Abusus Non Tollit Usum or Do Not Throw Out the Baby with the Bath Water
Review of Paul R. Abramson: Romance in the Ivory Tower: The Rights and Liberty of Conscience, MIT Press, 2007, 176 pp.
Reviewed by Joseph S. Fulda
The original publication of this review is located at http://www.springerlink.com
Forthcoming in SEXUALITY AND CULTURE, vol. 12 #1, March 2008, pp. 68-70
The Conceptual Aims and Practical Goal of the Book
Abramson wrote this book with two aims in mind: (1) To avoid giving offense to any, while (2) arguing for “safeguarding the right to think and choose, according to one’s conscience, as it applies to faculty-student romance” and the choice of whom to romance, more generally. The explicit goal of the book is to “reverse [the] situation” where when “you lose your heart, you could lose your job.”
The False Issue and the Real Issue
Abramson does not deny that conflicts of interest are possible, but believes rather that such solutions as “recusal, disclosure, and third-party evaluations” are the answer, not simply banning romance. Moreover, Abramson does deny-and we agree-that were universities honestly motivated by conflicts of interest, they would not routinely place inappropriate pressure on faculty to favor athletes (who bring in money), and argues that when it comes to banning romances the issue is, once again, money. Money. Listen to Abramson on p. 30:
Why, you may wonder, do companies prohibit romance in the first place? …[T]he truth of the matter is that the primary motivation for the nonfraternization policy is the belief that it reduces civil liability in sexual harassment lawsuits …the rhetoric about power differentials and favoritism notwithstanding. …How, you may wonder, can this be true? Or more specifically, what does romance among consenting adults have to do with sexual harassment? The real answer is precisely nothing. …The big question, then, is why should consensual romance be denied in the service of protecting against sexual harassment lawsuits?
And, on pp. 32-33:
Is this fair? Or more important, is this legal?
It is, of course, patently unfair. The only real question is whether it is legal, or more significantly, treated as legal?
Before going on to Abramson’s own answer to this question, it is well to remark that he is not against saving money per se; he advocates that consenting partners sign a “love contract” releasing the university from liability. But the current approach, he likens to banning purses and laptops because some may be stolen or eliminating parking lots and cars on campus when problems arise in these domains.
The Framework of Abramson’s Argument
Space and the desire to leave something for the reader to discover on his own preclude us from giving more than a bulleted outline-a sketch-of Abramson’s argument, with one hopes not too considerable damage to the subtleties and nuances-for which, of course, the reader of this review must purchase the book. Here is the sketch: • The First Amendment protects both the free exercise of religion and precludes the establishment of a national religion or preference between religious systems.
• The draft of the Amendment originally written by Madison included a third clause regarding “the rights of conscience.”
• The constitutional archives, by which Abramson means the entire corpus of writings of the Founding and Framing eras, are not ultimately dispositive about whether the oft-mentioned rights of conscience were parallel to, underlay, or were a synonym for the free exercise of religion and the proscription of preference between religious systems-or perhaps some combination of all three.
• The constitutional archives are not ultimately dispositive as to whether the free exercise clause extends to behavior not injurious to others, but leans in that direction.
• The Ninth Amendment protecting unenumerated rights can certainly be read as extending to the rights of conscience broadly considered.
• Anchoring the liberty of conscience in the First or Ninth Amendments grants it affirmative protection as something inherently worthwhile, while recognizing a zone of privacy merely walls it off from certain intrusions.
• For something as fundamental as the liberty of conscience, extending both to beliefs and behavior not injurious to others, a firmer footing than the negative right to privacy is desirable.
• Sexual and romantic choices are ultimately matters of conscience and were pretty uniformly so regarded at the time and place of the Framing.
• Universities receiving federal funds ought to recognize the liberty of conscience in its entirety, because it is the right thing to do and because it is mandated by the Constitution’s core principles if not perhaps by its text and if decidedly not by the history of that text’s interpretation.
A few small problems mar this book, and one significantly larger issue. The small problems include, inter alia, the absence of citations for legal cases, the repeated use of “discrete” for “discreet,” and the reversal of meanings given “impartiality” and “partiality.”
The larger issue is that Abramson sees fit to properly ally the rights of religion and conscience in the choice of romantic partners throughout most of the book, but towards the ends adopts a strange (given his first aim) and entirely unnecessary (given his second aim) and, indeed, counterproductive hostility towards religion.
The Decalogue commands respect for parents, but a core religious teaching is that children may entirely disregard their parents’ wishes when it comes to a choice of spouse. Moreover, even the young are not to be married without their consent. This lesson is taught in Genesis where Rebecca, a child prodigy who spoke and reasoned at 3 years of age, had to be consulted before Milcah and Laban released her to Abraham’s servant Eliezer as a mate for Isaac.
This hostility undermines his own parallel throughout the book’s body between religion and conscience and I cannot divine what impelled him to do this to his own argument.
Still, the book remains largely persuasive and deserves a fair hearing from the (anyway) largely secular academy to which it is directed.
Out of the Campus Closet: Student Professor Consensual Sexual Relationships
Review of Paul R. Abramson: Romance in the Ivory Tower: The Rights and Liberty of Conscience, MIT Press, 2007, 176 pp
Reviewed by Barry M. Dank aka the dankprofessor
The original publication of this review is located at www.springerlink.com
Forthcoming in SEXUALITY AND CULTURE, Vol. 12 #1, March 2008, pp. 68-70
Might one be engaging in utopian thinking if one believes that universities, particularly American universities, are places where matters relating to conscience and liberty and freedom of association are taken very seriously? The answer is unequivocally yes since most American universities are no longer a refuge for persons believing in and wanting to act on these values, values which have been integrally linked to the American ethos. Rather than being a refuge for these values, American universities have embraced authoritarianism with a vengeance, discarding freedoms that have been held by many as taken for granted freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.
