New Rules on Relationships

November/December 2002

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It's an age-old question: should faculty date students?

In the past year, universities across the country have revised their sexual harassment policies to make the answer clear: no.

Stanford’s new policy, which went into effect this year, states that such sexual or romantic relationships are “inconsistent with the proper role of the teacher” and “the University therefore very strongly discourages [them].” It also states that anyone in a “position of greater authority or power” in a consensual relationship—faculty, staff or student—must report the relationship to his or her supervisor, department chair, dean or human resources officer. That person also must recuse himself or herself from any supervisory or evaluative role over the other person in the relationship. Failure to take either step is grounds for discipline by a faculty committee. Previously, the policy contained just a “note” explaining some of the pitfalls inherent in consensual relationships.

Some universities, including Ohio Wesleyan and the College of William and Mary, explicitly prohibit faculty members from engaging in sexual relationships with students they supervise, advise or evaluate. Duke University recently adopted a policy similar to Stanford’s, advising that faculty “should not” engage in such relationships.

“We’re trying to have people recognize that it is not in line with the academic mission of the University to have people engaging in unprofessional relationships,” says Laraine Zappert, a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who serves as director of Stanford’s Sexual Harassment Policy Office. “It’s a politically and professionally dumb thing to do.”

Zappert’s office oversees sexual harassment investigations and organizes training workshops. Zappert also counsels those concerned about being unjustly targeted. “Protecting your professional reputation is the best way to prevent false accusations from rising to the level of a sexual harassment complaint,” she tells them. “If you have a reputation for sexualizing your environment, or engaging in relationships with people who work for you, you’re going to have a harder time convincing people that you’re behaving professionally and properly at all times.”

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