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USF revists faculty dating rules

On this point, the professors agree: They can't stop people from falling in love, or regulate desire and affection.

What, then, to do when an attraction forms between professor and student? Should a relationship be forbidden, or quietly managed on campus?

It's a question the University of South Florida has been debating for months after a high-profile affair between an English professor and his student.

The most outspoken faculty have divided into two camps: the prohibitionists, who favor an all-out ban, and the discouragers, who disapprove of the affairs but don't believe USF can dictate matters of the heart.

After four attempts to draft a formal policy, the discouragers appear to be winning. Some faculty aren't pleased, and at least one department chairman has refused to enforce the proposed policy.

It's never acceptable, says USF biology chairman Sidney K. Pierce, for a professor to date his students.

"There are lots of other places in Tampa," he said, "to get dates."

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In academia, it's considered a perk for male professors: an endless stream of pretty young students to date.

It's not hard to understand why the romances occur, particularly between professors and older graduate students, said English professor John Hatcher. They get to know each other during classes and research. They bond over talks about Shakespeare, the French Revolution or calculus theorems.

"It's natural that there would be an affinity or attraction of personalities," said Hatcher, who leans toward the prohibitionist stance. "The problem is, where do you go from there, what boundaries do you set? It's a terribly difficult thing."

Some couples live happily ever after. But all too often, education experts say, the affairs exploit students, disrupt academic departments and end in sexual harassment complaints.

Because of the problems, many universities have adopted tough rules.

"Any time there's a relationship between faculty and a student in their classroom," said USF vice provost Robert Chang, "it jeopardizes the academic integrity of the university."

Schools have taken different approaches. The College of William & Mary forbids professors from dating all undergraduates and any graduate students they supervise. Yale University restricts professors from dating students they supervise or could reasonably expect to.

Some professors have argued the bans violate their civil rights. But education lawyers can't recall any successful court challenges.

"Courts have generally allowed employers to place those types of limits on employees," said Frank Vinik, a lawyer and risk analyst for United Educators, a member-owned insurance pool for 1,100 colleges and universities.

A dwindling number of colleges _ including USF _ simply discourage the affairs.

In the past three years, problems arose in the English department, when a young rhetoric professor, James Inman, dated several students.

Rather than discussing Chomsky or Faulkner, graduate students began talking about Inman's affairs on a department e-mail group, wondering if his girlfriends were getting better grades. One woman filed a sexual harassment complaint against Inman. He was cleared of the charges and said he took precautions to avoid conflicts.

Faculty and administrators were distressed by the situation, but could do little under school policy.

Administrators did not renew Inman's contract, and set about crafting a new policy in July.

They suggested "strictly" prohibiting faculty from dating any student under their supervision, evaluation or influence _ similar to a policy the University of California system adopted last year after a sex scandal toppled the UC Berkeley law school dean.

If professors violated the policy, USF administrators suggested, they could be fired.

The proposal didn't last long after it was sent to the faculty senate this fall. Professors disagreed about whether the affairs should be prohibited or simply managed on campus.

Even if the affairs are questionable, faculty asked, isn't there something philosophically wrong with USF regulating the intimate lives of adults?

"Nobody thought the relationships were a good idea," said prohibitionist Susan Greenbaum, president of the USF faculty senate. "It was just a matter of how to really intervene."

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Psychology professor Emanuel Donchin argues strongly for a ban. Professors should not be allowed to date students, particularly students in their classes or graduate students they mentor. As a longtime department chairman, he has seen too many of the relationships end badly.

"I think there has to be a very clear and unambiguous prohibition," Donchin said.

He says such relationships are complicated by a power imbalance: Professors control their students' grades. If the relationships end in a sexual harassment complaint, a department chairman such as Donchin is forced into the role of judge. "If one side tells me she was coerced into bed, and the other says, "No, no, no, we had this wonderful understanding,' how the hell am I supposed to know?" Donchin said.

An explicit prohibition, he said, removes that burden.

"I want something that says: This was not acceptable, so don't tell us stories about romance."

USF education historian Sherman Dorn agrees the relationships are a bad idea.

"If anybody asked me for advice, I'd say: Don't do it. It's not a career-propelling move. It's more like career plutonium."

But he said he doesn't think it's practical to ban the relationships.

He said there are too many scenarios where a blanket ban would be unfair. What if a professor's spouse wants to enroll in a course in the same department, but can't because of a strict prohibitionist policy? "I don't believe it's possible for the university to draw that bright line," he said.

Others say USF can't stop two adults from falling in love.

"We felt that it wasn't our position to manage people's personal behavior," said geography professor Philip Reeder, chairman of the faculty senate committee that is working on the drafts.

The best policy is discouraging relationships while requiring faculty to disclose a romance that creates a conflict of interest, Reeder said.

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Under the current draft, if a professor dates a student he oversees, he must disclose the relationship to his supervisor. The supervisor will be required to come up with a solution _ transfer the student to another class, or appoint a new academic adviser.

The policy would apply to all university staff, not just professors.

Some professors still have serious concerns.

Donchin calls the proposal "deeply deficient."

It's unlikely, he said, that professors will alert supervisors before starting a romance.

"So people get a little drunk at a party and end up in a hotel room, they're going to call me before they take their clothes off and say, "Hey, Manny, we're about to have a consensual relationship?' Anyone who believes that is going to happen is naive."

He and other chairmen and chairwomen say the policy puts them in an uncomfortable position. They shouldn't have to shuffle students in and out of classes depending on which professor they're dating. "If I wanted to run a dating service. . ." said biology chairman Pierce, "I would have followed a very different career path."

Some departments, professors said, aren't large enough to absorb the affairs. What happens if the student needs a class taught only by the one professor?

"If no alternative is possible," the faculty senate committee suggests, "(the) student may be required to resign from the program."

Biology chairman Pierce said he won't enforce the current policy. "The conflict of interest is apparent and it is unacceptable," he wrote in an e-mail to the faculty senate. "I can't see how this can be successfully negotiated."

The discussion is far from over. The faculty senate will debate the policy again at a meeting this month, then a draft will be sent to the university president's staff, administrators, department chairmen, student government and others for a six-week period of feedback. "It's still hard to call," said Chang, USF's vice provost. Meanwhile, the debate continues.

"If you have power over somebody, you should not be involved in an intimate relationship," Greenbaum said. "Everything else starts to get ambiguous."

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