Nowhere have these constitutional rights been more flagrantly violated than on American campuses where there have been concerted efforts, and generally successful efforts, to formally ban intimate sexual and romantic relationships between students and professors. Hardly any of the campus advocates for these bans have given any credence or recognition to the possibility that their agendas represent violations of civil liberties in any form. They have effectively disguised their attack on basic freedoms as a form of protectionism with their feminist engendered slogan that differential power precludes consent, which comes to be equated with the idea that students, particularly female students, are unable to consent to any form of sexual relationship with almost any professor since professors always are in a higher power position. Even if a female student should protest that her consent was given freely, the campus authoritarians believe that they know the mind of the student better than the student does, and that their will must replace the will of the incapacitated student.
The disputation of such views has not facilitated an open and polite exchange of ideas. Rather dissenters have been usually viewed as lecherous professors, whether they are male or female, who wish to have free rein for their alleged predatory behavior. In one way or the other campus sexual code dissenters are considered to be morally suspect while the sexual code advocators and promulgators are held to be above suspicion. Or, to put it in other terms, sexual banning supporters are held to be academic insiders while the banning dissenters are held to be dissident outsiders, outside of the post-modern, feminist ideologies of the day.
With the authorship of Romance in The Ivory Tower: The Rights and Liberty of Conscience, UCLA psychology professor, Paul R. Abramson, has fully entered into this fray as an outsider holding that campus predation has run amok in the form of academics discarding basic constitutional guarantees in their quest to “protect” and control both students and professors. Professor Abramson argues that the control they want is to prevent adults on university campuses from choosing whom they date, whom they love, whom they choose as romantic partners. In his words, “Choosing who we love, even on a university campus, is no less a fundamental part of choosing how we live.” And such is a choice that cannot in principle be taken away by university authorities since the power to make the choice resides in the parties directly engaging in the choosing. He notes that “For all intents and purposes, many universities throughout the United States have determined that the power is theirs to wield. This book challenges that assumption, arguing instead that the power is unquestionably within the province of the individual…”
For Abramson, taking away the individual rights of conscience is a direct attack on the autonomy of the individual. Rights of conscience go beyond matters of religion and “…can be extended to all matters of substance that require serious deliberations about right and wrong, consensual sex and romance included.” In Abramson’s view, this individual right of conscience should protect the “…right to make romantic choices without interference or refutation by governmental and institutional authorities.” And very importantly, the author argues that this right is embedded in the Constitution in the form of the Ninth Amendment which holds that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” And Abramson holds that the right to romance is one such important right that is protected by the Ninth Amendment. For those who might argue that the right to romance does not reach the level of importance meriting constitutional protection, he responds in the following terms: “Romance…is a quintessential right retained by the people. It is no less essential to our well-being and happiness, I assert than freedom of speech. It is hard to imagine liberty without either right. Furthermore the right to choose a romantic partner is a prerequisite right to romance itself. Romantic choice is therefore the vehicle via which we exercise romantic freedom.”
In terms of defending this interpretation of the Ninth Amendment, Abramson heavily relies on the writings of our nation’s founders, particularly Jefferson and Madison with the greatest emphasis put on Madison. For Madison, the protection of unenumerated rights of the people via the Ninth Amendment is of crucial import. If such was not the case, the governmental authorities can do just about anything to their subjects unless such was specifically forbidden by the Constitution. And for Madison and Abramson and for this reviewer, the people should not be subject to the unrestrained arbitrary impositions of a government without constitutional authority. In essence, Abramson takes seriously the notion that citizens are not subjects to be experimented upon, that their will to decide, reject or consent cannot be removed from above. And throughout this volume, the author is ethically engaged as he hopes that the citizenry in general be ethically engaged since for him it becomes axiomatic that an ethic imposed from above is a form of authoritarianism and such authoritarianism should not be employed to mandate what people believe or how people act.
Nor does Abramson hold that matters of individual liberty and autonomy are without ethical and legal constraints. Conduct harmful to others is not protected conduct. Abramson embraces John Stuart Mill’s perspective “…that society should only protect its citizens from harms that violate rights. Liberty prevails until someone’s rights have been violated.” Abramson does recognize that the boundaries defining what behaviors actually represent harmful behavior in the Millsian sense can be quite ambiguous. But for Abramson when it comes down to the issue at hand, there is no question that dating, including, of course, dating between students and professors is a “fundamental life choice.” And that “Most serious romantic relationships, in fact, begin with a date. It is therefore a necessary prerequisite to the intimate side of life.”
Of course, no matter how elegant he is in the presentation of this viewpoint, and in this reviewer’s opinion, he is quite elegant, almost all persons advocating banning student professor sexual relationships will not be impressed since generally they are not impressed by any sort of intellectual dissenters from their ordained truth. What Abramson is facing when it comes to this issue are many persons who are on a moral crusade, and will attempt to deal with him not simply by trashing his ideas but by trashing his very personage. The Chronicle of Higher Education was one of the first media sources to provide pre-publication coverage of the Abramson book and presented an interview with Abramson which functioned on the whole to provide an accurate depiction of his forthcoming book. But what the CHE also did was to publish an adjacent full-page picture of Professor Abramson. Initially I was perplexed as to why the CHE devoted so much space to Abramson’s picture; after all, Abramson was not a celebrity, much less an academic celebrity. But then I learned what I believed to be the reasons for the picture publication, and my learning was based on the reader forum that followed said publication in which so many readers were not concerned with the content of the interview but rather were concerned with the picture of Abramson which came to represent for them Abramson as a predatory and lecherous professor or as one reader commented “…looks like a letch right out of central casting.” This photo was enough for all too many of the CHE readers to simply dismiss Abramson and whatever he had to say. Unfortunately, appearances do count when they should not, and all too often trump the possibility of intellectual analysis and critical thinking.
