Dankprofessor’s Weblog

A weblog examining sexual politics in higher education and beyond.

UCLA Prof advocates “abolition” of student-prof dating bans

In an LA Times article of October 22, UCLA  psychology prof, Paul Abramson strongly comes out against bans on student-professor relationships. The LA Times interview and article occurred in the context of the publication of a new book by Abramson on student-prof dating.  One of the first dankprofessor postings was on an interview with Abramson which appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. However, it is in this LA Times article that Abramson directly and forcefully takes on the higher ed establishment for “eliminating civil liberties” on campus in  the context of passing these bans.  Abramson also does not fall into the stereotype of equating student-prof relationships as composed of an older male and younger childlike female.  He recognizes that many of these relationships represent partners who are similar in age.  Of course, none of Abramson’s writings will affect the hardcore banners such as Gayle Binion who is quoted in the article and who was the prime mover of the UC ban on consensual relationships.  However, it may be that the middle mass of faculty who go in whatever direction the wind may be blowing may start to question and reconsider such policies.  However the road to change will probably be a very long one.  Only when Abramson and persons such as myself receive invitations to air our views on campus and when professors who share our abolitionist views openly embrace said abolitionism will I be more hopeful.  Personally, I became tired of listening to fellow faculty who would tell me privately that they agreed with my views, but at the same time could not air them publicly.  Academic freedom did not mean for them that they could speak out on these issues.  On the other hand, maybe they knew what I find hard to accept on a gut level- that academic freedom is an ideal that in the real world of academia is all too often not applied when it comes to a professor who is too controversial, too outspoken.

Following are excepts from the LA Times article-

In the volatile mix of academia and sex, UCLA psychology professor Paul R. Abramson says he is trying to light a torch for liberty.

Abramson is sharply criticizing his own employer and colleges nationwide that have adopted restrictions — and, in a few cases, outright bans — on romances between faculty and students.

Of course, sexual harassment should not be allowed and no one should supervise or give grades to a romantic partner, says Abramson, who has taught at UCLA for 31 years. But those concerns should not restrict the right of consenting adults to have a non-exploitative relationship, he argues in a new book.

….

Salon.com, in a blurb that set off a blistering online debate about the classroom and the bedroom, suggested that Abramson might be “a campus Casanova in his own right.”

To that, Abramson reacted wryly during an interview at his campus office. “I’m 57 and have three kids and two grandkids. If I’m the campus Casanova, then the campus has a lot of problems,” said the professor, who has longish graying hair, a goatee and an earring.

Abramson concedes that his personal life was complicated in his 20s but says he has been a staid suburban soccer dad for the last two decades. Thrice divorced, he is married to a 51-year-old neonatal nurse who has never been affiliated with UCLA.

He points out that he has not had a romance with anyone at UCLA for 20 years, although he said he had serious relationships with two former undergraduate students nearly 30 years ago. One was 13 years his senior, and the other, whom he eventually married, was five years his junior. He met them in his classes but did not date them until later, he said.

Too many people have an unrealistic stereotype of campus love, he said. “The picture of it is the older professor and Suzie Coed. I’m sure such things happen, but the greater likelihood are people of similar ages, with similar interests, going for the same music and movies,” like a 27-year-old assistant professor and a 24-year-old graduate student who later get married, he said.

Abramson’s book began as a reaction to regulations adopted by the UC regents in 2003; they didn’t ban such hookups but declared that professors should avoid romantic or sexual relationships with students for whom they have “or should reasonably expect” to have teaching or supervisory responsibility. That includes students interested in a subject within the professor’s expertise — a definition that Abramson finds overly broad. Sanctions range from written censure to dismissal.

The rules were adopted, amid some debate, partly in reaction to a sexual harassment allegation at UC Berkeley. Its law school dean, John P. Dwyer, resigned in 2002 after a student charged that he fondled her when she passed out from heavy drinking. The dean said the encounter was consensual.

The fact that the Dwyer case was cited to support the rules shows that campus leaders were more concerned about lawsuits than anything else, Abramson alleges.

“Eliminating civil liberties to punish a small number of transgressors is hardly the answer,” he writes.

To allay legal fears, he suggests an alternative: All faculty and students would read and sign a release (a “love contract”) that would warn about the power differences and favoritism that can arise from faculty-student dating. They then would promise, as in a medical release, not to hold the school responsible if the romance goes sour.

