Universities have long been hotbeds of inappropriate romantic relationships, especially those occurring between professors and students. Are these relationships even allowed?
Most universities forbid or highly discourage students and professors from entering into romantic relationships. Aside from the long-standing taboo that exists around such a relationship, there are ethical concerns and complex power dynamics that make dating between such partners a bad idea.
While once an unregulated and widely accepted practice, professors dating students has come under scrutiny since the 1980’s feminist movement and increased awareness of sexual harassment among students. In this article, we will discuss the cases, the schools, and what to do if (despite the general lack of acceptance) you still want to date a professor.
History of Dating Between Students and Professors
Ever since women started pursuing higher education in the 19th century, female students have been dating their (typically older) male professors. According to the Women’s Research & Education Institute, male professors used to call university campuses “the candy store,” due to its ever-increasing pool of available young women.
By no means is this question exclusive to young female students and older male professors, but historically, this was the dynamic at play. Professors exerted their influence over grades and higher social standing to coerce their young students into sexual relationships. Many students were afraid that their grades and academic standing would be affected if they did not submit to these advances.
Additionally, because of the professor’s position among other faculty, they might have to forgo letters of recommendation or the good opinion of other professors should they choose not to give in. Few students spoke out about this, and most people turned a blind eye to the practice.
The tide began to change in the 1980s. With the rise of the feminist movement, increased efforts were taken to protect women from the coercion of older men to which they were subordinates, a key dynamic being that of student and professor. In the late 80s and 90s, real change began to happen; schools could finally be held liable for sexual harassment charges. This was a serious claim that could discredit the school and end a professor’s career. We will later discuss the lawsuits that led to this major change in policy.
Working closely with a professor or faculty advisor is a great way to develop a lasting connection based on mutual interests. It is natural to feel a bond with someone with whom you share the same passion, such as writing, poetry, or psychology. During office hours, many students meet privately to discuss their academics, career paths, and even personal interests. These connections have always been vital to students landing jobs in the future or positions at graduate school. Networking, right?
Pursuing a connection or friendship with a professor is not a bad thing. In fact, it may be important to your career, as that person can introduce you to a future employer or act as a reference for a graduate school. That being said: proceed with caution.
Relationships can often start as a friendship and progress into something more. If you are a student, being aware of the history of professor-student relationships and your school’s own policy on professor-student dating will save you a lot of confusion, heartache, and potential grade sabotage.
If you are a professor, your position is even more critical. You must be fully aware of the consequences of such a relationship in addition to your school’s policy on professor-student dating. This could make the difference between continuing to teach at your university versus losing your job and facing a hefty lawsuit.
Speaking of lawsuits, there was one of particular importance to this issue. Surprisingly, it did not even involve a professor or a student dating. It involved a young woman and her boss. In this case, the woman gave in to the repeated sexual advances of her boss because she was afraid that she would be fired if she did not concede.
Because she felt that her boss had pressured her into a relationship with him, the woman decided to press charges. In Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, a case that sprung up in 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “acts of apparently consensual sex, when involving parties marked by a significant power differential, can in fact be instances of harassment.” See this source for more information.
Basically, the Supreme Court ruled that where a significant power difference exists in a relationship, advances on the part of the more powerful party could be interpreted as harassment. In addition, this means that parties under pressure from someone else cannot give proper consent.
So how does this relate to professors dating students? Though it is true that Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson did not involve a student and professor, the power dynamic between a “boss” figure and subordinate is the same. Professors wield significant power over a student’s grades, their reputation in the eyes of other faculty members, and their future access to opportunities.
Because students are in some ways at the mercy of their professors, this is widely known as what the Supreme Court calls a “power differential.” Although many students appear to have “consented” to entering into a romantic relationship with a professor, it is often unclear how that consent was obtained.
Since this case in 1986, many universities have amended their policies on professor-student dating. Instead of appealing to a taboo or good judgment alone to steer people away from these relationships, many universities opt for a blank ban on all professor-student romantic attachments, whether they appear to be consensual or not.
A Rule Aimed Towards Safety
Ultimately, this is a matter of safety for both student and professor. A lot of data has been gathered which suggests that students, particularly female students, are vulnerable to sexual harassment at the hands of their professors. The Association of American Universities surveyed students at 27 prestigious universities.
They found that “10 percent of female graduate and professional students experienced sexual harassment from faculty members.” (Source) One does not have to do much digging to find hundreds of accounts of female students that have been harassed or worse by their older professors, whom they typically approached from within a position of trust.