Pre-publication dismissals of Abramson’s book have generally not reflected any careful scrutiny of the issue, but rather have generally been based on snap judgments and intensely visceral reactions. For example, one blogger wrote that Abramson will apparently do everything to justify sex between students and professors. “Thus, man will do everything to rationalize, normalize, legalize, and excuse everything; such as having sex with a professor…He (the professor) does not want to be told that sex between a student and an adult are wrong.” Of course, Abramson is not telling anyone that sex between and adult and child is right, morally or legally. However, the dilemma facing Abramson is that many persons in the general population and in universities will engage in a default assumption translating student into child, professor into adult and therefore feel that they are dealing with sex that cannot be consensual, since one party to the “relationship” is always a child; no matter what the age, student is equated with child. Such thinking most likely goes back into childhood when the teacher is always the adult and the student is always the child. Many persons just cannot get beyond this framework. This is also reflected by the tendency of some professors and some administrators referring to students as “kids” or “my kids,” regardless of age.
Abramson is aware of the stereotype of the student professor sexual relationship as representing “the lecherous male professor seducing gullible female undergraduates.” He is also aware of the writings and influence of Catherine Mackinnon and her thinking that all workplace romantic relationships represent sexual harassment. What Abramson does fail to represent is that the notion of the female student unable to provide consent was originally popularized by Billie Dziech and Linda Weiner in their 1984 book The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus. It was this book that became the sacred book for campus feminists and part of the often repeated rant that differential power precludes consent. It was in this context that campus feminists fueled the banning movement in the framework of repeatedly infantilizing female students and presenting female students as victims in the same sense that children are victims of adult male predators. It was this feminist vision that fueled the banning movement and was ultimately combined with the assertion that when professors teach or supervise a student and engage in a sexual relationship with a student then it becomes a conflict of interest.
Abramson does attempt to deal with the conflict of interest issue in the context of the professor engaging in impartial grading of a student with whom he has a sexual involvement. In order to preserve the appearance of impartial grading, Professor Abramson suggests that a colleague may be asked to intervene to provide a third party evaluation of the student. I consider third party evaluation to be problematic since the sexually involved student ends up being treated differently than all other students who are graded by the same professor. In principle, in terms of the course requirements and course process, students should not be treated in any way differentially based on their relationship, sexual or otherwise, with the professor. Invoking matters of appearances is not an adequate rationale for differential treatment. Also, in many cases the usage of a third party evaluator is an impossibility since grading is often in part based on what happens in class, such as class participation, in-class projects, etc. Abramson does not go beyond suggesting third party involvement. As Professor Abramson indicates, some universities operate under a coercive disclose and dispose policy which means that the professor must inform the appropriate administrator of the situation, and said administrator then disposes of the situation with absolutely no consideration given to the privacy and the right of the student to non-disclosure.
But conflicts of interest issues are not the core fueling the banning movement. Professor Abramson knows that professors in general are not wracked out over conflict of interest issues. Professor Abramson also indicates that professors engage in myriad forms of favoritism that are not at all emotionally tinged. For example, students enrolled in a professor’s class may be a daughter or son of a colleague or even one’s own son or daughter or a friend or a relative of a friend, or a professor may preach feminist sister solidarity or racial solidarity while grading students who are not part of his or her group or a professor may engage in out of class political demonstrations with likeminded students and prejudicial grading hardly ever becomes an issue. Professors emotionally committed to banning student professor relationships are not conflict of interests obsessed; they are sexually obsessed; obsessed with stopping other professors from engaging in what they consider to be sexual abuse of female students/children. And therefore all of the good legal and historical analysis by Professor Abramson becomes an irrelevancy for them because they see the subjects of these professors as being in an incapacitated state, a state where consent is an impossibility, a state where the subjects must be removed from the power of the offending professor and taken out of the classroom and where the demand is that the lecherous offending professor be removed from all classrooms.
Professor Abramson bemoans the fact that so few professors have spoken out against such sexual banning, particularly the lack of public professorial critiques of the impending UC policy which was passed in 2003, and banned romantic relationships by professors with students who they supervise (teach) and students who are in academic areas in which there is some likelihood that the professor may be their teacher at some future time. Abramson in his 2003 Los Angeles Times Op Ed piece was one of the few UC professors publicly speaking against the impending policy. Abramson notes that student and faculty protest against the UC policy did not even occur at UC Berkeley where protests are almost a fact of everyday life. However, he does fail to note that UC Berkeley Professor of English Catharine Gallagher did initiate a protest of this policy after its passage and was joined by other UC Berkeley faculty in petitioning the UC Berkeley Provost, but the Gallagher protest and petition was too little and too late.
Professor Abramson understands that one of the major reasons there were so few faculty voices raised in protest is that “dissenting” professors are on the whole afraid, afraid of being treated as suspect, afraid of being treated in sexually objectified terms in the manner similar to how Professor Abramson has been treated. And, in fact, I believe that untenured professors at UCLA or at whatever university, whether it be an elite or not so elite university, are extremely unlikely to speak out. Even as a tenured professor and as professor who has strongly spoken out against these sexual bans, Abramson still has some trepidation about being presently identified as a sexual code violator as indicated by his publicly stating that he is out of the dating game, that he leads a staid married life and that at one time, 20 or so years ago, he did have a couple of relationships with students, but now he is beyond that, therefore he is OK. If Abramson takes his ideas seriously, he would be eager to state I am OK now and I was OK then. And I do understand the dilemma that if a UCLA professor wrote a book of the sort of book Abramson wrote and he stated that he presently dated students and such was OK, he would then end up being investigated and probably charged with violation of the UC sexual code.
However, even if there has been minimal response by academics critiquing these fraternization policies, and few persons doing empirical research on faculty student sexual/romantic dyads, Professor Abramson should still have done a more thorough review of this literature and reported on the highlights of this literature and indicated what he considers to be most germane to his concerns. For example, in the area of research on faculty student relationships, he could have cited two important empirical studies of student professor relationships (Bellas and Gossett 2001; Skeen 1983) as well as citing numerous scholarly critiques (Dank and Alberquerque 1998; Dank and Fulda 1998; Hooks 1996; Kincaid 1999, 2000; McWilliam 1996; Nehring 2001; Olivero 1994; Patai 1998, 2002; Pellegrini 1999; Pichaske 1995; Refinetti 2001; Tittle 1998).