UC Santa Barbara political science professor Gayle Binion, who helped draft the 2003 UC policy when she headed the systemwide Academic Senate, said it was partly intended to shield UC from liability.

But more important, she said, most of the faculty thought it was “good policy” since students may consent to an affair but not grasp the potential consequences even if they sign a release. “If the relationship goes awry, it is the student who is going to suffer,” Binion said, citing instances of graduate students who then drop out.

Such relationships are “not terribly uncommon at the graduate student level,” but probably less frequent and more “under the radar” now than during the free-wheeling ’70s and early ’80s, she said. Still, the rule “not only makes parents more secure when they send their kids to UC, it puts the faculty on notice,” Binion said.

Abramson overstates his case about restrictions on freedom, according to Binion. Limits on dating are common in many workplaces, she said, and academia “is kind of late coming to it.”

Since 2003, a handful of cases of possible faculty violations of the policy have been formally reviewed, according to UC spokesman Brad Hayward. No professor has been dismissed, although a few were disciplined with warning letters that are considered confidential personnel matters, he said.

So what do students think? Reaction is mixed.

Dianne Tanjuaquio, a vice president of UCLA’s undergraduate students association, said she agrees with Abramson that the rules are too harsh in keeping entire departments off-limits. “We are adults at an elite university. Something as broad as that is very restrictive on our personal freedoms,” she said.

But Oiyan Poon, president of UC’s systemwide student association, supports the regulations, explaining that a teacher in the same department could harm a student’s career even if they never shared a class. Without the rules, “those issues could get extremely sticky when a student is trying to earn a degree in a timely fashion,” she said.

In 1995, the American Assn. of University Professors adopted a statement that calls sexual relations between students and faculty who supervise them “fraught with the potential for exploitation.” Anita Levy, its associate secretary for academic freedom and tenure issues, said Abramson’s arguments might find some support on campuses, but she doubted any rule changes nationwide would occur.

Abramson said he is often asked how he would react if his middle daughter, who is preparing for college, dated a professor in the future. “It’s within the realm of possibility, but it’s much more likely she would meet a 22-year-old teaching assistant,” he said. “If that’s who she wants to be involved with, that’s who she gets involved with.”

larry.gordon@latimes.com

October 24, 2007 - Posted by | academic freedom, consensual relationships, ethics, higher education, ivory tower romance, student professor dating, UCLA

7 Comments »

  1. To be perfectly honest, there are some situations which I feel have not yet been taken into account. At some smaller Universities, there are undergraduate students acting as TA’s. These students are the same age as or even younger than a good portion of their students. Because most of the students they help to teach are likely to be in their same field or department, these rules might prevent the students from dating at all for years. How is that possibly fair to these students who merely wish to get ahead in academia?

    Although I feel that professor-student relationships are to be watched very, very, very carefully and perhaps even not allowed in some circumstances, I think it would be unfair to look at teaching assistants in the same frame of mind. There is a difference between a 50 year old teacher dating a 22 year old student and a 21 year old teaching assistant dating a 20 year old student.

    Comment by Heather | July 4, 2008 | Reply

  2. What a fantastic article. I’m an older student and it is very interesting because I’m single and would like the freedom to pursue a relationship should one arise under these circumstances. Although, I can see where caution should be exercised, even now, from an adult perspective I realize things could easily get messy for both the university, faculty, and students involved. I can’t imagine having this freedom at the age of 18 though, talk about scary. The classroom would suddenly become a whole new ballgame of potential romance(s). What happens if a single faculty member wants to date more than one consenting student? Would they be required to share this with each partner? Wouldn’t this violate their rights to privacy as a single adult? This is all so very, very slippery.

    Comment by Dee | April 14, 2009 | Reply

  3. I strongly agree with Paul Abramson. Privacy and free association, after work, or school, should be regarded as Civil Rights! You can add the U. S. and State Constitutions, if the workplace or college is a public institution.
    Despite the American Asdsociation of University Professors’ 1995 statement, they didn’t actually say that professor/student dating should be prohibited. I wonder if the union would come to the defense of a professor or teaching assistant, who was facing unfair “discipline”, over consensual dating?
    Finally, I am a never married baby boomer, who works in a Civil Service capacity. I have never taught, but don’t think age differences should matter. If the female student was over 21, and not childlike, I shouldn’t be demonized for asking her out! So long as no coercion was involved, no school should “discipline” teachers of any age, over consensual, outside associations!

    Comment by Donald Visconti | July 19, 2009 | Reply

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