Wednesday, July 23, 2003

We just should help ourselves 

Frequent reader and commenter John Bruce wrote me last night, asking for more on the question of student-professor dating.
My impression continues to be that, among faculty who deliver opinions on the Boalt Hall issue, the reaction is surprisingly strong and absolutist -- yours is the first suggestion I've seen from an active faculty member on a blog that there is even anything improper about a prof dating a student in his/her class -- though I'm not making a study...
Not to worry, John, I'm sure someone will -- heck, might make a nice thesis! (Must ... not ... joke ... about ... field ... research ... Must ... not...)

Anyway, I agree with him that it's an important issue that we try not to speak of. In the old days of in loco parentis such behavior was considered a violation of one's duty as a professor. It most certainly did happen, and if the romance blossomed into a permanent relationship one at least tried not to discuss this in great detail. Over the last thirty years we were told to view 18-year-olds as adults. (I don't, and that's part of my problem as my detractors on campus see it.) Since they were now adults, and able to make adult choices -- ask any dean of students about THAT one! -- it was only natural that we would also begin to view them as able to make adult choices about who to date. We as faculty were able to say, "Hey, they're adults! They can make that choice."

What's important to note, as Erin O'Connor did, is that there is a conflict of interest that arises when personal affairs come between faculty and student, and there needs to be some distance maintained. This doesn't just relate to sex. I have wrestled at times with going out with students when alcohol is served: I'm not prudish -- I enjoy whiskey as much as any man -- but I wonder about what signals are sent from me to students when I do go out with them. (More so after the second Jamesons.) I limit myself to official mixer functions as a result, and there are times I'm not even comfortable with that rule. I find myself asking, "Is this something a man of integrity does?" If I can answer yes, then I'll go out with the group.

Students are in a bad position, of course, but it's unwise to think that students and administrators alone could clean this up. I think it has to begin with the faculty themselves, despite John's misgivings. What is needed is a rule that would look something like this. In the faculty member's contract will read a section like this:

SECTION XX. 1. Any faculty member who finds in their class or in their program a student with whom they have a business or personal relationship beyond the normal bounds of the faculty-student relationship will not evaluate that student's performance. S/He will identify the student to her/his dean or the dean's designee and the student will be moved to another section.
2. Failure to identify a student thusly will result in a sanction from the dean, up to and including termination of employment.
3. Decisions may be grieved by the faculty member to a grievance committee constituted of faculty and administrators.
I left 3. vague because that depends on what your grievance process looks like. It permits the relationships that I think are probably OK, like the art professor and the physics student. The rule isn't about keeping adults from doing what they wish (even if I don't think 18-year-olds are adults). It's about protecting the integrity of the institution.