Are Bans on Faculty-Student Sex Unjust to Students?


The New Republic has published “Lust for Learning,” by Laura Miller. If it weren’t for the fact that this article is full of references to philosophers past and present, I would ignore it and its ridiculous subtitle: “Is erotic longing between professors and students unavoidable?” Take a moment to imagine the bizarre world in which the answer to that question is yes.

Sorry for that. Now try to think of something else. Anything else. Or stare at this for a while to clear your mind:

Szakaly gif

Authors are sometimes not responsible for how their articles are titled, so I’ll give Miller the benefit of the doubt that she doesn’t think that’s a serious question.

Miller’s examples of romantic educational relationships include Socrates and Alcibiades, Abelard and Héloïse, Heidegger and Arendt, Bennington College in the 1960s, characters that populate some novels by Philip Roth, and feminist author Jane Gallop and members (cough) of her dissertation committee.

It’s not clear how this interesting collection of examples help answer the real question of Miller’s essay, which is what stance universities should take towards faculty-student relationships.

She notes that Harvard has banned

all consensual “romantic or sexual” relationships between faculty members and undergraduates, regardless of whether the student is enrolled in any of the professor’s classes or is even in the same department (although faculty can still date graduate students if they don’t supervise their work).

Echoing the view Laura Kipnis expressed in one of her recent pieces for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Miller says

the new university strictures permit only one view of student-faculty relationships, when in fact, like most human connections, they sprawl across a bewildering spectrum. The official model will of course apply in some cases, but it will also do an injustice in a great many others. In particular, this model invalidates the student’s own desire and self-determination. Like a drunk person or a child, a student, by definition, cannot consent to a tryst with a faculty member….

It is an excess of caution that makes the vulnerabilities of a community’s most fragile members the benchmark for everyone else’s sexual choices.

Why would a university ban such relationships? Strangely, Miller’s article does not contain the phrase “conflict of interest.” It spends just one sentence on “unfairness”—the unfairness that the student sleeping with the professor is bound to get more attention than other students. And the only time “power” is mentioned is to say that speaking of a “power differential” between the student and teacher would have been “absurd” prior to the Middle Ages. (Quick check: we’re still moving forward in time, right?) It seems strange that an article so dominated by philosophy examples—one that actually uses philosophy examples to support a more permissive view of faculty-student sexual relations—would skip lightly over these concerns, especially given the fairly public problems the discipline has had recently with sexual harassment and assault.

The main reasons Miller considers in favor of a ban are pragmatic:

Bans on faculty-student relationships amount to an institutional throwing up of the hands when it comes to parsing the difference between an intense pedagogic experience and a manipulative seduction. Better to define any sexual contact at all as categorically predatory than to get tangled up in the mysteries of any individual couple’s story. That doesn’t necessarily mean that university administrators actually believe that students are inevitably the victims of their professors when such affairs happen. Chances are they’re  just trying to save their institutions trouble in the form of protests, angry parents, and lawsuits. 

One gets the sense that Miller finds this unsatisfactory, but given everything else that everyone at a university has to do besides analyze others’ relationships, as well as the unpleasantness of having your professors or colleagues comb through the details of your love life, these considerations shouldn’t be ignored.

The whole article is here. (via Philosophy Matters)

Request: before commenting on this post, please recall the comments policy, and also take a look at this.

(image: animated gif by David Szakaly)

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Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
6 years ago

I’m against faculty dating students or being allowed to date students. I take the concerns about paternalism very seriously, but in the end, err on the side of student protection rather than student freedom on this issue. However, if we are worried about paternalism, perhaps we should allow students to vote on it. I’m sure that they would vote against permitting it, but if they didn’t, I suppose that means the freedom is more important to them than I thought.Report

Kristina Meshelski
Kristina Meshelski
6 years ago

Thanks Justin, now I find that gif erotic.Report

anonymusk
anonymusk
6 years ago

How exactly does the New Consensus plan to expunge “erotic longing” from the relationships of often lonely, often socially awkward, often clinically anxious or depressed, often idealistic professors with young, chipper, eager-to-please in their sexual and energetic prime? Maybe we can monitor professors’ genitals for signs of arousal and fire them if they exhibit any on campus.Report

Humorless Grad Student
Humorless Grad Student
Reply to  anonymusk
6 years ago

I don’t have a response to your comment, just wanted to share an anecdote that your comment called to mind: A professor once remarked that I was in my “sexual prime.” I excused myself and went to the restroom because I thought I was going to vomit.Report

Humorless Grad Student
Humorless Grad Student
6 years ago

I say this not to impugn anyone who has felt otherwise, but just for the sake of clarity to the professors reading this, and other similar pieces that have come out over the last year, who I worry might get the wrong idea about students, as a demographic, thinking of them dreamily in their spare time: I have never once felt “erotic longing” for any of my professors. While Laura Miller’s (and Laura Kipnis’) experience is apparently different, this simply hasn’t been a common phenomena in my circle of friends (neither in graduate school nor as undergrads). This also isn’t to say it doesn’t happen, of course. I’m sure it does.Report

Buck Field
Reply to  Humorless Grad Student
6 years ago

In response to receiving emails with tasteful, costumed photos attached from an attractive student, my reaction was to suggest we might follow up after the semester, to avoid problems.

In truth however, I must admit that I’m probably always biased toward giving attention to students I like more, whether my most notable motivation is their interest in the topic, intelligence, writing style, or physical attractiveness.Report

Humorless Grad Student
Humorless Grad Student
Reply to  Buck Field
6 years ago

If those photos were unsolicited, your student sounds a little creepy, but that’s just my reaction.Report

Buck Field
Reply to  Humorless Grad Student
6 years ago

She was proud of her Snow White – and it’s entirely possible I brought up winning a Halloween costume contest for less than $3, which I considered an excellent investment.

Is that soliciting? I was surprised and flattered by the flirtation…not what I would have done, but I quickly took the philosophical view of the current pope, asking “Who am I to judge?”

BTW: “The Flying Businessman”: comment image?dl=0Report

MrMister
MrMister
Reply to  Humorless Grad Student
6 years ago

In every educational environment I’ve ever been in where students were post-pubescent, there have been some teachers who were young, attractive, and friendly, and, consequently, there have been some students who daydreamed about them. Of course, this is a tiny minority of teachers. I never knew anyone who was lusting after the random middle-aged schlub in sweats with interesting views on Hume, but I did know people lusting after the boyish younger prof with the dimples and the sparkling smile; the human (and academic) life cycle being what it is, there are a lot more of the former than the latter. But given that there are lots and lots of teachers just about anywhere teaching is being done, somewhere in the university there are some answering to the latter description: and then somewhere else at that same university there is a student who thinks they’re dreamy. As such, my own experience supports answering the subtitle question with: no. (Some subset of) students’ attraction to (some subset of) their teachers will always be with us.

Of course, whether (some subset of) students is attracted to (some subset) of their teachers tells us little to nothing about what colleges should do about it. Like Justin, I find the ‘merely pragmatic’ concerns listed at the end of the OP to be rather compelling.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
6 years ago

I’m rather surprised by this in the OP: ““Is erotic longing between professors and students unavoidable?” Take a moment to imagine the bizarre world in which the answer to that question is yes.”

The answer seems obviously to be “yes”, unless you are taking the question to ask whether there must be erotic longing in every student-professor relationship. Some professors are going to long for some students and some foolish students are going to long for their professors. As long as students and professors are human, this is unavoidable. We can allow that this is true without approving relationships between faculty and students.Report

Trinidad
Trinidad
6 years ago

I’m still unsure what to think about this issue. However, I’m tempted to think there is a burden of proof on those who want to ban such relationships. The starting point is that such relationships are permitted and this holds until someone comes up with a good argument for banning them. The reason I am tempted to think this is that this generally seems true of any prima facie consensual activity between two adults that does not cause harm to any third parties. So, for example, I haven’t thought much about the moral permissibility of boxing, trash talking sessions, or sadomasochistic sex. However, given that these are prima facie consensual activities that do not (normally) harm any third parties I think we must by default hold that they are permitted until someone comes up with a good argument for banning them. Perhaps others disagree with this kind of principle. However, if this is correct then the dialectic in this debate might proceed as follows: Arguments in favour of banning are offered. These arguments are critically scrutinized and objections are offered. If none of the pro-banning argument survive these objections then the default position of no ban remains in tact. However, if any pro-ban argument is not refuted after critical scrutiny then the default position is defeated and we have grounds for banning these relationships. Notice that if this is the correct picture of the dialectic then those who oppose banning are not required to offer a positive argument as to why such relationships should be permitted. All they need to do is refute every pro-banning argument offered.Report

Edward
Edward
6 years ago

I’m curious about these “pragmatic considerations” that some of you find compelling. After all, the policies in question don’t just ban sexual relations with one’s own students. They ban sexual relations between any student and any faculty, regardless of the academic distance between them, even if they are in different departments, programs, or schools within the same university. Indeed, my school’s policy includes a similar ban on faculty/graduate-student relationships, and actually extends to anyone who *might*, at any point in the future, take any of one’s classes. What are the pragmatic considerations in favor of such sweeping policies?Report

Felonius Screwtape
Felonius Screwtape
6 years ago

we’ve known since at least Plato that pedagogy is pederasty, viz., that there is alway an element of the erotic in the teacher-student relation by its very nature. philosophy and intelligence are inherently sexy, and no institutional policy is going to change that. but these litigious days, it’s also the case — and this is a hard lesson to learn — that students are not our “friends.” Fraternizing with them in any way is fraught with legal danger; indeed, if you’re overly friendly with one, another may (nay, will) complain about preferential treatment; or if one is in love or lust with you, and you do not requite (or worse, if you reject) the advance, they’ll complain about that, too, and find a way to make trouble for you (surely this is not *always* true, but both of these examples are drawn from experience, and i could list several more, but the point is clear). Because of the power dynamic, it’s easy to seduce a student, but as power is always reversible, it’s also easy to be seduced by a student, as our egos are fragile and in need of fluffing, and again, no institutional policy will change that (if anything, it will make it worse, because then it becomes an exciting challenge for all to subvert the policy). The only thing that might change it is some good old-fashioned Aristotelian continence. It’s a challenge, to be sure, especially if you’re living in a remote area where the only activities are related to university life; but if you’re living in a metropolitan area of any size, (for example, Chicago or Boulder), then why why why oh why would you shit where you eat? this sounds like a terribly conservative solution, but probably the only thing that minimize the risk of erotic longing between professor and student becoming a legal problem is for professors to be the adults, moderate the behavior, get hold of themselves, and just say no. As to the question of whether or not an institutional policy or personal professorial continence is unjust to the student … come on! srsly? universities already limit their freedoms in any number of ways, often in the name of security, and at the same time provide them with a wide variety of often luxurious services. is mandating that they can’t have sex with (or pursue romantic interest in) their professors while they are students really a serious infringement on their liberty? i think not.Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
6 years ago

One thing I find troubling about all of the following things – this article, arguments in favor of globally banning all faculty/student sexual relations, and other arguments *against* globally banning all faculty/student sexual relations – is the apparent assumption, or at least strong presumption, that universities constitute closed social systems. I mean, it’s just weird and more than a little creepy. And I’ve got to say that it’s one thing I like about working a full-time non-academic job.