Abramson rejects the notion that at the core of the movement to prohibit professor/student relationships is an emotional sexual dynamic which is fueled by an underlying child, adult sexual predator imagery. Rather Abramson embraces the idea that “The real reason for these prohibitions…is that universities want to further reduce their liability in civil lawsuits-no sex and romance means no negligence.” Such represents the idea that this movement to ban student professor relationships simply is an instrumental, rational based policy to save universities money. I do not deny that some academics support the banning policy for this reason, but the supporters of banning at UC have not cited any case in which UC was sued in whole or in part relating to a consensual relationship between a student and a professor. And Abramson does not cite such a case. And as Professor Abramson indicates the case employed by ban supporters to get this policy adopted dealt with an off campus sexual assault against a student by the dean of the UC Boalt law school. The invocation of the UC Boalt law school case demonstrates the mental gymnastics that UC ban supporters had to go through to implement their policy; as Abramson notes there were sexual assault laws on the books in California via which the dean could have been prosecuted. The bitter reality is that to get this policy implemented, the supporters had to assault the idea that sexual consensual relationships between adults and sexual assaults are not interchangeable.
For academia as a whole and for the population as a whole, if one takes the sexual out of this anti-sexual policy, interest in the policy would become just about nil. But the sexual component cannot be taken out of this policy. Sexual meddlers and crusaders would not tolerate it. Just as the prohibition of prostitution has never been about the state saving money, nor the prohibition of homosexual acts between consenting adults has ever been about the State saving money, the prohibition of student professor relationships has never been just about universities saving money.
Ultimately the issue is what can save our universities from the moral crusaders, no matter what causes and ideologies the crusaders may embrace. In his book, Professor Abramson has taken an important initial step in terms of elucidating the importance of adhering to basic constitutionally guaranteed sexual civil liberties and sexual rights in American universities. Vigilance in the area of civil rights and liberties is crucial if authoritarian interventionists are to be prevented from controlling the most intimate aspects of persons’ lives. But such vigilance must also be combined with an understanding of the social psychological dynamics propelling true believers to seek to control the sexual lives of others. If we are to succeed in affirming and protecting the value of conscience and liberty, those opposing these values cannot be allowed to pass themselves off as feminists just trying to protect those who supposedly cannot protect themselves, or university administrators just engaging in fiscal savings; they must be confronted and critiqued at every possible opportunity and exposed as authoritarians whose power and control agendas are antithetical to the ideals of higher education.
Bellas, M. L., & Gossett, J. M. (2001). Love or the lecherous professor: Consensual sexual relationships between professors and students. The Sociological Quarterly, 42, 529-558.
Dank, B. M., & Alberquerque, K. (1998). Banning sexual asymmetry. Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, 1.
Dank, B. M., & Fulda, J. S. (1998). Forbidden love: Student-professor romances. Sexuality and Culture, 1, 107-130.
Hooks, B. (1996). Passionate pedagogy: Erotic student/faculty relationships. Z Magazine, Mar 1996 (pp. 45-51).
Kincaid, J. (1999). Power, bliss, jane and me. Critical Inquiry, 25(3), 610-616.
Kincaid, J. (2000). Critical response. Critical Inquiry, 26(3), 615-618.
McWilliam, E. (1996). Touchy subjects: A risky inquiry into pedagogical pleasure. British Educational Research, June 1996 (pp. 305-307).
Nehring, C. (2001). The higher yearning: Bringing eros back to academe. Harper’s Magazine, Sept 2001.
Oliviero, T. H. (1994). Strange bedfellows, thoughts on the bans against faculty-student relations and how they can hurt us. Radical Teacher, Winter 1994.
Patai D. (1998). Heterophobia: sexual harassment and the future of feminism. Lanham: Rowan and Littlefield.
Patai, D. (2002). Academic affairs. Sexuality and Culture, 6, 65-96.
Pellegrini, A. (1999). Pedagogy’s turn: Observations on students, teachers and transference-love. Critical Inquiry, 25(3), 617-625.
Pichaske, D. (1995). When students make sexual advances. Chronicle of Higher Education, 24 Feb 1995 (pp. B1-B2).
Refinetti, R. (2001). Sexual correctness in academia: The case of the professor. Sexuality and Culture, 5(2), 91-94.
Skeen, R. E., & Nielsen, J. M. (1983). Student-faculty sexual relationships. Qualitative Sociology, 6(2), 99-117.
Tittle, P. (1998). On prohibiting relationships between professors and students. Sexuality and Culture, 1, 131-149.
If you wish, you can write to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Guest commentaries should also be submitted for consideration
to the same email address.
Barry M. Dank aka the dankprofessorTM
© Copyright 2008
In the LA Times article on Professor Abramson, Professor Gayle Binion, UC Santa Barbara professor who was the muscle behind the UC professor student dating ban, demonstrates her utter disdain for her UC faculty colleagues, and I expect she was only referring to her male colleagues, when she stated “it is only the student who is going to suffer” when a relationship ends.
What an utterly gross and demeaning stereotype of male professors. Does she not believe that even male professors have emotions? Is she incapable of seeing her male colleagues as full human beings who can experience the hurt associated with the ending of a relationship? Does she not know that Roy Orbison’s “Love Hurts” was and is applicable to both men and women?
Her apparent inability to see her male faculty colleagues as being emotionally vulnerable human beings demonstrates that she has some sort of mental or emotional deficiency. If such be the case, the cold blooded Gayle Binion may be masking her own feeling of being unloved, and wrapping herself in a feminist and sometimes bureaucratic rhetoric that justifies her demeaning of her male colleagues.
