Dankprofessor’s Weblog

A weblog examining sexual politics in higher education and beyond.

The banning of student prof sex at Colorado College

Cypher Magazine reports on the adoption of a faculty student consensual relationships policy by Colorado College. Following are the key parts of the text of this article as well as my comments.  As you shall see, parts of this policy differ from those colleges which have attempted to ban “sexual or amorous” relationships between students and professors.  This policy and the rationale for said policy merit a detailed critical review.

The policy was created in part to ensure that no sexual relationship between a faculty member and student would “detract from the main goals of the institution,” as the policy outlines. The dynamic of a professor-student relationship could create an uncomfortable atmosphere for other students in a class, and could influence a professor’s capacity for fair evaluation. Regardless of whether or not the faculty member supervises the student, the relationship is inevitably characterized by an unequal distribution of power. Feminist and gender studies professor Eileen Bresnahan confirms that, “One of the problems that the college has had is professors sleeping with undergraduate students where there is a big age difference.”

Interesting, does Bresnahan believe there is no big problem when students and profs are of a similar age?  If so, then why doesn’t she and others advocate a ban for age differentiated relationships?  I guess they are inhibited from reducing students to a “kids” or “children” status.  In any case, universities do not formally invoke an age ban, but as I have argued previously many academic women embrace the banning movement because they feel threatened by younger women taking “their” men.  Unquestionably, if there was a proposal in the wider society to ban older men/younger women relationships, a number of “older” women would embrace this idea.  But such will not come about; it will come about in the universities under a different guise.

While the issues of evaluation and equity between parties are problematic, some faculty members insist that the policy should not prevent the possibility for close student-faculty relationships. The question arose as to where the line should be drawn between friendly and inappropriate relationships between students and faculty members. Faculty members displayed concern for this issue at the third block meeting as they became engrossed in a debate over the meaning of the word “amorous,” and eventually voted not to include this word in the policy. Along with several of his colleagues (both male and female), English professor George Butte rose to the microphone to argue against the use of the word amorous because of its possible implication of friendship. Other faculty members defended their freedom to distinguish students on the basis of academic merit and talent and, in some cases, to meet with them outside of class. Some professors wished to maintain the right to meet privately with students struggling with class work.

Professor Butte understands the dynamic here.  Banning amorous relationships goes way beyond the sexual area. As I have indicated previously, student professor bans have become an outright attack on love between students and professors.  And an unfortunate byproduct of this is that non sexual close relationships between students and professors become increasingly suspect and consequently impersonal.

But the word “amorous” seems to suggest romantic attachment, something distinct from student-faculty friendship. Sociology professor C.J. Pascoe explains, “There was some back-and-forth among faculty members [as to whether the policy] should be just about sexual topics or sexual and romantic topics.” Pascoe says that a number of faculty members wanted the policy to prohibit romantic interactions. But by voting to remove the word “amorous” from the policy, the faculty chose to condemn only relationships in which students have physical relations with professors. The word “amorous” would have allowed the policy to address romantic relationships between students and faculty members whether or not evidence of sex was present.  Ultimately, faculty voted to abolish this word from the policy. There are multiple reasons behind the decision, but, according to Pascoe, “There are some faculty who would prefer not to see emotional entanglements legislated.” By voting not to include the word “amorous” in the Consensual Relations policy, the faculty is consenting to romantic relationships as long as they are not sexual.

Yes, such is the nature of the consent, but they are also consenting to the idea that close relationships between students and professors are not antithetical to the ethos of liberal arts colleges; such is consistent with the idea that students and profs are part of a teaching/learning COMMUNITY.

But the dankprofessor also wants to be completely open here in the acknowledgement that dropping amorous from the code also functions to protect those professors and students who are in a sexual relationship.  The reality is that in student professor sexual relationship cases which come to the attention of university authorities such does not occur as a result of observing a prof having sex with a student; sexuality is inferred from the observations of behavior reflecting closeness and intimacy.  When amorous is dropped from the code, then the assertion that the student and professor were in sexual congress can simply be denied.

In the case of Colorado College, the college drops the whole appearances argument which is that the appearance of intimacy was sufficient to bring charges; all one had to prove was that the appearance had occurred and not the reality of sex.  Many universities have consistently argued that the appearance of so-called inappropriate relationships is just as damaging as actually relationships.  Of course, what they had in mind is that it is damaging to the reputation of the college. Whether such is really damaging to the reputation or prestige of a college or university is problematic, and more importantly reputation or prestige issues should not be ground for suspending persons basic civil liberties.

Another component relating to the elimination of the amorous clause may be the most important one which is that these rules supposedly come into being to avoid conflict of interests and to insure fair and impartial grading.  Implicit and sometimes explicit is the notion that close relationships supposedly threaten impartial grading.  Colorado College rejects this notion by prohibiting sexual relationships but not amorous or close relationships. The dankprofessor has argued that these bans are fueled by an anti-sexual component; remove the anti-sexual component and the fervor to pass these rules diminish.  The usage of conflict of interest simply is a smokescreen used to further said anti-sexuality.  And CC has removed said smokescreen and presented their policy as a policy to eliminate student prof sexual relationships.

While other small liberal arts colleges passed policies regarding student-faculty relations years ago, CC faculty long struggled to accept such regulations. Ragan confirms that “we are the last of the top twenty-five liberal arts colleges” to pass such a policy regarding student-faculty relations. Williams and Carleton approved sexual conduct policies regarding faculty/student relationships in 1990 and 1992, respectively. Both schools have revised them since. When Pascoe arrived at CC a year and a half ago, she said that she was “horrified” to find that the college had no policy regarding faculty/student relationships. Bresnahan confirms that CC was not oblivious to the problem and has been working to engineer a policy since she joined the faculty eleven years ago. The policy simply has failed to pass until now.