And I’ve seen this attitude from all sides. Someone really needs to sit down with faculty in favor of dating students and point out that there’s a big, wide world of dating out there, and most of the people in it aren’t students at their university. At the same time, global opponents of all faculty/student dating should probably consider the fact that dating across ranks (when one person doesn’t directly supervise another) happens all the time in the workplace, and it’s generally not considered to be a problem (yes, a few companies still have policies, but those policies are generally recognized as outmoded).Report

Therese
Therese
6 years ago

The power differential between a tenured professor and an untenured or even adjunct professor in the same department is arguably much greater than between an assistant professor in philosophy and an undergraduate student in forestry. The potential for conflicts of interest are much more pressing, and the ability for the more powerful person to do great damage to the career prospects of the less powerful person are far greater. Moreover it would be a little creepy if some senior tenured professor made a habit of pursuing consensual intimate relationships with and only with untenured or adjunct professors in her/his own department. Despite the huge power differentials, despite the ability of a senior professor to destroy the career of junior or adjunct professors, and despite the great potential for conflicts of interest, I see nobody arguing that there should be institutional bans on amorous relationships between senior and junior professors. Should there be?Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Therese
6 years ago

Therese: “Moreover it would be a little creepy if some senior tenured professor made a habit of pursuing consensual intimate relationships with and only with untenured or adjunct professors in her/his own department.”

I think part of the issue here is that it’s surely much rarer for a senior professor to serially harass junior members of the department than it is for a professor to serially harass students, if only because in most cases they see many more different students different years. (Maybe in departments with lots of adjuncts this is different.) And it fairly often happens that two people are in a relationship before they become junior-senior colleagues at the same department (whether because they were hired together, or one was hired as the partner of another, or they were already at the department and one makes tenure first).

We should try to look at the actual problems that arise around relationships of various types, rather than trying to reason about them a priori. It seems to me that when we do, we see a lot more basis for bans on faculty-undergrad relationships than on junior-senior relationships.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

There does seem to be a tension. On the one hand, we say ‘who are we to ban? don’t be so draconian!’ On the other hand, should someone actually date an undergraduate, we would surely judge them, and make our disapproval know, no doubt to the extent it becomes professionally embarrassing. So I guess, the point is this: removing the right is intolerable, but their exercising the right is equally intolerable, so what’s the point of this whole facade? Shouldn’t we just be upfront and say ‘this isn’t on’? Indeed, what’s the point of permitting something legally, only to prohibit it by the force of social mores?Report

Buck Field
Reply to  Anon
6 years ago

The point, Anon, has historically been something we call “progress”. The facts of personal discrimination (is’s) which arguments such as yours utilize have no obvious relationship to what we should have in the way of freedoms and legal restrictions (ought’s).

It is not clear who you mean to speak for by “we would judge them…” but insofar as you’re referring to anyone with my perspective, your claim is false.Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  Buck Field
6 years ago

So if one of your colleagues openly introduced you in the Faculty to their 19-20yr old partner who takes your Phil 101 you wouldn’t be like ‘wtf’?Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Anon
6 years ago

Anon, I remember this sort of comment being made quite often twenty or thirty years ago about the legitimacy of gay relationships. Michael Ruse, in his earlier work _Homosexuality_, ponders (like many others at the time) whether there should be tighter restrictions on legal or otherwise acceptable gay sexual or romantic relationships, since there is (according to Ruse) a higher incidence of attraction between disparate-age couples in the gay community.

I take it the answer we would all give in the homosexuality case today is, ‘None of your goddamn business’. If the two (or more) people are both adults, and neither one has been coerced into the relationship or into doing anything in the relationship, then we should be happy for the gay couple and leave it as that. Are their ages very disparate, like that between James Randi and his much-younger lover whom he finally was able to marry after several decades? Great. Let’s wish them well and celebrate their having found each other. And if we can’t say anything nice about them, let’s not say anything at all.

So if one of my colleagues openly introduced me to his or her younger partner in my PHIL 101, I’d hope I’d be a bigger person than to descend to putting their relationship under the microscope to decide if it lives up to my standard. As long as there’s no coercion or corruption, it’s really none of my business. If I don’t like relationships between adult partners of different ages, it’s my right not to have them. That’s all.Report

Jonathan Ichikawa
6 years ago

As several commenters have observed, there are a variety of considerations to be weighed against one another in setting these kinds of policies. One of them is the social cost that bans of various strengths would impose on both students and faculty members. One thing to bear in mind, however, is that those social costs are likely to vary tremendously according to the situation of particular colleges and universities. There are parts of the world in which quite a high proportion of the people one might be interested in dating will be attached to the university—I’d think many large schools in small and/or rural towns are particularly likely to be like this. (A rough heuristic: you (student/faculty) meet somebody in a way unaffiliated with the university—walking your dog, or acting in community theater, or at a local dance class, or on OkCupid—how likely is it that this person might happen to be someone (faculty/student) from your university? In some places, quite high; in others, much less so.) In a place where the university makes for a higher proportion of your social circle, an outright ban on student-faculty relationships would impose a high cost. But in many places (Harvard is certainly one of them), that cost is much lower.

So I’m not at all convinced that we should expect to agree on a universal policy about this.Report

Cheyney Ryan
Cheyney Ryan
6 years ago

Physicians cannot fuck their patients, and lawyers cannot fuck their clients. For some reason, none of these professional prohibitions spur discussions about the “management of desire”, “erotic longing”, and the other b.s. that surrounds discussions of faculty fucking their students. It is assumed that these are professional relationships that should not be clouded, or compromised, by these other concerns. I don’t hear physicians/lawyers whining about this messes up their love-lives; I don’t read them regaling us with their idiotic tales of how they’ve scored with their patients/clients in the past. I can see legitimate disagreement about banning all sexual relations between any faculty and any student at an institution. I can’t for the life of me understand continuing argument about sexual relations between faculty and students they supervise or could reasonably expect to supervise.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Cheyney Ryan
6 years ago

Actually, Cheney, practice (and public opinion) in law, medicine and business have been moving in a much more liberal direction than you say for many years now.

For medicine, see e.g. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/5199756.stm

In law, California Rule 3-120 prohibits new sexual relations with a client one is representing, particularly when the sexual relations can be seen as coercive or as part of ‘payment’ for a contract, which is understandable. But 3-120 specifically includes the following clause: “(D) Where a lawyer in a firm has sexual relations with a client but does not participate in the representation of that client, the lawyers in the firm shall not be subject to discipline under this rule solely because of the occurrence of such sexual relations.”

The Harvard ban Justin mentions above is nothing at all like this. It prohibits “all consensual “romantic or sexual” relationships between faculty members and undergraduates, regardless of whether the student is enrolled in any of the professor’s classes or is even in the same department.”

We still haven’t seen any justification here for a policy like this aside from the consideration that students at a university where one teaches could, at least in some cases, intend to take a course in one’s department, which might lead to difficulties. If this is the rationale, why shouldn’t we go further and ban relationships between faculty members and any members of the public who *might* become students at one’s university? After all, someone considering a future university degree would be more likely to end up in one’s class, ceteris paribus, than someone in his or her final year who has no more courses to take and has no interest in taking courses in one’s department anyway. Banning anyone who might possibly become a student at one’s university, in theory at least, would be more consistent.Report

Humorless Grad Student
Humorless Grad Student
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

It didn’t occur to me that people might not understand reasons why there would be a similar concern about conflicts of interest and potential for abuse across departments. You might not find these reasons persuasive but at many institutions whether or not a professor is *your* professor makes only a little difference to the kind of influence they might have over you and your educational outcomes (namely, the grade in that particular class). Faculty members may serve on disciplinary boards, oversee disputes or appeals in various proceedings, and so on (they could recuse themselves where they would still run into direct oversight related to the student in question, but then there’s still, at the very least, the potential for the appearance of conflict of interest if the remaining faculty are the student’s partner’s close colleagues), be close friends with professors who the student does take classes from, or potential enemies, they might oversee study abroad or service applications, or curriculum requests, etc. I don’t think these are abstract questions about far-off possibilities. Imagine you’re a junior professor in Department A, with Student X in your class. Big-time, senior, grant-winning Professor Y in Department B is dating Student X. You might worry about your relationship to Professor Y if you don’t go easy on Student X. You might especially worry if Student X or Professor Y is difficult, or if Professor Y might some day oversee your tenure case once it goes past department approval. Or various other similar scenarios.

I think Therese’s question is more pressing — but I wonder if the difference isn’t that we tend to focus on the student question in part because at least allegations of abuse there are more common (it seems, I could be wrong, and even if I’m not, appearances can be misleading) and in part because the university may have certain obligations to students that it doesn’t have towards itself.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Humorless Grad Student
6 years ago

Humorless Grad Student, I don’t see how this addresses either of the points I just made (Sept. 10/11:50pm).

Also, let’s consider a direct application of your suggested policy. Professor Y works in the Music department at a university with 80,000 students. Student X has come to the university to go through the Actuarial Sciences program, and at this university the students in Actuarial Science have every course determined for them and their cohort: there are no electives. So Student X is not going to take any Music courses at all. The two of them meet at a cafe, in their neighborhood, and Student X is smitten after some short but delightful conversation. He gets up the nerve to approach Y, who feels the chemistry also. They’re both so glad to have found someone they really feel for after a long time without love (or close friendship). But the minute Y discovers that X is a student at the university, you feel, Y should be required to break off the conversation, on the grounds that it’s remotely possible that X will be involved in a complaint or service application that will go to some board that Y may at that point sit on, and (you think) even if Y recuses herself in that very unlikely case, there’s the potential for an appearance of conflict of interest.

Are you consistent about this? Suppose V is the sheriff of a small community of 10,000 people in Alaska. There’s no other nearby community. W moves to the community, and there’s mutual chemistry with V, much to the surprise and delight of V and W. Do you feel that V is professionally obligated to resist anything approaching a romantic or sexual relationship with W? V would, after all, be vastly more likely to encounter W in a professional capacity requiring objectivity than Y would be to encounter X in that same capacity.

I’d also like to hear if you’re just singling out sex and romance because they excite people’s scandalous appetites, or if you’re more consistent and extending this to friendships. Suppose R, S, T and U are friends who meet every Sunday for a game of bridge. R teaches courses in the Architecture program, and S mentions at the game that she’s been accepted to the Accounting program at the same university. Do you think this means R has to stop attending the bridge games, or demand that S stop attending, for the next four years, and otherwise break off all friendly communication with S, on the grounds that it’s conceivable that, say, S might decide to apply to a study abroad program and R could be asked to sit on a relevant committee that year and, even if R were to recuse herself from that particular decision in that distant possibility, there could be a perception of conflict of interest in someone’s mind?Report

Humorless Grad Student
Humorless Grad Student
6 years ago

Anonymous, I think you’re being sort of weirdly uncharitable, so I’ll reply this once and bow out. I never recommended a policy. No where in this thread did I do so. That was intentional; like Ichikawa, I don’t think we should expect to find a universal policy that works well across widely different campuses. You said we haven’t seen any justification for policies with wider prohibitions. I laid out some reasons why people think there are broader problems of conflicts of interest than the one you mentioned. I noted that I thought some of those are in fact concerns.

Not only did I not say that anyone is ever obligated to cease conversation because of the policy I support, I never even said there *is* a policy I support.Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
Reply to  Humorless Grad Student
6 years ago

I agree with HGS here. Anon was clearly being uncharitable. I take what amounts to, I think, the most common position on these issues: there should be a ban on faculty/student dating in cases of the student being enrolled in the faculty member’s course, there maybe should be a fan when the student is majoring in the faculty member’s field (though this depends, as Ichikawa helpfully pointed out, on the size of the university and some of the details), but that there should not be a global ban on all faculty/student dating, because that would be an outrageous intrusion into the activities of consenting adults.