Professor Binion continues her rant when she stated that the banning rule “…not only makes parents more secure when they send their kids to UC, it puts the faculty on notice”. Can the good professor believe that parents at times, even frequently, welcome their daughter’s choice of a professor as her partner or mate? I can testify that as an eligible male professor who dated students I never encountered any parents who objected to their daughter being in a relationship with me. With some parents I developed long lasting and valued friendships. Never once was I ever treated rudely or with disdain by any parent of a student at any time, either during or after the time I was their daughter’s professor. Personally, I cannot imagine real parents in the real world going thru university codes of conduct re consensual dating policies to determine their choice of a university for their son or daughter. If such parents are existent, I think it would be fair to characterize them as controlling parents, parents who in all probability would find themselves to be quite at home with Professor Binion being an agent for them controlling and patrolling their children while they attend UC.
In any case, the bottom line is control. As Binion states, she wants to put faculty “on notice” and keep the “kids” under control with herself as being a kind of surrogate authoritarian mother. Of course, it is the same old story, the dilemma of how to protect oneself from ones protector.
My advice to the professor who has consented to the non-consensual policies advocated by Gayle Binion, et. al., is to respect yourself and your colleagues, and to put Gayle Binion and her confreres on notice that UC faculty will join their UCLA colleague Paul Abramson in speaking out in advocacy for the basic freedoms of freedom of choice and association which are freedoms still worth preserving and fighting for in our contemporary universities.
If you wish, you can write to me directly at email@example.com
Guest commentaries should also be submitted for consideration to the same email address.
Barry M. Dank aka the dankprofessor.
© Copyright 2007
Here are two letters in response to the LA Times article on Professor Abramson.
Challenges facing women on campus
Re “Professor makes a case for faculty-student romance,” Oct. 22
“UCLA professor Paul R. Abramson’s delusional “love contract” proposal to provide cover for professors preying on coeds is not only reprehensible but unethical. Every valid profession rightly prohibits such predatory behavior, whether within the context of doctor-patient, lawyer-client or military officer-subordinate. Our culture is damaged when the powerful take advantage of the weak, who may feel compelled to permit such predatory advances for fear of lower grades or employee evaluations. These relationships are certain to cause psychological damage, making it shocking that a psychologist would disregard such effects. Parents make financial sacrifices to send children to college. If they cannot trust the educators, then higher education must be completely revamped.” Rick Coston Melbourne, Fla.
The dankprofessor believes that if there is any delusional thinking going on here, it is not the thinking of Professor Abramson. Somehow the letter writer is certain that any student-professor relationship is certain to cause damage; I assume he means damage to the student or professor and not to the observer. What can be so mystifying is that very certainty. How can one be so sure that Abramson is advocating professorial predatory behavior which leaves the subject of such behavior incapacitated, unable to defend oneself, to ward off such monstrous behavior? Going beyond the obvious that the letter writer is objectifying the involved parties, I would speculate that this reflects a default assumption held by many believing in such views. The default assumption occurs when one envisages a professor-student relationship one also envisages an adult-child relationship; it is an automatic unthinking visceral reaction. It is consistent with the notion that professor student relationships are always age differentiated. I have previously discussed this imagery in prior postings. Clearly this letter writer is committed to this thinking since he sees parents like himself being betrayed by universities which fail to protect their children, which fail to protect parents’ investment in their children. More generally such a view is indicative of a hierarchal world view. In such a world order any crossing of borders that facilitates informal interaction between subordinates and superiors threatens the natural order of things. This framework which the existentialist social psychologist Thomas Hanna called humanoidistic is synonymous with being in a perpetual state of fear. This situation is exasperated when there are a number of similarly situated others, and when there is is an emergence of leaders (demagogues) who manipulate the fearful to combat some external enemy.
Second letter to the editor-
“This article failed to capture some of the devastating changes written into the faculty manual. The arguments put forward by political scientist Gayle Binion of UC Santa Barbara seem to have been lifted from the protocols of the Ministry of Fear in George Orwell’s “1984.” To provide just one example, perception of favoritism constitutes harassment and is grounds for censure or even dismissal. The worst of it is that women, especially in the sciences, will not be helped and advanced because male professors will be leery of anything resembling close communication. It’s a grotesque consequence of puritanical constraints.”
The writer is a professor of English and modern literature at UCLA.
Bravo to Professor Kessler. The Ministry of Fear is not a misnomer. I am not overstating when I state that Gayle Binion is a fear monger; I do not know if she is a professional fear monger but nevertheless a fear monger. She suffers from fear of lawsuits, fear of professors, fear of students, fear of parents of students and she functions as a catalyst for the creation of fear based campuses where those who are involved in consensual relationships become outlaws; where professors and administrators and graduate students are continually warned about the dangers of any campus display of sexuality, any display of affection, and where they must submit themselves periodically to “workshops” which will supposedly help them obey the rules of the new campus Puritanism, and avoid facing secret campus tribunals.
Enough said for now on the LA Times article. More on the LA Times article in upcoming posts.
If you wish, you can write to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Guest commentaries should also be submitted for consideration to the same email address.
Barry M. Dank aka the dankprofessor.
© Copyright 2007
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.”
There was only one published letter to the editor in response to Paul Abramson’s Boston Globe “Right to Romance” article; the letter was by Harvey A. Silvergate. And it is an excellent letter that merits our attention.
Today’s Boston Globe has an op ed piece by Paul Abramson “…on how twisted the sexual politics of university life has become.” Abramson holds said twistedness is most vividly illustrated by the conflating of sexual harassment and consensual relationships, “…under the rules that increasingly hold sway on many university campuses, both relationships – sleazy sexual harassment and true love by consenting adults – are prohibited”. It is these rules “…that ignore the rights and liberties of students, and treat both as if they were children. They also represent an assault on one of the most fundamental rights of conscience: the right to choose our relationships.” In his last paragraph he states- “For many students and professors, the university represents virtually their entire social world. This is where they are likely to meet people, and romance is occasionally the result. If we let universities prohibit consenting adults from falling in love, what will be next? Our ultimate freedom lies in our power to make choices, and a university prohibition that suppresses choice tramples the very nature of freedom itself.”
