The Gray Space: Harvard’s Ban on Teacher-Student Hookups

by / 0 Comments / 196 View / February 11, 2015

The job of the professor is to educate and cultivate the fresh young minds of our generation, but universities fear they may be doing a whole lot more.
Student-teacher sexual relationships are simultaneously stigmatized and romanticized—eroticized, even—yet no one talks about them outside the context of cheesy sitcoms, bad pornos and the occasional campus scandal. Due to the semi-illicit nature, it is hard to tell just how prevalent these relationships are, but universities tend to agree that faculty relations with students lead to more harm than good. The problem, however, lies in the ambiguity of the situation and the question of whether or not a university has the authority to ban two legal adults over the age of consent from “hooking up.”
On one hand, dating a student may at best lead to bias in the grading process and at worst contribute to the sexual exploitation of a student by an older professor. On the other, who is the university to tell two consenting adults that they can’t be together? When making the decision to impose such bans, universities must take into account that the vast majority of undergrads are over the age of consent—some by as many as five or six years—and while the ban may stop a sixty-year-old professor from coercing a freshman into a bad situation, it gives equal weight to a consensual relationship between a twenty-two-year old senior and their professor who just turned thirty. But when it comes right down to it, universities are erring on the side of caution (and hopefully avoiding sexual harassment lawsuits) by instituting limits or outright prohibitions on student-teacher relationships.
Further complications stem from the presence of TAs: should they be included in the ban, or does their status as current students exempt them from it? Harvard’s statement holds no mention of teaching assistants, perhaps because there are no precedents to look towards and little evidence of misconduct. That being said, certain classes are taught and graded almost solely by the TA or TAs; if such is the case, should the ban extend even further?
Perhaps the fairest path is the one taken by the University of California’s nine campuses in 2003. Rather than ban all sexual relationships, the university chose to strongly discourage faculty members from having sex with any student under their direction supervision, defined as any student they currently teach or may teach in the future. The limitations meant that a ballet major could hook up with, per se, a calculus instructor, but not her own professors. According to Bloomberg, Yale and the University of Connecticut are among those that already have bans in place, and the University of Arizona followed suit last year. Harvard may just be the most recent to patch up the loophole in their code of conduct.
It could turn out that the bans are merely keeping up appearances; students and professors determined to get around the rules could almost certainly find a way. But if banning all student-professor hookups is what it takes to curb sexual harassment, then it’s a step in the right direction.