That said, when I speak with people who do support a global ban on all faculty/student dating, I don’t think they would deny that there are lots of unproblematic cases of faculty/student dating. And attributing to them that position would be very uncharitable, because it’s an outlandish position that has many obvious counter-examples. Some of these counter-examples are your friends and colleagues. I think what they’re getting at is that the benefits from those unproblematic cases are outweighed by the negative things that happen when faculty/student dating is allowed. And I think that’d be the more charitable way to read that position, unless one of its defenders wants to point out where I’m wrong.

That said, I think they’re wrong about this, for most (though probably not all) universities. I think that if a faculty member in biology meets a student in philosophy at a coffee shop and they go on a date (or have a one time sexual encounter, or become friends-with-bennies, or name-your-favorite-relationship-type), then they’re going to do that whether or not there’s a policy against it. And I don’t think they’d be wrong to do it, policy be damned. And eventually such a policy would be ignored because it’s a foolish one. But, as far as I can tell, that’s the claim: that the benefits of such dating don’t outweigh the negatives of allowing it.Report

Buck Field
Reply to  Humorless Grad Student
6 years ago

Anonymous claimed your post “suggested” a policy, not that you “recommended a policy”.

AFAICT, no one has accused you of saying anyone is “obligated to cease conversation” either.

Because “recommending” is a stronger claim than the actual, it seems to constitute a strawman defense which will, to some readers, seem perhaps even more “weirdly uncharitable” than a harsh reading of Anon. The non-existent criticism you assert relating to “cease conversation” position you don’t hold appears similar. Anon is asking for more conversation regarding potential test cases.

Describing a post as a reply while refusing to address the potentially informative hypotheticals (such as of R, S, T and U), and excusing the refusal based on one’s own strawman may also seem disingenuous to some.Report

Humorless Grad Student
Humorless Grad Student
Reply to  Buck Field
6 years ago

“But the minute Y discovers that X is a student at the university, you feel, Y should be required to break off the conversation . . . ” I thought ‘obligated’ and ‘required’ were operating something like synonyms, as were ‘breaking off conversation’ and ‘ceasing conversation’ but apparently I not only need lessons in reasoning, I also need lessons in English. Thank you for pointing that out to me.Report

Buck Field
Reply to  Humorless Grad Student
6 years ago

Where X is some hypothetical situation, I interpret “(you think) X” to indicate their take on what my position regarding X would be. If X has obvious problems, then I take it to be a challenge and an invitation – which I hope is sincere & intelligent, but I don’t take it as a claim I actually believe or said X.

I do recognize that challenges of this type are (especially in text-only formats) easily taken to be more hostile/aggressive than the critic might intend.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Humorless Grad Student
6 years ago

Humorless Grad Student and Matt Drabek, are you interested in discussing to the bottom of this issue, or aren’t you? If you are, then please answer the three questions you keep avoiding.

Here they are again.

1. Wouldn’t it be a consistent extension of your view (or the view of the proponents of the ban, whatever) that non-students who might potentially attend one’s university should be covered in the same way as actual students in very different programs of study who are certainly not going to take a course in your discipline? If not, why not?

2. What do you say about the sheriff case I mentioned? If you feel it’s relevantly different from the case of students in a different department, then what’s the morally relevant difference?

3. What do you say about the bridge playing case I mentioned? If you feel that it’s relevantly different from the sexual/romantic relationship case, then what’s the morally relevant difference?

The fact that I mistakenly represented you, HGS, as holding that a professor and student from different departments should break off their romantic conversation once their statuses became revealed should not have prevented you from answering these three simple questions. But to get that completely out of the way as an excuse for you to keep dodging the questions, here we go: I hereby withdraw, in toto, my previous claim that you implied that. I acknowledge that nothing you said logically implied that you felt that the two people needed to stop the conversation that minute, or indeed ever. If any harm has come to you, anyone connected with you, or anyone holding your position in this debate because of this representation, the fault is entirely my own. But that has nothing to do with the overall point. Please stop dodging it and respond to the three questions.

There’s a reason I’m pressing you hard on this, and the reason is that there are real, living, breathing people with real lives and feelings at the end of the finger you are wagging. I’ve found myself in this position over the years with some social conservatives. They say *they’re* not anti-gay, but that, you know, some other people have some doubts about the legitimacy of gay marriage or gay relationships in general, and *those* people out there might have a point worth listening to, because (they say) gay couples might send the wrong message and confuse the children, and won’t their children be teased at school, and on and on. And I think, easy for those social conservatives to wag their fingers and cast kinda-sorta aspersions on consenting adults who don’t do things their way. It costs them nothing, but it means that some people in gay relationships have to walk around with an inferiority complex, wondering if the people they meet and introduce to their gay partners will find their relationship illegitimate, whether it’ll tarnish the impression they’re trying to create, whether they now need to be ashamed of their own relationship with someone they love. And I’m against this because it’s none of our goddamn business.

And now, on this blog, aspersions are being cast on many men and women, professors and students, former professors and former students, because they violated a rule that we’re talking about in the abstract. And is there a basis for that rule? The people in favor of it don’t care, or they pretend that it’s these ‘other people’ who care and they’re just repeating what other people say, but of course in the process of repeating it, they’re giving it more currency and making it sound more natural. There are many people in the profession who have, or have had, relationships with people who have at one point been at the same university, different department where one was a student and one was a professor. Is that immoral or unprofessional? If so, let’s figure it out by discussing the relevant test cases rationally, as I’ve been trying to do. If it’s not immoral and unprofessional, then let’s stop insinuating that there’s something wrong with it when there isn’t.

Perhaps some people here and elsewhere are suggesting these things on blogs and elsewhere because they’ve never taken the time to consider the feelings and lives of those in the relationships they’re smearing. If so, maybe they should try thinking about what it would be like to be in a relationship like that and have to read these attacks on your private relationship choices, and to wonder who else is taking them seriously.

In the meantime, let’s please discuss the test cases I repeated above. If you don’t want to have this conversation, then please make clear that you’re abandoning your claims.Report

Humorless Grad Student
Humorless Grad Student
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

No, I am not interested in discussing this issue to the bottom with you, nor do I owe you that conversation in exchange for continuing to hold my views — views, which I’ll add, I haven’t actually shared with you. I didn’t respond to your hypothetical questions in part because I felt (and continue to feel) that you were being uncharitable, but also because as directed at me, they rested on the presupposition that I support a policy which bans relationships between professors and students, which, as I’ve said, I don’t, given that there is no particular policy that I endorse in general.

You’re obviously frustrated with this conversation, and you’re obviously frustrated that people hold views which you feel not only run contrary to your own, but also cause harm to others. That’s understandable. But given that you’re directing that frustration at me, I am not interested in discussing this further with you.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

Humorless Grad Student, of course you don’t owe it to me to work out whether the aspersions you’ve been casting on those in these romantic or sexual relationships are legitimate.

You owe it only to the people in those relationships, since you have implied there is something objectionable about them and helped put them under public suspicion, and to the pursuit of truth, and to your own dialectical integrity. If you don’t care about those things, then I agree that there’s nothing else to motivate you to respond to the problems your position pretty clearly faces.

But at least it’s useful for the rest of us to see that you have no response against these initial cases and are ‘bowing out’ of a conversation that doesn’t seem to be going well for your position just when there appears to be nothing to say for your view, however much you now claim we’re unworthy of hearing what your view is.

So long.Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

Well…if I may, since I was addressed here, I’ll offer some response on my own behalf:

1. HGS hasn’t stated their views, but mine are clear enough. I’m not a proponent of global bans, only local bans on relationships among those with more direct supervisory/authoritative duties, so this whole coverage of potential students vs. coverage of actual students doesn’t reapply apply to me. But I imagine a proponent of global bans could make some sort of appeal to the fiduciary duties of a university to its students, and use that to claim that the policy doesn’t reach to anyone who isn’t an actual student. They don’t yet have such duties to non-students.

2. Again, the sheriff case really isn’t a problem for me because I don’t hold the view it’s aimed at. But couldn’t someone who favors global bans distinguish it from the sheriff case by pointing out that students are, on average, much younger than many of the people with whom the sheriff interacts? I think part of the oomph behind these demands for global bans is the idea that most college students are at a particularly vulnerable stage of “adulthood”. Whereas obviously the sheriff is interacting with as many 50 year olds as 20 year olds.

3. It surely isn’t a stretch to suggest that sexual relationships raise issues in society that bridge playing doesn’t.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

Matt, first of all, thank you for responding to the questions. I know that you’re partly standing in for people who favor the ban and the Humorless Grad Student, since they refuse to speak for themselves, but I’m going to use the device of responding to you rather than them to make my response clearer.

I think your answers do a lot to reveal what’s really driving the idea that it’s plausible to ban relationships even between faculty members and students from very different departments. It isn’t really the worry about conflicts of interest, or else the bridge case and the sheriff case would trigger the same reaction. Rather, quoting you directly, ‘I think part of the oomph behind these demands for global bans is the idea that most college students are at a particularly vulnerable stage of “adulthood”.’

As someone who has been in age-disparate relationships with both older and younger partners, I can tell you that they often contain as much commitment and depth of love as age-similar relationships. My bisexual friends joke that they have twice the chances of finding true love. If you’re more interested in finding a great person than a person your own age, you similarly increase your chances. True, many people wouldn’t think twice about pursuing a relationship with someone ten or more years distant, or wouldn’t even want to. And that’s fine. But some of us find love in places where others wouldn’t look.

But in heterosexual groups, many people still find age-disparate relationships scandalous. You wouldn’t believe the things that have been said to me by heterosexuals as both the younger and the older member of such relationships. Somehow, while progressive heterosexual culture today understands that it’s nobody else’s business if you love people of your own sex or the opposite sex, your own religion or some other religion, your own race or a different race, if you enjoy having sex tenderly or with bondage and sado-masochism, if you’re cisgendered or transgendered, monogamous or polygamous, whatever, the one big taboo that remains is the two partners having different ages. Once we’re in age-disparate territory, heterosexuals in particular feel free to make offensive and belittling comments and even to socially shun both partners. Whichever partner you are, you’re not really in love: you’re out to get something crass and narrow. If you’re the younger partner, you’re also being manipulated or even brainwashed. If you’re the older partner, you’re either the master manipulator or else you’re being conned. And there’s something very wrong or icky with both of you. And your relationship can also be reduced to a transaction involving trading something for sex or conned into having sex. We always talk about gay, straight, mixed race or intercultural couples finding love, and feel warm feelings about that. But when it comes to age-disparate couples, all the critical discussion revolves around who you can ‘fuck’ (see Cheney Ryan’s comment above for an example).

Your response is revealing in another way, too. You put the word ‘adulthood’ in scare quotes. The implication, if I’m not mistaken, is that undergraduates cannot really be adults at all, but are just pseudo-adults. That they haven’t *really* reached the age at which they can be treated as autonomous agents who can make their own choices. That they’re actually naive children, and need to be protected from predators. When I was an undergraduate, I entered a committed relationship with someone much older than I was. It lasted for a long time, and it was great. But now I see that I was a child who needed protection from my partner at the time, who despite coming across to me even now as a wonderful woman was actually, in the eyes of these ‘progressives’, a child molester of some sort. Perhaps 25 or 30 should be the accepted age for entering age-disparate relationships, and up to that point we should belittle the person’s choices, discuss the legitimacy of his or her relationship on blogs, and treat the ‘adult’ as too young to grasp what is really going on and make her own decisions. Or is even 30 too young?