We entrust our collegiate-level educators with a lot of leeway as far as their opinions and classroom conduct goes. However, the realm of professor-student relations is one area that has often been abused, leaving the student population vulnerable.
This is not to say that professors don’t suffer. If false allegations are made or intentions misinterpreted, a student’s word can tear down the reputation of a long-standing professor, even a tenured professor. Because it has been neglected in the past, of late a student’s accusation of sexual harassment or inappropriate flirtation can cause the professor to be removed from the school and shunned from other academic institutions. That is not to mention the potential lifetime prison sentence, should the allegations prove to be correct.
Dating: It Differs by School
Although the view of universities on professor-student dating is consistent—in that it is highly discouraged—the actual policies on the topic vary from school to school.
Most Ivy League schools completely prohibit faculty from dating undergraduate students, whether they belong in the same department or not (yes, that makes a difference in some schools). For example, Harvard’s statement on the topic is as follows:
“The FAS policy prohibits romantic or sexual relationships between its faculty and any undergraduate student at Harvard College, regardless of whether the instructor is currently supervising or teaching that student.”Source
Yale and New York University have the same policy: complete prohibition. Columbia, Stanford, and Duke University also have all-out bans on professor-student relationships. So, if you’re at an Ivy League, just know that they’re pretty strict.
Some universities, like Brigham Young University, meet halfway on the policy. For example, BYU’s policy is that everyone involved with the school, whether staff or student, is to avoid romantic relationships where a power differential exists. This includes not only students and professors, but also students and their teaching assistants (or TA’s, as they are often called).
However, if both parties feel strongly about continuing the relationship, then their supervisors need to be notified, and they both have to disclose privately that the relationship is desired and consensual. So yes, it’s highly discouraged, but it’s not a hard “no.”
Rarely will you find a university that fully endorses professor-student relationships, but you will find schools that are more lenient in their stance. At the University of Michigan, students may enter into romantic relationships with faculty as long as the faculty member does not supervise the student.
Basically, if you’re in the English department, you’d be fine to date a member of the math faculty. A relationship with a member of faculty who has an advisory role over said student is considered a “violation of ethics,” since such a relationship could be used to the student’s academic advantage.
Grad Students: A Possible Exception
At most universities, faculty are highly discouraged from dating undergraduate students. However, there is sometimes more leniency with graduate students dating professors. Perhaps it is because graduate students are often older, sometimes late into their adult years, so universities feel less of a need to impose strict policies on dating.
For example, notice Northwestern University’s strict policy on undergraduates dating professors says:
“When undergraduate students are involved, the difference in institutional power and the inherent risk of coercion are so great that no faculty member or coaching staff member shall enter into a romantic, dating, or sexual relationship with a Northwestern undergraduate student, regardless of whether there is a supervisory or evaluative relationship between them.”Source
However, with graduate students, the policy is much less strict, advising that no romantic relationship between professor and student occurs if the student is under that professor’s supervision. Relationships with other faculty are allowed.
Although the policies are less staunch for graduate students, there are rules and very real consequences should they be violated. If you enter into a romantic relationship with a professor from your department, you can lose scholarships, be kicked out of school, and jeopardize your professional career.
Read your school’s sexual misconduct and dating policies thoroughly. Many schools still require a written form disclosing the relationship and most forbid professor-student relationships within the same department. As in all cases, tread carefully.
What to Do if You Want to Date a Professor
Though the idea of students and professors dating raises several moral questions and brings into account the consensual nature of the relationship, there are sometimes no formal rules that forbid these parties from dating. Though forbidden by Ivy League universities and highly discouraged by most others, unless your school has a formal written rule about the arrangement, it is technically allowed.
The best and only option entirely devoid of consequence, however, is to wait until you graduate. If you really want to date a professor, or you are a professor who has taken a liking to a student, wait until graduation. You’ll save yourself a lot of turned heads, academic questioning, and even potential lawsuits if you do.
The General Consensus
The issue of students and professors dating is a hot topic, especially in light of recent pushes by the feminist movement to make sure that women’s voices are heard in regards to sexual misconduct. While this practice was once okay and generally accepted, professor-student dating has become taboo, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a university that does not have a wordy policy about these kinds of relationships.
Before entering into a professor-student dating relationship, consider the consequences you would face if it was discovered. These consequences range from academic discipline to court cases and prison sentences.
Consider, if you are a student, why you want to enter the relationship, and whether you feel you are giving your consent on equal grounds and without coercion. For these reasons and because of the long history of sexual harassment between students and professors, most universities agree that dating between students and professors should be avoided, at least while you both are at school.