HR | Atlantic - Positive Change at Work

Campus Romances can lead to big headaches

Sep 20, 2012


Based on recent post-secondary enrolment trends, over 69 000 undergraduate students will be enrolled in  Atlantic Region universities.  That’s a lot of young people learning to manage time, academic workloads, living independently and developing relationships.  The challenge for students, faculty and the university is whether and how to respond to romantic relationships between students and teaching staff.  Given the small size of a campus community, the power or influence a professor or teaching staff may have over a student’s grades, research opportunities and academic career, such relationships are fraught with potential for complaints of harassment, intimidation, discrimination and heart-break.

Despite these risks, an examination of post-secondary policies on-line suggests that few institutions have taken a position on student/professor relationships.  Of 18 post-secondary institutions,

  • two  did not have any policies online, including sexual harassment;
  • four had sexual harassment policies online, but did not address student-professor or power difference relationships;
  • twelve had sexual harassment policies online that addressed student-professor or ‘power differential’ relationships.

In Atlantic Canada, few post-secondary institutions have sexual harassment policies available on-line that pertain directly to student-professor relationships.  Where such policies are available, they do not prohibit the relationship.  Instead, the policies advise caution of potential negative outcomes, and recommend that the person in the position of authority (professor/instructor, marker, academic advisor, teaching assistant, thesis advisor etc) eliminate their professional responsibility to the student.

Most policies addressing student-professor relationships focused on “power differentials”, caution people who hold a position of authority to confer/deny benefits , a difference of status, an imbalance of power, or a hierarchical relationship.  These policies warned the person in the position of power to not attempt to use that relationship to influence or control others. Examples of positions and off-campus settings where power differentials may exist include academic advisors, field-trips, coaches, counselors, directors, athletic team road trips, instructors/professors, teaching assistants, markers,  department heads, conferences or training events, research heads, residence staff members, thesis advisors, tutors,  and academic and administrative decision makers.

When one considers the risks to the institution as well as to instructional staff, it readily becomes apparent that simply cautioning care when entering into romantic or intimate relationships with students may not be sufficient.  The mere allegation of abuse of the power relationship, whether to curry sexual favours or in retaliation can have far-reaching consequences for not only the two people in the relationship, but potentially also for their families, colleagues and university officials as they get drawn into the details of what would otherwise be intimate, private details of people’s lives.  Once an allegation is made it can be difficult for the person in the supposed position of power to defend themselves and their conduct on the basis of mutual consent.  Where there is a power imbalance, the burden of proof of a consensual relationship rests with the respondent.

Even where the parties to the romantic relationship are content with each other, their relationship can lead to charges of favouritism or differential treatment for the student in the relationship vis-à-vis students who are outside of that relationship.  The fact that a faculty member has a history of dating relationships with students may create a toxic atmosphere where students wonder if that is either an option or an expectation for members of the class to be open and accepting of advances they might otherwise not choose to pursue.

Atlantic Canadian post-secondary institutions typically advise instructional or teaching personnel who enter into a romantic relationship with a student to declare conflict of interest and refer teaching /grading responsibilities affecting the involved student to another staff or faculty member.  One University in Atlantic Canada adapted their policy from an old version of The Canadian Association of University Teachers policy : Abuse of Professional Authority: Sexual Harassment. This is the most aggressive policy found in our survey. It stipulates that “an individual entering or involved in a sexual relationship with a consenting adult who will be or is subject to that individual for evaluation or supervision should decline or terminate the supervisory or evaluative role. . . Amorous relationships that might be appropriate in other circumstances are inappropriate and should be avoided when they occur between members of the teaching profession and any student for whom she has a professional responsibility.” This policy is very clear and recommends relationships be avoided, however, if they do exist the evaluative or supervisory role must be eliminated.

At the other end of the policy spectrum are those institutions that do not have any specific policies regarding student-professor relationships.  One university indicated that there was an ‘understanding’ that a professor would not have a relationship with a student registered in their class.  However to not clearly set this expectation out in writing, the university will have a difficult challenge if it learns that a faculty member is not complying with the understanding and the student isn’t complaining.  Failure to  have a clear policy will prevent the university from being able to take effective action to address an at-risk relationship.

All post-secondary institutions should not only have a sexual harassment policy that addresses power differentials but they should also have a policy regarding student-professor relationships. Policies need to be specific and clear, eliminating confusion. To wait until there is a law suit is an expensive option in terms of legal defense, settlement dollars, and the emotional toll on all the parties that get dragged into resolving the matter.  Policies won’t stop human beings from falling in love, or having intimate relationships, but policies can clearly outline the obligations and accountabilities of the parties, and the consequences for breach. Individuals entering into relationships that are more than student/teacher can then make choices, understanding what is or is not acceptable in the organizational context.

The consequences of campus “love gone bad”  — really, really bad – can include transferring the complainant to a different class, restoration of academic status, re-evaluation by another equally qualified person of any submitted work, suspension of the respondent’s university privileges, and other forms of employment discipline, including termination.


by Sarah-Jayne MacDonald

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