Even though I disagree strongly with the implications, Matt, I’m grateful for your responses because they help us get behind the masks and show us what’s really at issue here and what’s the convenient rationalization. Most so-called progressives who feel this way don’t want to admit that they have a problem with the autonomous choices of consenting adults, so we don’t normally get to address the real question, which is about the ethics of age-disparate relationships between willing adults and whether it’s anyone else’s business to decide if they’re appropriate or to stand in judgment of those who have found love with people a decade or more distant.Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

I’m certainly fine with respecting HGS’s decision and reasons not to continue the discussion, so I’m not going to disparage HGS for that.

But there’s at least one point left to be made that I think needs to be on the table. And it’s that people who defend global bans on all faculty/student dating, even among those where there’s no supervisory relationship, don’t need to go all the way down the path of claiming that undergraduates aren’t to be treated as autonomous agents making choices.

Ultimately, it’s a policy question and policy can be a messy business. The developmental research isn’t clear on when we become capable of entering consenting sexual relationships. Not only that, but individuals develop at different rates. Depending on how you use the literature and where you’re pointing, the fact is that you could build a pretty good case for setting the age of consent anywhere from a low of 13-14 years old or a high of 22-25 years old. In the United States at least, we’ve settled on an age somewhere in the 16-18 year old range (in most US states, it’s 16 or 17, with appropriate clauses and exceptions for teenagers who are close to each other in age range when they cross the 16-17 year old divide).

I think for people who support a global fan on relationships, they might only be looking to defend the much more modest claim that there’s enough doubt about consent among folks in the standard undergraduate age range, and there’s enough of a power differential with faculty, and there’s enough of a typical age difference, and there will be enough relationships where consent is in doubt, and universities have enough of a fiduciary duty to their undergraduates, that having a policy against such relationships does more good than allowing such relationships. None of that would require showing that all such relationships are problematic or that undergraduates can’t consent or anything of that nature.

Like I said, I’m not on board with that argument. I place a very high value on treating people over 18 as full adults and allowing them a big space to enter consensual relationships. And if universities would get their acts together and vigorously enforce their own harassment policies, I think the argument would be an obviously lousy one that we could put to rest. But in the present environment, I can see its strengths.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

I don’t understand, Matt. Are you saying that, since you respect people 18 or over as adults, you would normally be straightforwardly opposed to a blanket cross-campus ban on dating between students and faculty members like at Harvard, but that you’re not straightforwardly opposed to it as things stand because you don’t think universities do an adequate job of enforcing actual sexual harassment?

If so, I find that puzzling. Look, I’m sure we both agree that universities should have rules prohibiting coercive sex, and that we both agree that for the sake of fairness and the appearance of fairness, and to avoid the possibility of pressure to have sex, sex should be prohibited between any member of the university and someone in a supervisory capacity over that person. And those things are in fact forbidden everywhere. You feel that the rules are often not enforced. If that’s your concern, then why should the solution be to extend the prohibition to a vast range of other relationships that are pretty clearly not problematic at all, like the ones Michael Kremer just mentioned?

Think about it. The very same people who you think are presently falling down on the job enforcing a reasonable rule would then have to enforce a much broader rule. Why would a broader rule make them better at enforcing it? Also, the blanket ban is, in most people’s minds at least, pretty idiotic, and it would be harder for people to take it seriously. So the attitude would spread that the rule is a bit of a joke. Wouldn’t that be a bad result?

Here’s what I think is a more plausible understanding of what’s going on. First, some thoughtful and sensible people took the time to figure out that we shouldn’t permit sexual relationships between a supervisor and supervisee because the harms actually outweighed the consequences. There are reasonable grounds for prohibiting that. But people want to feel that they, or their university, is specially at the forefront of progressive-minded moral standards. And the problem was that everyone and every university already agreed that those things should be prohibited. So to be special, you had to go further and ban, say, relationships between any two members of the same department or something. It doesn’t make as much sense, but you can always rationalize new policies by saying blah blah blah the children must be protected, blah blah blah the women must be protected, blah blah blah sexual predators. It doesn’t need to make sense. These three tropes have been fountains of moralizing throughout history.

Then, the Harvard administration said, “Oh yeah? We’ll do everyone else one better.” And they came up with the blanket ban. Does it make any sense? Of course not. Look at Michael Kremer’s examples, for starters. But hardly anyone is going to come out and say it. There’s so much to lose by saying the emperor wears no clothes, and yet endorsing the new norms gives you a small benefit. You get to be seen by yourself and others as being on the vanguard of progressive morality. And people who are not personally involved in a relationship that would be prohibited under the ban tend to say, “Works for me. To hell with those poor suckers who’ll get burned by this norm and have their loving relationships disparaged publicly as somehow unkosher.”

My nonmoral explanation of this moral proposal seems to make more sense of it than the moralizing rationalization that we need to be worried about the remote chance of the actuarial sciences student applying to go on a trip and get funding from a committee that includes his or her partner who for some reason can’t recuse him/herself, or the weird idea that a sensible policy that isn’t being enforced will be more effective if the enforcers are asked to enforce a much broader and senseless policy. Sorry, but I just don’t buy it as a justification or explanation of what’s happening here.Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

No, I’m opposed to the global ban even in the current climate. I just think that arguments in favor of a global ban become much more understandable in the current climate. In a different climate where harassment policies were well enforced (and how to do that is obviously a separate issue), the argument’s appeal to fiduciary duties becomes moot, because there will be uncontroversially better ways to carry out those duties.

But it’s worth considering your story of how these global bans come about. I don’t know the answer to that and like you, I’m doing guesswork and a small bit of inference to the best explanation. But I probably agree with you that there’s a good nonmoral explanation. We may not agree on the precise explanation, though.

I guess I look at it through a lens of compliance, lawsuit avoidance, and a genuine desire on the part of university administrators to make change in the avenues that university bureaucracy is best suited to accommodate. We all know that university administrators are keen on avoiding lawsuits and getting compliance in order. We all know there are Title IX issues at stake, a ton of Title IX lawsuits in the air, and that the Obama administration has emphasized Title IX compliance. It also seems that creating new offices, more administrators, more bureaucrats, and more paper shuffling and policies is the natural move of hierarchical institutions like universities. It’s what they do best, and it’s much easier for those institutions to work with a clear policy like a global ban than a messy policy that requires extensive investigation, clear legal/moral reasoning, and the like. I don’t think the explanation needs to get much more complicated than that. We do things like write global bans, instead of appropriately enforcing harassment policy, because that’s the path of least resistance in the current environment.Report

Buck Field
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

Wonderful arguments Matt & Anon – Two big thumbs up!Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

I think I understand you now, Matt: you’re not arguing that the (at least popularly perceived) failure of some administrators to do enough to stop sexual harassment is a justification for the Harvard ban, but merely that it helps explain why some people find the ban appealing despite the fact that it isn’t morally justified.

If that’s right, then I guess we agree after all! Thanks for taking the time to discuss it with me.Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

Right, that’s it. And I think we do largely agree. I do sometimes hedge a bit on total opposition to the Harvard Ban in all cases, and for some of the reasons Ichikawa laid out above. I can well imagine a college where the Harvard ban *might* be justified. It’d be a small liberal arts college where 99+% of the students are 18-22 years old and there’s a very small faculty comprised almost entirely of tenured professors. It’d be in a major city or reasonably close to a major city, where there’s clearly a large dating pool and where a faculty member’s partner would have many alternative colleges where they could choose to do a degree. Even there, there’d be good arguments against the Harvard Ban, but the arguments in favor would start to have enough force for me that I’d waver in my opposition to the Harvard Ban.

I assume it goes without saying here that Harvard doesn’t even come close to fitting this picture, and so the Harvard Ban is clearly unjustified at Harvard. I’d bet you anything that there are already at least a few dozen Harvard professors who are currently violating the Harvard Ban, and some of them are probably violating it in some of the clearly nonproblematic ways Kremer lays out below. I also assume their colleagues are aware of it, and have no intention of taking action, because they recognize it’s nonproblematic. If Harvard were foolish enough to take action against those folks violating the Ban in the ways Kremer outlines, I doubt it’ll go well for Harvard.Report

Name withheld
Name withheld
6 years ago

I don’t find the anonymous comments uncharitable. But whether or not they are, what do you two say about the sheriff case? What do you say about the bridge case?

If you think those cases miss the point because you’re not interested in bans but only unofficial expectations, practices, etc., then fine, just substitute unofficial expectations or practices for bans and say what you advise in those cases. It seems wrong to me for anyone to suggest that the sheriff is doing anything objectionable, to any degree at all, by getting involved with the new person in town. And I don’t think the professor is acting in any way objectionably by continuing to play bridge with her old friends while one of them is taking a degree in an unrelated area.

Do you agree? Let’s leave the ban question aside, as you wish. Do you really believe the bridge player or the sheriff are even acting questionably, and that their friendships and relationships deserve the slur against them of having people say otherwise? Many, and I think most, people do not. Do you disagree?Report

metamorphic
metamorphic
6 years ago

It’s been mentioned that some young women may long for and occasionally pursue their male faculty members, who can be funny, charming, and great to talk to, in ways they might not have ever experienced before as a late teenager or early 20somethings woman. There is nothing wrong with being a sexually desirous young woman who wants some good sex and good conversation. But there is something wrong with pursuing your professors for this, because it involves a good amount of disregard for them. This kind of attention is quite often unwelcome or uncomfortable or otherwise a real problem for the male faculty members. Male faculty members really might not want you flirting with them, and it is an incredibly tricky social position to be in for them to express that or make themselves more comfortable without it going off the rails. It is also a problem when unwanted sexual attention is directed upwards in the academic hierarchy. Discussions of these sorts of bans have recently seemed to involve this undercurrent of assumption that male faculty would sleep with their interested students if there were no rules against it, and that the bans are just to prevent older faculty from predating on vulnerable young students. But they can also work the other way, to prevent confident and horny young students from inappropriate pursuit of their professors.Report

Name withheld
Name withheld
Reply to  metamorphic
6 years ago

Except, of course, that they aren’t about the students’ own professors at all. Have a look at the description of the ban in the original post.Report

metamorphic
metamorphic
Reply to  Name withheld
6 years ago

The ban is *also* about the students’ own professors. Someone doesn’t magically stop being your professor the moment they submit the grades for a given semester. They may also become your professor in the future – someone may end having to take a class in a year or two that they did not anticipate, and whoops, there’s that professor teaching it. Or, as HGS pointed out, there may be a hearing for plagiarism and there is that professor, on the committee, etc.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  metamorphic
6 years ago

Metamorphic, I’ve already given a response to that. Could you please answer it? Here it is, and I’d love to hear what you think.

“If this is the rationale, why shouldn’t we go further and ban relationships between faculty members and any members of the public who *might* become students at one’s university? After all, someone considering a future university degree would be more likely to end up in one’s class, ceteris paribus, than someone in his or her final year who has no more courses to take and has no interest in taking courses in one’s department anyway. Banning anyone who might possibly become a student at one’s university, in theory at least, would be more consistent.”Report

Hector_St_Clare
6 years ago

Anon at 11:51,

Is your concern there the age of the 19-20 year old girl friend, the fact that she is a student at your institution, or what?

