Dankprofessor’s Weblog

A weblog examining sexual politics in higher education and beyond.

Student professor intimate relationship attacked

Mark Bourrie of the Ottawa Watch blog has complained to the Dean of Arts of Concordia University about a fellow university instructor who allegedly is having an intimate relationship with a Concordia student.  Bourrie does not name the professor or student in his letter of complaint to the dean.
He states that his concerns relate to unprompted conversations he has had with eleven of his female students.  He goes on to state that “The alleged affair is common knowledge among students in one of the university’s departments.”
The problem that Bourrie has is that a consensual sexual relationship between a student and professor is not prohibited at Concordia University.  The Concordia Dean of Arts responded to Bourrie in these terms-
“Thank you for bringing this matter to my attention. You should be aware that “Concordia does not forbid intimate [consensual] relationships between faculty and students”. We recognize that such relationships are intrinsically problematic, and strongly advise both students and faculty members against engaging in them, but they are not forbidden.”
The fact that the alleged relationship falls outside of the purview of regulation by the Concordia administration and treats students and professors as having the right to engage in autonomous decision making in regards to choice of romantic partners does not impress Dr. Bourrie.  Far from it , he responds to said policy in these terms-
“That’s outrageous. Your answer is completely unacceptable. The power imbalance between a professor and a student is such that sexual relationships cross the boundaries of exploitation.  I will bring this matter to the attention of the president of the university. Quite frankly, the conduct and attitudes of administrators and professors at Concordia borders on the bizarre.”
So Bourrie knows that in the alleged current situation, boundaries of exploitation have been crossed; he knows that such is the case since he believes that there is a power imbalance in any student professor sexual relationship and such crosses the boundaries of exploitation.  Of course. Bourie ends up thoroughly objectifying and dehumanizing any student professor relationship.  He doesn’t have to talk to the parties involved; he has already defined the parties in his cartoon world imagery.   As for the female student, no matter that she may feel that she is not being exploited, no matter that she may see herself as an adult who has consented to the relationship, Bourrie knows her mind better that she knows her mind.
Bourrie goes on and the dankprofessor believes that he eventually tells us what is the dynamic fueling his opposition to student professor relationships-

“I am quite scandalized by this. The idea of, say, a 40-year-old prof and an 18-year-old student having a “relationship” just boggles the mind. I have a 14-year-old daughter. In four years, she could be “dating” some prof at Concordia. Quite frankly, I have found academia to be the most disfunctional and downright corrupt thing I have ever come into contact with… Apparently, the Senate of Concordia has considered the issue, and it’s OK for profs to have sex with students. Guess where my kids aren’t going…”
Bourrie’s story is the same old story for many of those opposing student professor relationships.  The story is about protecting ones children or others peoples children from the evil adult predatory professors.
Of course, what Bourrie wants is the administration to represent authoritarian parents in helping them regulate the lives of their children.  Viewing college students as adults is simply out of the question.  Entertaining the notion that some students are older adults and wish to date professors who are also younger adults of a similar age is also out of the realm of possibility for Bourrie.  Of course, at many universities many students are well beyond their teens, many are in their twenties thirties and forties and even some beyond.  And, yes, I met my wife to be when she was a student of mine and in her fifties.
But as far as age is concerned, younger students deserve the same rights as older students.   They have a right to be free of the power control and abuse of more powerful abusers, whether the abusers be authoritarian parents or administrators.  The irony for Bourrie and likeminded others is that in the name of attacking a so-called power imbalance between students and professors they want a power imbalance in which they want absolute control.  What utter hypocrisy!
Now the dankprofessor wishes to make it clear that he is not opposed to Bourrie, to university administrators providing their advice to students or to whomever they wish to provide advice.  What the dankprofessor opposes is Bourrie and university administrations having the right to coerce others in
terms of romantic choice.  Concordia University provides advice to their students and professors in this area.  The problem is that they provide bad advice.  The remainder of this post is devoted to presenting and critiquing said advice. 
Presented below is the official university advice on student professor relationships; the text of this statement is highlighted.  The dankprofessor’s comments appear unhilighted in the text of the statement.
Concordia does not forbid intimate relationships between faculty and students that are consensual. However, such relationships are fraught with danger and the recommendation from the Advisor is that it is better to avoid them.