Unfortunately, as Abramson knows, we have let universities take away this choice by at times advocating that students do not have the capacity to consent and therefore “consent” in this context cannot occur. In a perverse manner these universities hold that a consenting relationship is a more serious violation of university norms since it is usually held that sex without consent represents sexual assault or rape which is generally held to be a more serious violation than sexual harassment. Yes, this framework is twisted; such would be fair to characterize it as perverse. Of course, such perversity did not suddenly come out of nowhere; it was a product of decade of a feminist onslaught initiated by Billie Dziech in The Lecherous Professor. Feminist faculty embraced Dziech’s book as the sacred text and with most faculty, both male and female, nodding in agreement, university life ran amok being governed by feminist creed. Of course, many of the nodders, particularly the male nodders, nodded out of fear, fear that they could be labeled as one of those lecherous professors. Such is similar to the dynamic of some male heterosexuals who feared that they would be labeled as homosexual so they went along, some times eagerly, with anti-homosexual agendas.
Of course, matters relating to sexuality have been subject to the antics of all sorts of meddlers, people who get a thrill from intruding on the sexual behavior of others. Sexual meddlers represent a wide spectrum of persons from Linda Tripp to J. Edgar Hoover to Larry Craig, and a great deal of damage to others has resulted from their meddling. Abramson holds that in a constitutional democracy citizens should be protected from sexual meddlers. He states:
“ If we let universities prohibit consenting adults from falling in love, what will be next? Our ultimate freedom lies in our power to make choices, and a university prohibition that suppresses choice tramples the very nature of freedom itself.”
Abramson holds that the attack on consensual relationships can be mitigated by having strict conflict of interest rules, and advises the student who falls in love with a professor remove oneself from the class. Such removal may be easier said than done. I have difficulty envisioning a student appealing to a dean to drop a class because she is in love with her professor; the typical cynical dean would have trouble not believing that this represents another student attempt to get out of a class after deadlines for withdrawal have passed. In any case, if the dean allows the student to drop the class, such would represent favoritism that Abramson and myself wish to avoid. Even more likely the student who appeals in the name of love to be relieved from the class of the beloved would probably find a dean who would be more interested in relieving the beloved of all teaching responsibilities. And if it was the professor who initiated removal of the student from the class, such would, of course, be a flagrant violation of the student’s right to be treated as any other student. So I do not find Abramson’s advice to be good advice. It would just give more ammunition to administrators who wish to meddle. My advice is the professor and the student not to do anything which would imply directly or indirectly that the university has any authority of any sort over their relationship. Once institutional authority is invited into the relationship, the autonomy of the relationship for the two involved people has gone to hell.
If you wish, you can write to me directly at email@example.com
Guest commentaries should also be submitted for consideration to the same email address.
Barry M. Dank aka the dankprofessor.
© Copyright 2007
In 2005 Michal Gee an instuctor at Boston University posted on a blog his sexual ideation/fantasies concerning a current female student who he felt to be extraordinarily beautiful/attractive. As a result of this posting he was terminated by Boston University. Said posting was removed from the blog but was republished in another blog which went into some detail concerning the firing of Michael Gee. Eventually the Washington Post reported on this story- “Don’t Blog So Close to Me” by Robert McMillan, July 15, 2005; excerpts follow-
“Gee, a 17-year-veteran of the Boston Herald who left the paper in the spring, was fired this month from a part-time journalism school position at Boston University after sharing inappropriate thoughts about a student on a blog.
“‘Of my six students, one (the smartest, wouldn’t you know it?) is incredibly hot,’” Gee wrote, according to the Associated Press reported . “Gee was fired July 13, according to Bob Zelnick, chairman of BU’s journalism department. Zelnick said the posting violated the trust essential to the student-teacher relationship. Students ‘have to be confident their work will judged impartially’ and not on the basis of their looks, he said.”
Gee posted his comments on July 5th on the sportsjournalists.com blog. The blog’s administrators later removed Gee’s posting. But just because his words are gone doesn’t mean they haven’t been preserved elsewhere… like right here in this column, and over at Boston Sports Media, where blogger David Scott posted them on July 15 so the rest of us could wonder at them: “Gee, Gone. Again“: “Today was my first day teaching course 308/722 at the Boston University Dept. of Jounralis (sic). There are six students, most of whom are probably smarter than me, but they DON’T READ THE PAPER!!! Not the Globe, Times, Herald or Wall Street Journal. I can shame them into reading, I guess, but why are they taking the course if they don’t like to read. But I digress. Now here’s the nub of my issue. Of my six students, one (the smartest, wouldn’t you know it?) is incredibly hot. If you’ve ever been to Israel, she’s got the sloe eyes and bitchin’ bod of the true Sabra. It was all I could do to remember the other five students. I sense danger, Will Robinson.“
Gee’s senses were right on. If only he had heeded them.
Scott asked BU about Gee’s remarks on July 12th before writing about them. Here’s his commentary: “What on earth was Gee thinking, when he made these inappropriate comments? Further, what editor would hire a guy who publicly admits to drooling over his student? Even more perplexing was Gee’s response after at least one SJ poster gave this friendly advice: ‘Congrats on the gig and the proximity to a hottie, but be careful. Not with her, but with this site. She or your bosses could Google your name and the university at any point and find this thread. ‘ Even that lucid warning didn’t seem to have an effect on Gee’s libido or his proud postings: ‘Dear Folks: I suppose I should be flattered that many of you think this gorgeous woman who’s half my age would consider having sex with me. Which, if I have any news instincts, she won’t. My problem is losing my focus when I meet her to-die-for eyes.‘”
Holy mackerel! That’s some hot journalism action! And boy, does it spread. Gee’s burying the lede instead kicked it into high gear in the blogosphere.
He can probably forget freelance opportunities at Ms. magazine where the comments on his actions are less than complimentary“.