I think a legitimate case can be made against dating people (students, professors, whatever) at your workplace, though I’m not sure if agree. And I really think the solution here is as noted above, that universities shouldn’t be closed social circles: there is a big world out there of people who you can date that aren’t at your institution. It does seem to me though that this is often a stalking horse for broader cultural liberal concerns about age-disparate or otherwise ‘inegalitarian’ relationships, and those I strongly *don’t* share. People find power and status sexy, they always have (and conversely, some people find it sexually and romantically appealing to be in a quasi-parenting role, and they always have too). I think the professional workplace considerations are somewhat legitimate though.Report

Millian liberal
Millian liberal
6 years ago

Here is an idea: Why assume that whenever there is a problematic ethical issue, there needs to be a policy that bans it? Except in the case of clear conflict of interest (students in your class, TA’s and their supervisors…etc). the situation seems quite murky and, as the discussion above indicates, no clear consensus about the need for a ban. I think we should, in general, be very wary of bans on consensual behavior, and only when a very high threshold is reached should they be enacted. It’s not that there is never a case in which consensual relationships between faculty and students are wrong and harmful, but that human beings are so various, and situations are so distinct, it is best to leave human beings to their own free choices, even while acknowledging those choices being morally wrong or even harmful. One must also be wary of the harm that is inevitably caused by institutional coercion, which while sometimes necessary, is hardly something we should jump into whenever there is a significant ethical worry. If it can be shown that consensual faculty/student relationships have been, on balance, very harmful, then I’d change my mind. But as far as I can tell the evidence is just not there. Perhaps there is some social science research on this?Report

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
6 years ago

I have two comments on this debate. I’ll separate them into two posts, for clarity. The first concerns a kind of case that I don’t think people are thinking about, but of which I have direct personal knowledge. Two examples: (a) My first wife was, before we married, a graduate student in another discipline (history) at a university where I did not teach, in another city. When we married she left her program to live with me in the city where I taught — a city in which there was only one graduate program in her field, at my university. After the birth of our second child, she entered the graduate program in history at that university. So for a number of years I was sleeping with (and married to) a graduate student at my own institution. (b) I had a male colleague at the same university who had arrived on campus married to a woman who had not completed her undergraduate degree. She had left her previous undergraduate institution some years earlier, for personal reasons, before she met my colleague. She entered the university as a transfer student and graduated a couple of years later. So my colleague was sleeping with (and married to) an (older) undergraduate student at his university for a time.

I wonder what those supporting blanket policies governing faculty-student relationships think of cases such as these?Report

Philip Kremer
Philip Kremer
Reply to  Michael Kremer
6 years ago

Another story to add to Mike’s. When I first became involved with my wife, I was a professor at McMaster and she an insurance professional doing a part-time Masters in the Faculty of Information Sciences (formerly Library Sciences), at the University of Toronto. When I accepted the position at Toronto, there I was, romantically involved with a U of T graduate student (incidentally, in a quite different department I had nothing to do with). I honestly sometimes wonder how I would have proceeded had the U of T had a total ban on amorous relationships between students and professors. Probably, I would have both accepted the job and continued the relationship, and would have hoped that nobody would bring the matter to any relevant authorities.

Large public universities are full of professionals upgrading their skills or credentials, pursuing MAs or professional degrees after or during a professional career, or taking undergraduate courses just or fun. I know a number of faculty members who have had amorous relationships with other professionals of roughly the same age, where those other professionals were also students at their institutions (upgrading credentials, etc.). When I bring these examples to people’s notice (especially people favouring a ban), they always indicate that THESE relationships are OK, and they’re not the objectionable ones that require the ban. This suggests that, as noted by Anonymous (September 12, 2015 at 9:04 am), what’s really driving the idea that it’s plausible to ban relationships even between faculty members and students from very different departments [is not] the worry about conflicts of interest but rather (Anonymous quoting Drabek) ‘I think part of the oomph behind these demands for global bans is the idea that most college students are at a particularly vulnerable stage of “adulthood”.’Report

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
6 years ago

Second comment: There are a lot of issues running in this thread, and I certainly see the motivation for wanting some sort of policy governing relationships between faculty and students, whether a ban or not. But some of the issues being discussed above are not special to the case of romantic or sexual relationships, and addressing them through a ban, if extended to analogous cases, would entail important changes in the ways universities are run and have direct impact on many families.

It is quite common for faculty children to attend the university or college where their parent teaches. This is often encouraged by tuition benefit policies which provide for tuition breaks for faculty children (often limited to the institution in question). Such cases raise some (not all, of course!) of the issues being addressed in this thread — issues that arise when there is no direct supervisory relationship between faculty parent and student child (the plagiarism board, etc). In fact there can be real tensions in such cases, as I found in my own experience years ago teaching the child of one of my colleagues who was having difficulties in one of my classes due to excessive absences. But I would not support a ban on faculty children attending the university or college where their parent teaches. (I in fact attended the university where my father taught, as did all my siblings.)

What I think this shows is that the discussion above is mixing in a lot of different considerations that should be kept separate.

FWIW, I’m inclined to oppose an outright ban, at least for faculty-graduate student relationships, and graduate student-undergraduate student relationships, and support the kind of policy currently in place at many institutions, with bans on relationships where there is supervisory authority, requirements to report the relationship, policies for recusing the faculty member from various decisions and committee meetings, etc. My own institution’s policy can be found here and is pretty much the kind of policy I support:

http://harassmentpolicy.uchicago.edu/page/policy#VI. Consensual Relationships

As it distinguishes between undergraduate and graduate students and imposes an outright ban on faculty-student relationships in the former case but not the latter, I note that it would have forbidden my former colleague’s wife from becoming an undergraduate at the university, in the second case described in my previous post.Report

Another Anon
Another Anon
6 years ago

I’ve always wondered whether the people in favor of the ‘conflict of interest’ argument would similarly agree that there can be the same (or reasonably similar) conflicts among close friends? Close friends also do favors for each other, particularly in faculty-student friendships, where the student gets benefits not available to others: invitations to conferences, extra research funds, invited papers, conference vacations, etc. This is egregious behavior throughout the discipline, yet I don’t see anyone making similar arguments for banning friendships? Seems strange to me.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Another Anon
6 years ago

Indeed, Another Anon, those friendship-based abuses are rampant. But those who perpetrate them (often without even thinking) get to fly under the moral radar because things that involve sex just hook into our baser moral machinery. Scratch the surface of most moral panics throughout history, and you’ll see sex not very far below the surface. And woe betide those who think that being smarter will make you immune to these effects. The most highbrow among us fall into the most lowbrow traps in thinking, especially when sex is in the offing, particularly when they are loath to admit it. The more they’ve been trained to reason and argue, the more they spin fantastic rationalizations.

I remember ten years ago talking to a Republican who said he thought Bush II was a great President, particularly in comparison with Clinton. I rehearsed the familiar litany: the PATRIOT Act, the illegal and unjustified wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the huge civilian casualties, support for the execution of mentally disabled people, and, yes, the cronyism involved in choosing the head of FEMA, leading up to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. After I was finished, he said “OK, maybe those things could have been done differently. But I’m not talking about any of that. All I’m saying is that Bush is *morally* far better than Clinton.” To the lowbrow mind, morality tends to be tied up with sex.Report

Hector_St_Clare
6 years ago

Anonymous @ 9:04,

I entirely agree with all that. I think a lot of people here are acting on the premises, spoken or unspoken, that 1) 18-24 year olds aren’t real ‘adults’ and their consent is suspect, 2) relationships with big age disparities, especially when one partner is in that age range, are morally suspect, and 3) relationships with a big difference of social or financial status are also suspect. I have a big problem with all those three premises, and I do think it’s amusing that some people who have no problem with same-sex, interracial or interfaith partnerships would have a problem with age-disparate ones.

Matt Drabek,

I’d be interested to see what good arguments there are for setting a general age of consent at 13-14 or at 24-25. (As far as I’m concerned, the first is far too low and the second is far too high). If you’re interested in the narrow question of whether girls and women are vulnerable to subtle sexual coercion because of the age of their partner, there was an interesting study I saw earlier this year. They looked at girls 14-19, who had their first sexual experience with guys at least 7 years older, and compared them to girls who had their first sexual intercourse with boys the same age, and asked if in retrospect the sex felt ‘unwanted’ or ‘coerced’. There was a sharp transition: girls 17 and under with older partners were more likely to report that they were pressured into sex than girls with same age partners. However, 18- and 19-year old girls whose first sexual encounter was with substantially older partners reported less pressure/coercion than ones who dated boys the same age. (This makes some sense- young men are generally more criminal and aggressive thn older men, and it makes sense that you would be more vulnerable to sexual coercion if you dated an 19-year old man than a 39-year old one).

Some of this is probably due to the fact 18 is a big transition year in our society- it’s the age you move out of the house, start college or full time work, are treated as an adult, etc.. At the very least though, this does seem to indicate that an age of consent at 18 ‘works’, and that’s something of a threshold after which age-disparate relationships become unproblematic. It’s troubling to me to think some people would like to suppress intergenerational relationships entirely, or push the age of consent to 21 or 25.Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
Reply to  Hector_St_Clare
6 years ago

Hi. I don’t think we disagree on anything here. I was merely pointing out that if you fish through social cases and the literature, you’d be able to make some kind of minimally respectable case with citations for anywhere from 13 to 25. I agree with you that something like our current system (which sets the age usually at 16 or 17, with various “Romeo and Juliet” exceptions) works well. The end of that range (22-25) would draw support from the empirical literature showing that people’s brains continue developing into adult form through about 25 years old. The beginning of that range (13-14) would draw support from the lack of evidence showing any kind of inherent harm from sexual activity to anyone who is at an appropriate stage of physical development. The harms that exist seem to come, rather, from the coercive things done by other people.

Again, I think it’d be a real mistake to set the age of consent at either 13 or 25. My point is that the developmental literature is unclear enough that it wouldn’t show that those moves are obviously out of whack.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
6 years ago

While I don’t think this is worth coming out of retirement for, I just wanted to briefly note that I’m quite impressed by the spectacle of so many men eloquently (and politely and civilly) defending what they see as their collective rights to bed their undergraduates.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Professor Plum
6 years ago

Professor Plum, you’ve managed to make an exemplary number of false assumptions in your one-sentence reply. We making this counterargument here are not (all) men; we are not looking to bed our undergradudates; nobody is talking about a ‘right’ to do so; and, as has been pointed out already many times to others who strangely skipped Justin’s original post and don’t have a clue what the Harvard ban is about but decided to post here anyway, we are not even talking about cases where the students are one’s own.

There is no debate here, nor have I see any serious one elsewhere, about whether it should be permissible for professors to get involved with *their own* students, whether graduate or undergraduate, or with anyone else one is directly supervising or overseeing. That ship has sailed. It’s been agreed by everyone except some extremely rare outliers that it is not permissible. There’s too much room for pressure, bias in evaluation (etc.), and the perception of bias. What we’re discussing now is whether there’s a basis for banning relationships between professors and students who are *not* in a supervisory relationship. So this cannot possibly be about professors interested in ‘bedding’ *their* students, now, can it? Is that what you think Michael Kremer is getting at in his examples? Do you think Matt Drabek’s reluctance to endorse the ban is a reluctance on his part to oppose professors ‘bedding *their* undergraduates’? If so, then you clearly haven’t read even one of their comments.

When you and others routinely show up in these discussions to say this stuff, you’re doing the equivalent of social conservatives who respond to the Kim Davis issue by saying “At least I stand up for her courage in opposing the ‘right’ of pedophiles to molest children.” You’re poisoning the debate by assuming that some people in it are really advocating something blatantly ridiculous and offensive, and in the process smearing many people in relationships that are nothing at all like you describe. And at the same time you do nothing to advance the conversation (since you are revealing you’ve relied on some popular wild distortions of what the other side is saying), and much to derail it and make resolution more difficult by harming other’s understanding of the issue.

Please stop doing this. Before you join a thread, read the OP and other comments first. Thank you.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

Actually, what I made a career out in my previous role as resident provocateur was arguing strenuously for unpopular positions. So do carry on.

However Iris Murdoch told us it is always wise to ask about any philosopher, “what is he afraid of?” I submit the answer here is: “loss of unfettered access to students’ sexual services.”