Now why would Pascoe who is an accomplished sociologist be horrified by the lack of a student professor policy banning sex?  I would love Professor Pascoe to elaborate on the nature of her being horrified.  As for the policy not passing muster until now, the dankprofessor view is that such an invasive and ill advised policy should never pass muster.

There are several reasons behind the CC administration’s delay in acknowledging problems surrounding sexual relations between students and faculty. Ragan explains that the “liberal spirit of individualism at this school” may be partially responsible for the delay in formalizing a policy.  This value may follow the Enlightenment belief that all adults are equal and should have the freedom to rationally pursue their interests. Following the block three meeting, one male faculty member complained to me that the administration should not police student/faculty relations because both parties are adults. This contention aligns with the attitude that CC students and faculty alike are mature adults. Accordingly, they should maintain the freedom to pursue relationships with whomever they choose.

Yes, yes and yes again in reference to the prior paragraph. Enlightenment values, the right of adults to choose their dates and mates should not be subject to infringement by the powers that be.

Pascoe, who teaches the class “Sociology of Sexuality,” finds the assumption that professors and students stand on equal ground in pursuing and maintaining sexual relationships with one another to be flawed. She contends that, across the nation, “Historically, we have seen male professors abuse their power with female students.” This is not to say that the policy does not apply to female professors. But it exists primarily to confront a problem in a society in which, according to Pascoe, “men hold more power than women.”

Assuming Pascoe is correct that persons in the higher position are prone to abuse persons in the lower power position, what Pascoe advocates in no way changes the power dynamic. Such is the case since now we have administrators who become sexual police in the exertion of their power over students and professors in the most intimate and private aspects of their lives.  Pascoe must know that to effectively enforce sexual codes of the sort under consideration here, such can only occur in totalitarian police states.  Or maybe she is in a state of denial, denying that setting up a bureaucratic process  to take away the right of students and professors to have a sexual relationship has nothing to do with taking away the power of both students and professor.

Bresnahan provides an additional explanation as to why CC has hesitated to pass a consensual relations policy. She points to the fact that “a lot of faculty are married to people who used to be students.” According to Bresnahan, these relationships typically form between a male faculty member and a former female student. “The place is run by an old boys’ network,” she argues. “I think women have a hard time being heard here in terms of women’s concerns. If women speak the right language they can be included, but not if they speak as women.”

But Bresnahan does not hear the women who as students married a faculty member.  In fact, she overtly insults them as being pawns in an old boys network.  I guess their children end up being pawns as well.  I suggest that Bresnahan  needs a little consciousness raising.  Such may lead her to consider the possibility that in her own classes she may have a student who was a child of a former student and professor and now she is taught that her dad was a part of an old boys network and such is her reason for being.

This suggests that there exists a larger problem regarding equality among faculty members at CC. Bresnahan says, “The fact that these documents have not been passed until now is indicative of the chilly climate towards women at CC. Women faculty are not empowered at CC. If they [speak as women], they are shot down, marginalized, and ostracized.”

Bresnahan has spoken and is a woman and she seems to be quite alive and well.

It is clear that a variety of issues lie behind CC’s slow passage of the Consensual Relations policy. The issues of individual choice and gender inequality probably both played a role, and it is difficult to pinpoint just one event to which the college is reacting. The passage of this policy may be, in part, a response to the fear of litigation.

While CC passed this policy in the wake of other similar schools, it opted to completely prohibit sexual relationships between any enrolled student and faculty member—even if the student is not under the evaluative auspices of the faculty member. Williams passed a similar policy in 1990, but chose to only prohibit faculty from engaging in a sexual relationship with a student they had supervisory or evaluative authority over. Williams did not exclude the possibility for consensual relations between a student and faculty member. The Williams College Employee handbook from 2006 states, “Anyone in a position of institutional authority over other persons should be sensitive to the potential for coercion in sexual relationships that also involve professional relationships” [emphasis added]. Unlike CC’s policy, Williams’ specifies the need for sensitivity and good judgment on the part of the faculty, rather than mandating complete prohibition. This difference in approach raises the issue of whether or not CC is reacting too stringently to the pressure for a consensual relations policy.

Bravo to Williams College.  And, yes CC is reacting too stringently.  But I guess it is a matter of perspective.  Such stringent codes will most likely mellow out Professor Pascoe who as previously indicated is horrified by the lack of such codes.

The policy suggests that the College will not force the termination of a relationship, only that it demands the faculty member involved to report “the consensual relationship” and not to serve as a supervisor of that student. This clause reflects an inconsistency in CC’s Consensual Relations policy. While the policy claims to “prohibit” any sexual relationship between a student and a faculty member, it qualifies this claim by stating that the faculty member must report the relationship in order to avoid punishment.

By approving a consensual relations policy, CC remains consistent with standards of other liberal arts colleges.  In passing this regulation, CC is demonstrating its commitment to an academic experience where neither faculty nor students are distracted by sexual dynamics. But as one female student who wishes to remain anonymous explains, “Putting a limit on the potential development of student-faculty relationships conflicts with the possibilities for intellectual exploration. Sexuality is not a barrier to the academic experience, but an expression of it.”

Oh, my God, does the writer really believe that the adoption of this code will lead to professors and students not being distracted by sexual dynamics?  In the classroom and outside of the classroom, men and women will be attracted and distracted to each other, this includes men being attracted to men and women being attracted to women.  No matter what Colorado College does or does not do, the distraction of attraction will continue there unabated.

And the student who stated the following at the end of the article is right on- “Sexuality is not a barrier to the academic experience, but an expression of it.”

March 21, 2010 Posted by | Colorado College, consensual relationships, fraternization, higher education, sexual policing, sexual politics, sexual rights, student-prof dating | 1 Comment

   

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