The Dankprofessor continues-
Of course, being attracted to ones students is nothing new, publishing them on the web as a blog posting is new! However, blog posting continues as evidenced by a very recent posting in which the posters are not identifiable. One such posting follows-
The dankprofessor believes that professors finding themselves attracted to some of their students is commonplace, attractions which are experienced by both male and female professors, feminist and non-feminist professors. But what is not commonplace is writing about it; talking about it with selected colleagues is probably more frequent; such was my experience. What I hold to be universal in academia is a universal formal exclusion of this topic; nothing in the faculty handbook; no formal workshops dealing with the subject. No guidelines of any sort of how not to be distracted by attractive students; how to avoid differential treatment of attractive students, e.g., how to avoid giving higher grades to attractive students. Such, of course, is not out of the realm of the possible since social psychological research has demonstrated over and over again in a multitude of contexts that the beautiful people are treated more favorably than the non-beautiful. How to avoid such differential treatment in academia? Might the ethical professor and at the same time the very attracted professor recuse himself from grading to avoid biased grading? After all such is what is often mandated for the prof who is dating a student to avoid prejudicial grading, to avoid differential grading based on what is ones psychosexual involvement with a student. Of course, as I have previously pointed out recusing oneself from grading a student based on an ongoing dating relationship is in itself a form of differential treatment. And as I think we can agree the ethically engaged prof who refuses to grade students who he or she finds attractive would not be seen as acting from some high ethical ground but rather from some base exhibitionistic level, a level that would be seen as leading to exclusion from the classroom. So what is an ethical prof to do??
Well, I didn’t get it quite right in this blog on attractive students and attracted professors. I cited a blog in which profs write about having attractive students; I indicated that the profs were not identifiable, such was not the case. I went back to that blog and clicked the online identity and at least for some of the entries, this led me to their real world identity. And the quote I had given in my posting was that of a female prof, not a male prof.
If you wish, you can write to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Guest commentaries should also be submitted for consideration to the same email address.
Barry M. Dank aka the dankprofessor.
© Copyright 2007
Been looking for some recent student commentaries on professor-student dating and I found a column in the Indiana Daily Student entitled Academy of Love by Brian Mcfillen*. Following are some excerpts from the column interspersed with observations from the dankprofessor which are preceded with—
“I can say this: I think academia honors bans against professor-student relationships more in theory than in practice, because if professors and students couldn’t hook up, the professorate would go extinct.”
—Brian does overstate. But I think I get his point that student-prof relationships are commonplace even at Indiana U, home of the Kinsey Institute.
“Now, I think we can almost all agree that dating a student while he or she is in your class is inappropriate – but what about students not in your class, but with whom you might have to otherwise professionally interact? When I think of all the seemingly happily married couples that I know who started out as faculty advisor and graduate student advisee, the line starts to blur.
—Yes, the line is very blurry. Today’s ex-student may become your student tomorrow. Today’s non-student may becomes tomorrow’s student. Of course, Brian is incorrect when he states that I think we can all agree that dating a student in ones class is inappropriate. I disagree. It should be incumbent upon Brian and others to present their reasons for abridging this freedom of association. The university is not the military and not the corporation. I say this because many want to implement a corporate or military model and apply it to the university. Interestingly as universities have become more corporate, fraternization bans have become more common. Brian is correct about student-professor couples marrying and even being happily married, and even unhappily married and even having children who grow up to be students and then become professors and some even may become bloggers. On the other hand, great former profs from Indiana U, such as Kinsey, may simply hook up with some favorite students. Just think if Indiana U had fraternization bans when Kinsey was there, we may never had a Kinsey Report or a Kinsey Institute.
“Look at it this way: most academics’ social universes could be bound in a nutshell and within that nutshell, many of the individuals are already married. So, if you’re still single upon entering academia, you really feel the pinch. And, then you put professors with students who have common interests. For example, as shocking as it might sound, both political science professors and political science majors tend to be very interested in politics. The rules seek to discourage any attractions that develop. It’s like academia is a dating agency in the ironic punishments division of Hell.
—Well stated Brian, you got it right. I would only add that it’s like the academia becoming a monastery with vows of celibacy, but not the most hellish vow for professor which would be the vow of silence.
“Things seem to have improved since I entered college in the late 90s, as universities have gotten a grip on what constitutes sexual harassment and what does not. Still, reading through IU’s Handbook for Student Academic Appointees, a lot of vagueness remains. While universities should protect students from abusive professors, they can’t really expect academics to follow the famous quote from “Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom.” You know the scene I mean.
“No time for love, Dr. Jones.”
—I don’t think that the universities have gotten a grip on the sexual harassment thing; ambiguity still remains, nothing has changed except maybe the rhetoric defending sh rules. The chilly climate is quite predominant in many universities. By chilly climate, I mean the atmosphere in which profs are advised/warned as to what they may say in the classroom. The only safe way out is to say little or nothing, or to read direct from the non-sexist boring text, or to take the hellish vow of silence and have the TAs do all the talking/lecturing/professing.
*Sorry about the link, article is from 8/29, go to the Indiana idnews site, put in as a search term- Brian McFillen
Now in the CHE footnoted blog. Once there, scroll down to find romance round 2 .You will find yours truly comments, amongs others.
Your dankprofessor aka Barry M. Dank , email@example.com
D’souza had a blog column on right to romance book with numerous commentaries. I contributed a comment which occurs at the very end of the comments column.
Also Abahamson contributed a comment which I could not find on their comments log. He sent me the commentary which follows-
REPLY TO D’SOUZA
How ironic. Dinesh D’Souza advertises himself as a careful reader of the Constitution; yet he dismisses my legal argument about faculty-student romance on the basis of a one-page interview in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Volume 53, Issue 50, page A8) about my forthcoming book “Romance in the Ivory Tower: The Rights and Liberty of Conscience” (MIT Press). He concludes: “The whole concept is a legal absurdity. Professor Abramson is certainly entitled to cruise the bars of Los Angeles looking for love if he wants to. I just think [he] should leave his copy of the Constitution behind”.
Lord Robert May (a member of British Parliament, former Chief Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister, and Professor at Oxford), interestingly, had a different opinion. After reading the entire book, Lord May concluded: “Make no mistake. Paul Abramson’s book is a serious and thought-provoking examination of the extent to which institutions should proscribe individual actions. Although I do not endorse all of the conclusions, I strongly recommend this book”.