Whether the students are one’s own or students from another program is beside the point; there is a systematic power imbalance (and room for lots of messiness) either way.Report

anon female grad student
anon female grad student
Reply to  Professor Plum
6 years ago

Thank you for saying this, Professor Plum.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Professor Plum
6 years ago

I don’t think anyone here objects to unpopular opinions per se. On the other hand, Straw Person attacks and insistence that people who disagree with you are arguing out of secret bad motives is not constructive. I do not think that you would want other people doing that to you.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Professor Plum
6 years ago

@ Hey Nonny Mouse:

that might be a fair criticism if I were, in this case, claiming to be in the buisness of engaging the actual arguments that have been offered on this thread.

But sometimes there is genuine philosophical value to be found in stepping back from the details of the arguments offered, surveying the terrain and what is at stake, and offering a soft, polite, “dafuq?”Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Professor Plum
6 years ago

Speaking for myself, I’d rather do without the ‘value’ of someone interjecting a crude and unsubstantiated characterization of someone’s motives into a serious discussion of an important issue.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Professor Plum
6 years ago

@ Professor Plum.

Well, if I respond to your post there by writing “Dufuq?” is that helpful? If I respond by attacking a position you don’t claim to hold, or by stating that you are secretly motivated by bad motives, is that helpful? I put it to you that far from being constructive, such replies would be destructive of me.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
6 years ago

I feel as though the favoritism arguments, which give rise to problems like the bridge club example that Anon gave, are not getting at the real-world situation that things like the Harvard ban are meant to solve.

I think the problem is something like this: An atmosphere in which professors treat undergrads as a pool of potential sexual partners can be a terrible atmosphere for students, for many reasons that should be fairly obvious. It’s not that students are fragile in any way, but that they should have the right to be learn without being worried about whether the professor is treating them as students to learn or potential sexual partners. (And for obvious reasons, this falls disproportionately on women.) And it doesn’t take many such professors to make the atmosphere horrible.

Anti-sexual harassment policies are meant to eliminate or mitigate this awfulness. But some people or universities may feel that these policies don’t do enough. For one thing, pursuing a sexual harassment case is a drastic step, which will be taken rarely, and professors might engage in a lot of conduct that contributes a bad atmosphere without going so far as to justify a harassment complaint. (Microaggressions or something like that.) For another thing, these policies inevitably focus on the professor’s culpability–should the professor have known that what they did was making the student uncomfortable?–rather than the effects of the conduct on students. And some professors might try to get away with what they can get away with. (On these last two points I’m thinking of the bit of the Laura Kipnis article where she responds to someone saying that professors shouldn’t make unwanted advances to your students by asking “How do you know advances are unwanted until you make them?”–as if it’s OK to make advances on your students when they might be unwanted.)

For all these reasons, a university might think it’s a good reason to make it clear that professors shouldn’t hit on undergrads, or make it clear that they welcome advances from undergrads, or anything like that. Which means: Professors shouldn’t start relationships with undergrads. Draw a firm line there and there will be less scope for professors to go on the prowl in a way that makes things awful for students.

I’m not saying that I support such a blanket ban. I don’t have a settled view. I’m only saying that I don’t think that the motivation for such a ban need be a desire to one-up other universities’ harassment policies, or a thought that undergrads are less than fully autonomous sexual agents, or a feeling that relationships with large age differences are icky. And that if we don’t pay attention to the real problems that these bans are meant to address, then our discussion is going to be unfruitful. Which is a danger for us, as philosophers who like to discuss things in general and abstractly.

A couple of other points; I think it should be clear from this that there shouldn’t be a problem with cases like Michael Kremer’s, where the romantic partner of a professor enrolls at a university, since that doesn’t involve a professor searching for sexual partners among the students. (And I’d be surprised if any actual policy was really taken to apply to such relationships.) And also that this doesn’t imply any condemnation of any particular faculty-student relationships. The story I’ve told about why such bans might be appropriate doesn’t mean that there aren’t and haven’t been many perfectly wonderful relationships between a professor and a student, where the two fell in love even though the professor wasn’t actively looking for love among the student population. Even if someone who supports a ban on faculty-undergrad relationships for the reasons I’ve given doesn’t need to cast aspersions on any individual relationship. If I think the speed limit on a road should be lowered from 70 to 65 it doesn’t mean that I think someone who’s driving 68 miles per hour is doing a bad thing.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Matt Weiner
6 years ago

Hi, Matt (Weiner). Thanks for this interesting justification for something like the ban. I agree, the bridge case I gave doesn’t address the justification.

I think I share your opposition to the practice you want to prevent, but it depends in some ways on how the description works. I’ll say more about that in a moment. First, let me say I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a rule that could, if consistently applied, have serious negative and unfair consequences, but isn’t supposed to worry us because it’s to be applied selectively and ignored completely in cases like Michael Kremer’s. Among other things, such a rule could be badly abused by administrators looking to get rid of someone. Suppose that Michael Kremer had been employed by Harvard, say, and had rightfully objected to something the Harvard administration had done. In that fictional scenario, the Harvard administrators could get rid of him on the spot before a movement arose, and mention that it came to their attention that he had violated their sexual harassment code. I don’t think it’s a great idea to have these kinds of bans in place. If there’s something we want to stop, then let’s have policies that stop that thing and don’t cover a wide range of completely unobjectionable cases.

Your concern is with “An atmosphere in which professors treat undergrads as a pool of potential sexual partners.” To me, these are some data points that a policy against that kind of atmosphere should cover, moving from the obviously objectionable to the obviously non-objectionable:

Professor A gets a job at a university for the express purpose of getting access to a pool of students to pursue sex with. I think we would all agree that this is objectionable.

Professor B gets the job and then, at some point becomes single and thinks, “Lucky for me, there are so many students here. Surely, I can find a romantic partner among them.” I agree that this is a bad and problem-causing attitude for the professor to have.

Professor C and Student C’ meet in some way that they never would have had they not both been members of the university community. However, they are not in a supervisory relationship. Also, neither C nor C’ at any point set out to date a student or professor at the university: they just happened to meet that way, they now feel chemistry, and they don’t want to abandon their very real chance of happiness together when they have done nothing wrong, there is no coercion on either side, and there is no room for compromised integrity or the serious impression thereof. So they let their attraction take its course and enter a relationship. This doesn’t seem objectionable in itself.

Professor D meets someone in a non-campus setting, and there is attraction on both sides. Some time after the conversation starts, D discovers that the other person is a student at the same university. I think it is even less objectionable for them to date each other.

Professor E starts dating a non-student, knowing that the non-student intends to become a student at some later point. Later on, the person becomes a student and E and the new student fail to break off their relationship. Again, no supervisory connection. This seems clearly unobjectionable.

Professor F starts dating someone who is not a student and doesn’t intend to become a student, but then F’s partner changes his or her mind and becomes a student. No supervisory connection. They don’t break up or get divorced after this happens. Nothing wrong there, I think we’ll agree.

G is not even a professor at the university, and is dating or married to G’, who is not a student. Later on, G becomes a professor at the university and G’ becomes a student. They fail to break up/get divorced. Again, totally unobjectionable.

It seems to me that the only cases we should be worried about for the reasons you mention are A and B, while the ban prohibits A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. This makes the ban quite bad. Instead, what we need to have in place is something closer to a disambiguated version of your norm against professors “treating undergraduates as a pool of potential sexual partners.” This is ambiguous because it refer to professors pursuing, de dicto, relationships with students (like Professors A and B), or it could refer much more innocently to professors who don’t rule out of the pool of possible sexual partners those people who also just happen to be students (like Professors C and D).

So how about this policy instead: “While there is nothing objectionable in itself in a professor and a student dating where there is no clear room for conflict of interest, a professor shall not deliberately treat the student body of the university as a source of potential romantic or sexual partners.”Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

[email protected]:29: “First, let me say I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a rule that could, if consistently applied, have serious negative and unfair consequences, but isn’t supposed to worry us because it’s to be applied selectively and ignored completely in cases like Michael Kremer’s.”

I was probably unclear here. I don’t think that any policy should be selectively applied with a wink and a nod. I think that a blanket ban on relationships between faculty and undergrads should make an exception for relationships that started before the undergrad enrolled (or the faculty member was hired). If Harvard’s policy doesn’t make such an exception, I think it should. The actual policy seems slightly ambiguous to me, so it’d be good for them to clarify–if I were a faculty member there who was involved with someone who was going to be an undergrad there (neither of which is likely to happen) then I would definitely seek a clarification.Report

Anonymity Requested
Anonymity Requested
Reply to  Matt Weiner
6 years ago

Matt writes: “Anti-sexual harassment policies are meant to eliminate or mitigate this awfulness. But some people or universities may feel that these policies don’t do enough. For one thing, pursuing a sexual harassment case is a drastic step, which will be taken rarely, and professors might engage in a lot of conduct that contributes a bad atmosphere without going so far as to justify a harassment complaint. (Microaggressions or something like that.) For another thing, these policies inevitably focus on the professor’s culpability–should the professor have known that what they did was making the student uncomfortable?–rather than the effects of the conduct on students. And some professors might try to get away with what they can get away with.”

To add to that, consider how Colin McGinn was removed: although there were lots of voices about his harassment, the University used its ban on relationships with students to make him step down rather than Title IX. (Someone correct me if I have this wrong!)

So, to go back to the original case, Harvard might have adopted the universal ban for very pragmatic reasons: it is very hard to remove a tenured sexual harasser by means of Title IX (especially since such predators usually target the most vulnerable among students, the ones least able to fight back); so, by instituting a universal ban, Harvard has the leverage it needs to go after its known sexual harassers without the victims having to go to extraordinary lengths or to suffer enormous humiliation only to see nothing happen. (Witness the hostility heaped upon Peter Ludlow’s accuser at Northwestern.)Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Anonymity Requested
6 years ago

Anonymity Requested,

I don’t know how many times this needs to be repeated. The discussion here is *NOT* about a ban on relationships with one’s own current students, which is what was involved in McGinn’s case. Everyone already agrees that professors should not be permitted to be involved with *their* students. The question is whether the restriction should be broadened to include students who are *not* one’s own and, more precisely, *not even students in one’s department*. That’s what the Harvard ban is adding, and that’s what we’re discussing here. Every benefit you say there would have been from such a ban in the McGinn case was already present without such a ban.

Again, please read the OP and previous comments. It’s very clear.Report

Anonymity Requested
Anonymity Requested
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

I have read the entire thread and my point still stands: Title IX is toothless to take down a predator but a ban on undergraduate-faculty relationships is much more powerful (just as Weiner explained). My point about McGinn is that they got him on something *other* than per se sexual harassment, just as (in an analogous way) Al Capone went to jail for tax evasion.
So, what would a blanket ban on undergraduate-faculty relationships accomplish? Well, if it were applied to my University, it would immediately take out a sexual harasser (in the philosophy department, of course) who is quite devious in how he targets helpless students. He works with a lot of Freshman, for example, and keeps track of all women he finds attractive; once they’re done with his class, the predator begins his moves. He has received at least half a dozen Title IX complaints but to no avail; each complaint has gone through exactly the kind of tail chasing that Matt Weiner describes: “these [Title IX] policies inevitably focus on the professor’s culpability–should the professor have known that what they did was making the student uncomfortable…” But, if we had a blanket ban on undergraduate-faculty relationships, then we’d be finally able to shove this sexual harasser out the door.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Anonymity Requested
6 years ago

Anonymity Requested, it’s true that they busted Al Capone on tax evasion. But the difference is that tax evasion is always prima facie wrong, and that’s why it’s illegal. Relationships between undergraduates and professors are not always prima facie wrong (think of Michael Kremer’s cases for two instances).