There are several reasons for this recommendation, not the least of which is the observation that when such relationships sour – and they often do – it is the student who usually loses, not the faculty member. Offices that provide services to students often hear these tales, and know that, more often than not, the student drops out of a course, a program or even the university. Professionally speaking, faculty should be encouraging students to learn, not taking risks with their academic futures.

 Of course, consistent with this advice is that persons never take risks in context of romantic and sexual relationships.  In all relationships there are risks of relationships terminating; in marriage there are risks in marriages ending in divorce.  In all human endeavors, there are risks of failure.  Of course, no evidence is presented in the Ottawa statement that student prof relationships are more risky than other relationships.  And the writer of this statement very well knows that when one goes to counseling services, one almost always hears “tales” of woes.  If the observer/researcher can’t get out of his office and observe the myriad world of relationships, such represents laziness and incompetence.  The statement is also insulting to faculty implying that the faculty psyche is beyond frailty and they do not experience loss when a relationship with a student ends.  The last sentence-  “Professionally speaking, faculty should be encouraging students to learn, not taking risks with their academic futures” – is particularly absurd and insulting.  The notion that if the faculty member is romantically involved with the student he or she cannot encourage the student to learn is beyond the pale.  In fact, I would argue based on the experience of many others, that the situation is just the opposite, that the prof is devoted to student learning.  As the dankprofessor has pointed out- the love of knowledge can very well lead to the knowledge of love.

 What faculty members may not realize is that they also place themselves and the University at risk by crossing this particular boundary. If a student who has entered a relationship with a professor decides, upon its termination, to file a complaint of sexual harassment, the case will turn on the issue of consent. There is a view that, given the considerable power differential between student and professor, a student’s consent to a relationship is always compromised. Whether one subscribes to this argument or not, human rights tribunals have supported it. The question becomes, is it worth the risk?

The dankprofessor would like to see the citations of so-called tribunals that there cannot be consent when there is a power differential between a student and a professor.  If so, then Concordia is de jure governed by these cases and by definition there can be no such consensual relationships between students and profs.  In any case, if all consensual relationships ended tomorrow, sexual harassment cases will continue unabated at universities.  To conflate sexual harassment and consensual relationships does a disservice to those who are attempting to combat sexual harassment on campus and ends up trivializing sexual harassment.

There are other, less controversial legal arguments that suggest that faculty refrain from such relationships, namely breach of trust and conflict of interest. Here too, human rights tribunals and arbitration boards have found against faculty members. Faculty have a duty to avoid conflict of interest and to exercise their power over students only in the students’ interests, not in their own interests.

Again, it is presumptuous that faculty involved with students do not take the interests of students seriously.  Conflict of interest issues deserve attention in respect to all aspects of university life.  Given this, there is no special need for a category regarding student prof relationships.  Campaigns against such relationships are sexually based, have an anti-sexual basis, and are generally not conflict of interests based

Faculty members should be mindful of Concordia’s own Code of Ethics, which defines the conflicts of interest that arise when there is a personal relationship between a faculty member and a student.

The requirement is that if the relationship cannot be avoided, the faculty member should excuse him- or herself from any supervisory or evaluative role with regard to the student concerned. It is not necessary to declare the reasons for the conflict. So at the very least, if you cannot avoid the relationship, you should declare it.

And declaring it, is this in the interest of the student?  Shouldn’t the student have a say in the matter? Declaring the relationship makes the relationship a public relationship and now will fall officially within the purview of university administration decision making.  My advice is to never declare these relationships to the university.  By doing this the danger to both the student and prof goes way up.

As for students, the advice given by a student quoted in a University Affairs article is: “Do not have sex with anyone you sometimes have to call Mister, Doctor or Professor” – it may cost you dearly.

OK, lets get down to the nitty-gritty, the fear here is that the title will be replaced by the first name or darling or my love, or love, etc, etc.  Such opposition to terms of endearment might represent a fear of undermining the university stratification system.  And in terms of authoritarian structures or states, love is always the enemy.

See update.

April 5, 2009 Posted by | Canada, Concordia University, consensual relationships, ethics, higher education, outing students, privacy, sex, sexual harassment, sexual policing, sexual politics, sexual rights, student professor dating | Leave a comment



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