan. In it, they argue that McArthur’s evidence does not support his conclusions about whether student-professor relationships are generally consensual:

He cites a 1986 study of 464 female psychologists, claiming that it shows that “nearly all” of those who had sexual involvement with their professors during graduate training “felt no coercion or exploitation whatsoever”. But a closer look points to an altogether different conclusion. In fact, 10 per cent of these women reported feeling coerced at the time, and 30 per cent said that they later came to feel that there was coercion. More alarming still, 71 per cent of all of those who had experienced sexual advances by educators (some of whom had rejected those advances) felt that they were coercive to some degree. Lastly, only women who completed their doctorates were surveyed—a crucial limitation (acknowledged by the study’s authors) given that many impacted by sexual harassment abandon their studies.

The authors also believe that McArthur overlooks the impact of such relationships “on the learning community as a whole”:

As highlighted by a growing body of research, “available” (usually male) faculty members advertise that fact in subtle and not-so-subtle ways in order to cast a wide net. In so doing, they hijack the learning spaces for their own purposes. In philosophy, for instance, they might let it be known in seminars and classes that they are single or party to an “open” marriage, using the example of polygamy when talking about natural rights; even arguing in favour of extramarital affairs as their illustration of utilitarian reasoning. They may be doing it unconsciously, but it in effect sexualises the learning space for everyone. 

Those who, quite reasonably, feel uncomfortable about a sexualized work environment, may find that their best option is to reduce their participation in it, or leave academia altogether:

Some will be unsuspectingly flattered by an academic who takes a keen personal interest in their work. Discovering that their bodies, not their intellect, ignited that attention will be, at best, embarrassing, and may discourage them from continuing their studies in this field. Other students who sense that their professor’s interest is not merely professional will be hampered by deep uncertainty and insecurity. And how, in either case, can the students deflect the professor’s interest without damaging the professional opportunity that comes from their support—or potentially hurting their academic futures by offending him? So they avoid the department when he is around, stay away from talks and reading groups and abstain from social gatherings where he is likely to be present. In short, they lose their footing in the intellectual and social community. 

I appreciate these concerns. I think, though, that we could usefully distinguish between an environment in which consensual professor-student relations are allowed and an environment which is “sexualized.” Some people might meet at church, for instance, and then go on to develop a romantic relationship. Is church thereby a sexualized environment? (Okay, maybe some people will think that’s a bad example, but you get the idea.)

What this distinction amounts to in practice, or in regards to policy considerations, I’m not quite sure. I think we have good reasons to favor policy approaches which expand rather than contract opportunities and options, other things equal, so I’m inclined to oppose a blanket ban. But there’s no doubt that a learning environment that’s tolerant of lecherous behavior, innuendo-filled lesson plans, and sexualized interactions and events is one that effectively reduces acceptable opportunities of the kind it is supposed to provide for a significant number of the very people it is supposed to serve. So what to do?

Here’s one possible approach: take steps to keep your school from being the kind of place that needs a blanket ban. Such steps would likely include: professors cultivating in themselves a disinclination for relationships with students, schools and units holding meetings aimed at explaining the various reasons not to engage in such relationships, strictly enforced disclosure policies, and colleagues being willing to speak to each other about problematic behavior (including that which is disguised in the veneer of plausible deniability). Advice on how to take these steps, and what other steps to take, are welcome.

The steps would probably also include the explicit acknowledgment that if the less formal mechanisms of conscience, discouragement, norms, and criticism fail—that is, fail to keep an environment in which attempts at such relationships, while technically allowed, are rare, from becoming problematically sexualized—a ban, if it would not be counterproductive, would be worth trying.

I  imagine that some people believe, correctly, that their institutions are ones in which these less formal methods have already failed. I wonder if that is true of most colleges and universities. In any event, it will be interesting to see if the bans being tried at various institutions yield the desired results.

At the departmental level, concerning graduate students, I think there are reasons to be less permissive. It’s a relatively small community, so individual relationships will likely have more of an effect on its culture and what work and life feel like in it. Additionally, the lines of power at that level are harder to disentangle—a professor may not have an explicit supervisory role over the person they’re dating, but will have some kind of relationship with whoever does; a professor may not participate in departmental decisions that concern only the individual they’re dating, but in general decisions and policy matters that may affect the graduate students as a whole—so the risks of conflict of interest seem significant. A ban on relationships between professors and graduate students in their department seems reasonable.

I’ve thrown my view into the mix here as one to consider alongside the rest. I welcome hearing from others as to what alternatives to consider, or as to how I’ve gone wrong in my thinking on this.

(2) How To Treat Those Who Have Harassed

In his discussion on Twitter, Dr. Habgood-Coote disapprovingly notes that Ted Honderich was the subject of conference honoring his work in 2016 at the Royal Institute of Philosophy (of which he had previously been Chair of the Council and Executive Committee) and that the conference led to this book, published just this month.

(For what it’s worth, in an interview (scroll down to #4 on this page), Honderich says, “I’ve been prudent with regard to undergraduates for decades. All those affairs were in my flaming and possibly more rational youth.”)

More generally, there are questions about the extent to which a person’s having harassed people should affect how they (and their work) are treated by others in the profession. We have discussed some of these issues before, for example, in “Banning the Guilty,” “Should You Continue To Teach The Work of Sexual Harassers?“, “Hiring and ‘Unofficial’ Information,” “Disbelief, Inaction, and the Persistence of Harassment and Assault,” and “When, If Ever, Do Scandals Belong On A Scholar’s Wikipedia Page?“.

Further discussion of the issue is welcome, but I ask that commenters refrain from making accusations of harassment or related misconduct here. Also, please recall the comments policy.

Felix Schramm, “Spatial Intersection”

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