It seems you just want to give administrators the power to get rid of people they can’t bust for the things you want to see them busted for, so you want a whole range of unobjectionable things to be banned. That way, the administration will be able to bust these people if they need to without showing that they did the bad thing you want them busted for. Presumably you think it’s no big deal that the majority of violators of the new ban, probably, would be completely innocent of any wrongdoing even in your eyes: you think the administrators and others can just be trusted to use these new powers for the cause of justice.

If that’s what you want, here’s an even better ban for you: let’s ban anyone from breathing on campus. Think of how easy it would be to get rid of harassers that way. The administrator, or the (alleged) harasser’s personal enemy, just has to go to the professor’s classroom and verify that the professor breathed. Witnesses could be brought along for the purpose. The next day, the professor is gone, and the harassment stops immediately. That’s better than a mere ban on having sex with any undergraduate at the entire university, since breathing, unlike sex, happens in public quite often and is therefore much easier to prove. So why not just have a ban against breathing on campus?Report

Nonymous
Nonymous
Reply to  Anonymity Requested
6 years ago

I’m confused by the form of argument here. Policy X targets a problematic practice but is unable to prevent it or punish offenders; Policy Y targets everything that resembles the problematic practice and a lot more besides, but should be adopted because it will effectively prevent or punish offenders, and that outcome is sufficient to silence concerns that Policy Y also prohibits and punishes a wide range of behaviors that are not objectionably problematic.

If that’s a good argument, then why isn’t the following also a good argument? Many people drink excessive amounts of alcohol, leading them to behave in ways that are harmful to themselves and others; a policy prohibiting excessive alcohol consumption will not effectively prevent or punish it; but a policy banning alcohol entirely will do the trick; therefore we should ban alcohol, and the fact that many people consume it without it leading them to harm themselves or others is not adequate grounds for opposing this policy.

Note that my claim here is not that professor-student sexual/romantic relationships aren’t inherently problematic or that most of them are as harmless as having a few beers. My claim is that, without some reason to think that they are inherently problematic, an argument for banning them on the grounds that it will make it easier to prevent and punish behavior like McGinn’s is a pretty bad argument. Minimally, it is a very odd argument for people who fancy themselves progressive or liberal to make.Report

Sigrid
Sigrid
Reply to  Anonymity Requested
6 years ago

I’m not sure this will show up properly nested, but I’m addressing the points made by Nonymous at 4:31 on 9/13.

I’m not personally in favor of the ban, but it seems to me that it is not that different in form than the ban on dating one’s own students, that many, or perhaps most, people seem to favor. Consider that the rationale for prohibiting dating of one’s student is that it opens the channel for conflict of interest or suspicion of conflict of interest. Or, in cases when things go south, retaliatory or even just prejudiced evaluations. Those things are all bad things, worth avoiding. But not all relationships of student dating own prof would exhibit those. Some people are able to keep their personal life separate from their dating one. Some people are able to stay objective, and do it in a way that relieves the suspicions of others. Some people can break-up without being so wounded or vindictive that they lose their objectivity.

And, of course, this ban doesn’t always work well. If the couple avoids dating so that the student can take the courses that he/she needs to, the feelings that are there can still cause conflict of interest. If the couple severs the professional relationship, the student can be left with a hard to explain gap in their advisory committee or reference list.

But, with all that, most people think that it’s too hard to just ban what they really want to ban, ie prejudicial and inaccurate evaluation of student work, so they ban dating between staff and students in a supervisory relationship. It’s not perfect – stopping some relationships that are not problematic, failing to stop other sorts of conflict of interest relationships (like among good friends). But if it helps the community of learners overall, it’s perhaps justified to intrude on the individual rights of the would-be daters, given that it’s so hard to stop just want you want to stop.

The ban on all student-professor dating is a similar, overkill kind of ban. The question is whether the good to the community out weighs this intrusion on even more people’s individual rights.

Again, I don’t think it’s justified in general. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong in principle with such a ban, if a particular community has a situation that they can’t deal with otherwise.Report

Anon7
Anon7
Reply to  Matt Weiner
6 years ago

Matt Weiner,
You wrote: “An atmosphere in which professors treat undergrads as a pool of potential sexual partners can be a terrible atmosphere for students, for many reasons that should be fairly obvious. It’s not that students are fragile in any way, but that they should have the right to be learn without being worried about whether the professor is treating them as students to learn or potential sexual partners.”

But doesn’t that just assume something that is in contention? Does it create a terrible atmosphere for other students if a music professor dates a calculus student? In terms of there being a pool of potential sexual/romantic partners, that too assumes that this is somehow unusual or predatory. What if one begins from the position that the pool of potential romantic partners is every adult in the world who matches the professor’s sexual orientation? The burden of proving serious harm would then be on those from the outside who wished to limit this pool. We seem to agree on one limit: one’s current students. But why further? Shouldn’t non-students that professors encounters have the same rights to go about their lives without being seen as potential romantic partners for professors? Human sexuality and romance are inherently messy, and trying to draw neat lines around them to constrain them rarely makes sense.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Anon7
6 years ago

“We seem to agree on one limit: one’s current students.”

Why do you agree on this limit, though? I mean, why do you agree that faculty should be banned from dating their current students? I’m not asking this rhetorically–if you explain your reasons for thinking such a blanket ban is OK, I think it might be easier to get clear on whether it’d be OK to extend this beyond one’s current students.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Matt Weiner
6 years ago

Hi, Matt.

On the way to answering your question, I’d like to begin in the opposite direction, as it were. It seems to me that much of the discussion so far characterizes all these romantic or sexual connections in the basest possible way, as though the only thing this will affect is some out of control, randy professor who wants to fuck someone new each week but doesn’t really care whom. If it were, then it would be completely appropriate to say, “Listen, randy professor, if you have to carry on like this, can’t you just limit your quarry to some people far away from your workplace?”

That crude image is somehow getting people to forget that many of these relationships are love relationships. Some people go their whole lives and never find true love, and this makes them very sad on an ongoing basis. When people do find love, and let’s remember that love works in strange ways and we often find the people we share our love with in unexpected places, we tend to be very happy for them. When people in love are separated and long for each other, we try to find ways to help them be together again. If people are truly in love, it’s a very, very bad thing to tell them that they cannot have it, or that they must simply find someone else. Just imagine how you would feel if, upon falling for the person you love now or have loved the most in your life, and seeing with joy that your affections were reciprocated, you had been told, “No, you two may not love each other. There are millions of other people. Both of you, find someone else to love instead.” It would take an incredibly strong moral consideration to justify saying that to someone, and for that reason it’s only reasonable or justifiable to prohibit love between two people who have found it with each other in very exceptional cases.

Getting to your question now, I think there are good reasons for prohibiting relationships between professors and their current students or supervisees because of the following considerations. First, professors have a professional responsibility to be objective in their evaluations and recommendations, and this objectivity would be compromised if the person evaluated or recommended were in a relationship with the professor. Second, even if the professor were able to remain entirely objective in evaluating the student, others would be bound to suspect that he or she were not. This would call the student’s credentials into question, but it would also raise questions about the objectivity of evaluations coming from that department. Third, a student may not reciprocate the professor’s feelings and may suddenly feel trapped in a very uncomfortable choice between pretending to love or desire the professor or else losing a grade or even the support of his or her supervisor. All those things should be avoided.

There’s a fairly easy way to avoid all this without the very undesirable expedient of telling people who love each other that they must go find other people to love instead. If the student is in love with the professor, that student can elect to love the professor rather than be the professor’s student. In such a case, the grading or supervision of the student should immediately be transferred to someone else to avoid both a conflict of interest and the appearance of a conflict of interest. A result of this decision on the part of the student must be that the former professor can never again write a letter of recommendation, etc. for the student, since his or her objectivity can now be legitimately seen as compromised. This can adversely affect the student, and must be stressed to the student before he or she makes the decision.

Before the relationship begins, there is unquestionably an imbalance of power. A student making this choice could be losing out on a unique opportunity to have a great supervisor or teacher, whereas the professor is risking nothing of comparable worth. So the power to initiate the relationship and terminate the professor-student relationship should lie in the hands of the student. There must be no proposition or insinuation from the professor: the student must make the first move. If the professor makes an amorous suggestion or advance toward the student without the student’s first having made a clear and unambiguous invitation to switch their relationship from professional to personal, then he or she is in clear violation of the professional code. We can even extend this ‘student asks first’ policy to former students of the professor, who may in theory wish to retain or revisit the professional relationship with the professor. If a professor gets involved with a former student, the first move should come from the former student.

Should this policy be broadened to cover relationships between all professors and students across the entire university entering a new relationship? I think not. Where it’s only relationships with direct supervisors or instructors that are prohibited, we’re telling the students “You can have love with this professor or have him/her as a teacher/supervisor, but not both.” But under the Harvard policy, we’re saying to students “You can have love with this professor or else be a student at Harvard, but not both.” It’s understandable that students should have to change professors or evaluators as a ‘cost’ of falling in love. But forcing them to drop out of their programs and withdraw from university? That’s a bit much.

If your reaction is, “Really, how often is it the student who wants these relationships?”, please remember that under the policy I advocate, relationships initiated by the student are the only ones that get to go anywhere: a professor who even suggests a relationship with a current or even former student of his/her own is violating my ‘student makes the first move’ policy.Report

Anon7
Anon7
Reply to  Matt Weiner
6 years ago

Because a sexual relationship with someone you have direct control over raises concerns over potential retaliation that do not get raised in the same way with those who are not a professor’s direct students. The professor in the former case can do very direct damage to the student if the student spurns them. That is not the case for a professor in a different area or department. Most of the scenarios people paint suggesting otherwise are really improbable.Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
Reply to  Anon7
6 years ago

Right. And I think a second point needs to be added here: it’s bad for a faculty member to have a relationship with someone in their own classroom in part because the direct control in this case is *unavoidable*. One important reason why it’s bad for a faculty member and that faculty member’s current student to have a romantic relationship is because they cannot take reasonable action to avoid the issues with power imbalance/potential retaliation, etc. If you’re Stu Dent’s professor, you have to give Stu an evaluation. That’s a part of the job you can’t pass off to someone else.

This is a big difference between a student in your class and a student not in your class, and it’s where I was coming from in pointing out above how these issues are handled in the workplace. People keep pointing out that a professor in biology might serve on some sort of college-wide awards committee or some other such larger evaluative project where they might exercise some kind of power over a student in philosophy. Well, perhaps. But the thing is, they can *opt-out* of evaluating the student in that case, in a way they cannot when the student is in their own classroom. And, again, this sort of thing happens all the time in the workplace. Here’s a story about a couple of friends of mine I’ll call Marcus and Jane. Jane’s an executive in the company and Marcus is a rank and file employee. They’re spouses. Jane is not Marcus’s direct supervisor, but she’s an executive colleague of Marcus’s boss’s boss. So she’s high up there and could, in theory, take part in a conversation or evaluation of Marcus for reasons of promotion or award. You know what? If that situation were to arise, she’d recuse herself for conflict of interest. Done and done. And this doesn’t seem to be a big problem in the workplace. There’s something about the closed nature of university culture that makes it different somehow. Getting to the bottom of that difference would go a long way toward addressing harassment issues in the academic profession, I think.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Anon7
6 years ago

OK, from these comments I’m getting basically this:

Relationships between faculty and students they’re supervising are undesirable because of the direct supervisory relationship. This both makes it impossible for the faculty to evaluate the student objectively, and also puts the student in a much more uncomfortable position than relationships between faculty and students they don’t supervise, because of the direct power that the faculty member exerts. And Anonymous also argues that it’s easier to break the supervisory relationship when it would interfere with the True Love of professor and student than it would be to break faculty-student relationships in general. That seems like a possible way of justifying a ban on relationships with students being supervised (even supposing that will sometimes prevent romantic relationships from arising that would not have otherwise have been harmful) that doesn’t extend to all faculty-student relationships.

I’ll note that just about everybody has been insisting on a focus on individual relationships, rather than on the overall effect of an atmosphere where relationships between faculty and students they don’t supervise are relatively common. Since my argument depended on the effects of such an atmosphere, I can’t help but think that the point is being missed some.

Anonymous: You tell a very heartbreaking story. I do feel that this is a bit naïve about how love arises. But in any case, I’m sure people can also tell heartbreaking stories about undergraduates whose lives have been terribly affected when professors (even ones who aren’t supervising them!) decide that they are their One True Love and decide to pursue them, or even who are put off their desired field of study because of the incessant reminders of the way that their professors see them as potential sex objects, reinforced by meeting their current professors in the dining hall line after a night of passion with their undergraduate True Love who shares their dorm. (And at Harvard, it’s pretty overwhelmingly likely that the undergraduate you have a relationship with lives in a dorm with one of your current students.) The question is which kind of case has the aggregate worse effects, in the end. And to figure that out we’ll have to look at the facts on the ground instead of just telling stories.

(I feel like I’ve written enough on this topic, so I’ll leave the thread here.)Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Anon7
6 years ago

Matt Weiner,

I agree that we should look at how much suffering a policy or lack thereof causes or avoids, and that we need consider the harm that can result from an overall ban and the harm that can result from not having the ban, and weigh them up. I’m just having a hard time seeing the serious and unavoidable harm of the sort you’re describing.

As the Kremers have both pointed out, there are vast numbers of ordinary, completely unproblematic relationships that would be prohibited under the ban. Even if you put in a proviso that relationships that started before one or both of the participants joined the university are OK, then the ban blocks all kinds of avenues for true love (and honestly, I don’t see why you think my description of people falling in love is naive. It’s a description of exactly how falling in love has happened to me and pretty well everyone else I know who’s in love). Moreover, what about people who are good friends or acquaintances prior to joining the university, as in the Kremer stories, and who fall in love after one or both joins the university? The overall ban just seems like a mess. It prohibits way too much that is completely unproblematic, and those prohibitions cause considerable and unreasonable unhappiness.

But now I want to look at your case for the ban, Matt. You say that the harm comes from “the overall effect of an atmosphere where relationships between faculty and students they don’t supervise are relatively common.” I must admit that it’s not clear to me what this harm is supposed to be. Is it the presence of the relationships in itself? OK, I’m imagining a university with 1,000 professors and 30,000 students in which every single one of the professors happens to be going out with or married someone who also happens to be a student, but there is no conflict of interest, no supervisory roles, no pressure put on the students. Is that *in itself* meant to be problematic or constitutive of a bad environment? I don’t see how it’s bad at all. But I want to consider your examples, because I think you’re presuming some things here.

You say, “I’m sure people can also tell heartbreaking stories about undergraduates whose lives have been terribly affected when professors (even ones who aren’t supervising them!) decide that they are their One True Love and decide to pursue them…” I agree, that can be very bad. But let’s look at whether the ban is useful in combating this. First of all, to repeat, I’m in favor of a rule saying that in a relationship between a professor and a current *or former* student of that professor, the students should make the first move. So the situation you describe would already be forbidden on my model if the professor fell for the student in one of his or her classes. But let’s go further and look at other cases that weren’t obviously covered by what I said already. Suppose Professor A just happens to fall for Student B without ever having taught or supervised Student B, and is now pestering Student B with affections. Student B has clearly indicated a lack of interest, but Professor A is not getting it and keeps it up. I can see how this could put Student B in a very uncomfortable situation, and I’m entirely in favor of a policy under which Student B can go talk to someone and say “I happened to meet Professor A on the street one day and he/she seems to have concluded that I’m his/her One True Love, but I want nothing to do with him/her. However, he/she keeps pestering me, and I’ve talked to him/her but nothing seems to be changing, and this pestering is really getting out of hand to the point where I dread coming to class now”, and then someone goes and tells Professor A to knock it off. If Professor A keeps it up, and Student B can show that Professor A keeps bothering him or her, then I’m in favor of the university taking punitive steps against Professor A to make the university environment better for B. But why would a global ban on relationships be helpful here? What would it add? If Professor A is the type to ignore the personally directed requests to cut it out, then Professor A wouldn’t care about a global ban, either. If Professor A is acting in a sneaky way so that Student B doesn’t have any evidence of the badgering to show the university, then nothing in the global ban would be of any effect against Professor A. The ban just doesn’t seem to be of any use in solving this problem.

You give another case of students “who are put off their desired field of study because of the incessant reminders of the way that their professors see them as potential sex objects, reinforced by meeting their current professors in the dining hall line after a night of passion with their undergraduate True Love who shares their dorm. (And at Harvard, it’s pretty overwhelmingly likely that the undergraduate you have a relationship with lives in a dorm with one of your current students.)” We could also avoid this pretty easily by rules less global than a universal ban: we could, for instance, just make it a rule at Harvard that professors cannot sleep in student dorms. Easy. But perhaps you’ll feel that the problem you will have in mind will continue, since then you could have Student C living with Student D, where C knows that D is dating Professor E, and this (you say) gives C an “incessant reminder” that Professor E also sees Student C as a potential sex object. I’m trying to understand this here, but it just seems so nutty to me. Let’s look at similar cases. F lives in the same building (maybe the same apartment) with G, and H works as F’s accountant but is dating G. Does this harm F by giving F an incessant reminder that his or her accountant sees him or her as a potential sex partner? J is good friends with K, and L is married to K and works as J’s dentist. Does this harm J by giving J a constant reminder that J’s own dentist sees J as a potential sex partner? That’s a pretty extraordinary idea of harm. If we’re letting this count as harm, why shouldn’t we also say that professors should remain chaste and celibate, because professors seen to be sexually active even within the bonds of marriage let the students know that they see other human beings as potential sex partners, and their wedding rings can serve as constant reminders to the students of this? This case seems like one where the student is having difficulty coping with reality, which involves people having and finding romantic and/or sexual partners. So long as nobody’s harassing the student with unwanted attention, or putting pressure on the student to enter or stay in a relationship, or treating students unfairly on the basis of real or perceived quid pro quos, I just don’t see the problem.

You close by saying “the question is which kind of case has the aggregate worse effects, in the end. And to figure that out we’ll have to look at the facts on the ground instead of just telling stories.” Sounds great to me, Matt. But you don’t present any facts on the ground. You just tell stories of your own, which I think is fine, but I don’t find that these particular stories show us any good reason for supporting the ban.Report

Nonymous
Nonymous
6 years ago

Here is an honest question for those who think faculty/student romantic relationships should be banned because they create a strong potential for favoritism and unfairness. It would seem that when a faculty member’s child is also her student, that creates a strong potential for favoritism and unfairness. But we don’t prohibit parents from teaching their own students in their classes, and in certain circumstances (most public elementary and high-schools, for example) such a prohibition would be extremely difficult to implement (my daughter is a student at this school; I am the algebra teacher; she has to take algebra; etc.). I suppose one might think that the difference is that parents teaching their children is less avoidable, since teachers don’t often adopt students in their classes. But if we’re not inclined to address the very obvious possibility for conflicts of interest by prohibiting faculty from teaching their own children, then it isn’t entirely clear why we should be inclined to address the same possibility by prohibiting faculty from dating their students.

Note that I don’t intend to defend student/faculty romantic relationships here. It simply seems that the very different attitudes that people have to what are otherwise similar cases suggests that it isn’t really conflict of interest in the form of favoritism and the like that drives opposition to student/faculty romantic relationships.Report

Buck Field
Reply to  Nonymous
6 years ago

Nonymous & Sigrid, My basic ethics begin with “First: do no harm.” implementing bans is inherently punitive, even if sanctions are never implemented in an actual case. I believe that stigmatization of others is harmful not only to the degree it refers to particular people who are thereby devalued, but I think it’s easy to justify the claim that supporting bans on relationships erodes empathy. The strongest advocates for bans describe people as “predators” with diabolical, manipulative minds. I’m not an empiricists but such claims indicate more about the person making them than the person referred to. A relatively uncontroversial, more extreme power disparity situation may help clarify my skepticism

In the ’90’s, Bruce Rind and others since have concluded that the laws against pedophilia, the prejudices they support, and behaviors they justify seem to inflict far more harm than anything demonstrably part of a sexual relationship between an adult and child. It was concluded that without such laws, dealing with any harm in a non-shaming manner would be better from a public health standpoint. Each study has been attacked without, as far as I can tell, especially good argument. Rind was condemned by Congress not because any of that information or any of his research was mistaken, but for using information from pedophile organizations. If such fallacies are the strongest criticism politicians can buy – I tend to regard whatever the claim as being supported, at least in Popperian terms of surviving attempts at falsification.

A Google to investigate such bans led me to http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/06/opinion/pedophilia-a-disorder-not-a-crime.html, which draws a distinction between pedophilia (love of children) and child molestation. What are those? The definitions appear circular (On Wikipedia, “Child sexual abuse” is defined as “Human sexual activity” is defined as “Human sexuality” is defined as “erotic experiences and responses” is defined as “causes sexual feelings”, which loops back to “Human sexual activity”. There are 2 main bits of evidence justifying the existence of “sexual molestation” as what I will call “an evil”, and the ban against that evil.

First is identified harm, psychological and physical. Since physical harm is already quite properly a crime, and not necessary or sufficient for sexual molestation, this appears a miscategorized. Psychological harms listed include depression, PTSD, anxiety, “propensity to further victimization in adulthood” and psychological trauma incest. What has not been established is whether widespread public discrimination and scorn, or sexual acts are primarily responsible. Ancient Greek pederasty seems to have operated without such harm, and cultural mores seem the most relevant difference. In contrast, The American Psychiatric Association condemns: “An adult who engages in sexual activity with a child is performing a criminal and immoral act which never can be considered normal or socially acceptable behavior.”

Pragmatically, I believe it proper to examine whether bans and condemnations are overall better for our happiness and mental health…as I would in the less extreme case of university profs and students. Philosophically and until better justification, I’m siding with “no bans”, until I’m convinced sex and/or romance is an inherent aspect of harm that can occur outside a hostile environment, and that the ban will effectively prevent that harm sufficient to justify the (apparently high) costs.Report

Hector_St_Clare
6 years ago

Matt Weiner,

Regarding your example of the undergraduate running into her professor in the dorm: couldn’t the same be extended to other situations that don’t involve faculty at your university? If an accounting major runs into an accountant who’s been sleeping with her roommate, is that a ‘harm’ that could dissuade her from studying accounting? If a biology major runs into a noted biologist (not at the university) will that dissuade her from studying biology? For that matter, if Harvard Professor X sleeps with / dates a freshman at Bunker Hill Community College, is that a ‘harm’ to her because it might dissuade her from transferring to Harvard in two years?

My issue here isn’t with the ban on Harvard faculty dating students so much (I wouldnt say I favour such a ban, but I’m more favourable to it than a year or two ago, because I see more issues involving professionalism and the danger of workplace dating in general). My real issue is that I want to know what the underlying motives are here, where they would stop (if you folks had your ideal situation in an ideal world), and what assumptions about sex and relationships youre working under.Report