My advice? Wait until the book is published (October 2007). If, at that point, Mr. D’Souza (or anyone else) would like to start a serious debate, that is a discussion I’d welcome.
A colleague has written me taking me to task in regards to my comments that recusing oneself from grading a student with whom one is having a romantic relationship is not advisable. Such recusal was advocated by Professor Abramson in his CHE interview. A third party would be doing the grading. My colleague writes- “There will always be situations- unforeseen and unforeseeable- in which recusal is necessary, or at least advisable. Recusal is never considered differential treatment, legally, quasi legally or ethically even though factually it plainly is.” He writes further “that he suspects that this is so because as human beings we have to have a way out, a way to acquit ourselves honorably when nothing else works, and that has always been to do nothing. That is the essence of recusal.”
Of course, the professor should have foreseen the definite possibility that he or she would be unable to dispassionately grade a student who he or she is romantically involved with. If this is the case, such should have been communicated ahead of time to the student and if such involvement occurs then the student would be treated differentially and would not have the same grader as all the other students have in class. Recusal in this sort of situation does not appear to me to be an honorable way to acquit oneself; such is not honorable since the relationship is violated and as well as the student. This would be the case if the relationship was based on mutuality, mutual respect for each other. One simply does not unilaterally exile a student into never-never land. Any such decision should be based on a mutual ethical engagement of the issue. If this is to be done, the student-professor relationship is no longer a private one and will end up being subsumed under the mantel of insitutional authority. If there is differential treatment, it should of the last resort and is indicative that the professor is now in deep trouble as well as the student.
In addition, it does become relevant that recusal from grading in a university is almost unheard of. Of course, in legal situations recusal is frequently employed. In my 35 years of university teaching I never heard of a situation of recusal occurring or being contemplated. Also, in said 35 years, I cannot recollect being privy to any discussion of the issue, nor receiving any official university notifications about the issue. Is the recusal process referred to in Faculty Handbooks? Feedback on this would be most appreciated. On the other hand, many times during my career I heard faculty disparage in severe terms other faculty and students and who in my opinion could not dispassionately evaluate the disparaged colleague or student, and in these situations recusal never to my knoweledge ever came up.
As for myself, I never felt recsual was called for. Let me give but one example. After the end of a Fall semester, I began to date an ex-student who had been in one of my Fall classes. I continued to date the student and our dating evolved into a serious long term relationship. Come the next Fall semester, she indicated she wanted to take another class from me. My position was that it was her decision to make, and if she took the class she would be treated the same as all other students. She knew that such would be the case. The fact was that amongst students I was known as a passionately impersonal grader. It wasn’t easy to give a poor grade to students who I liked, but such was the case.
The 8/17 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education has an article by Robin Wilson on a new book by Paul R. Abramson, THE RIGHT TO ROMANCE IN THE IVORY TOWER; THE RIGHTS AND LIBERTY OF CONSCIENCE. The book will be published in the Fall. It is a rare book or essay these days that recognizes any rights regarding student-faculty association. It merits serious attention. When I saw that Robin Wilson was doing the article/review I doubted that such serious attention was forthcoming. She generally does a hatchet job on anyone moving toward a rights perspective on this issue. In any case, most of the article deals with a transcript (I assume edited transcript) of the interview. I will present excerpts of the interview with my response; one needs a password to read the article—-
Q. Have you ever dated a student?
A. “I was 26 when I came to UCLA. I dated students, I dated faculty, I dated staff. I can’t remember if I dated students who were in a class of mine. … Psychology classes always have 300 to 400 students in them. Professors don’t do the grading. All of that is done by teaching assistants. If I did date a student I was grading, I would have used the conflict-of-interest strategy, which would have meant either recusing myself or having a third-party evaluator. Now I’m 57. With the average age of students being 22, dating students is basically an irrelevant issue to me. I’m more likely to conjure images of father or grandfather, than a potential romantic choice.”
My major problem in this interchange is with Abrahamson’s response. He indicates that if he was dating a student in his class he would recuse himself from grading the student or having a third party grade the student. The problem here, of course, is that he now is treating the student differentially; all other students get the same grader except for 1 student. If one is involved in a mutual romantic relationship in this context and are on the fringe of sensitive issues such as grading, one should commit oneself to absolutely no differential treatment in the classroom experience. If the prof feels he cannot grade the student in a non-prejudicial manner, the student should not be in the class. Or in more general terms, if many profs believe that they cannot treat students they like or not like or are friendly with or not friendly with, in the same manner, they should not be in the classroom at all. Or given this example, if a feminist professor favors feminist versus non-feminist students in the classroom, she should not be in the classroom at all. Dispassionate grading should encompass the entire grading process irrespective of specific emotional involvements.
Q. How effective have campuses been in stopping relationships between professors and undergraduates?
A. “I think what’s more likely is a professor dating a grad student. Or a teaching assistant dating an undergraduate. That’s where romance is likely to occur. And those are pervasive throughout the university, despite the rules. The relationships are more clandestine now and anxiously initiated. People go through all the disfigurements to keep it quiet: changing the way we look at each other, the way we touch each other, the way we walk.”
Of course, no one definitively knows what is happening on campuses in this area. It is now shifted underground; the relationships become closeted. And this is what the powers that be in general want- out of sight, out of mind. The predominant ethos is the same as it was in the past in the gay world- dont’t flaunt it, don’t put it in my face. Of course, having to hide, being forced to hide ones relationships is a form of degradation; choosing to hide is another matter. Given a situation when there is a large number of women in their 20s and men in their 30s-40s who are eligible, there will be a lot of fraternization, particularly at a place where many people share common intellectual interests.Universities are unable to effectively controlso many people. So underground flourishing is to be expected. Ultimately, a major issue becomes whether the university is willing to use third party reporters and/or reports by persons who have a need to hurt the prof and/or student. More on this in later posts
Q. So all of these professors and teaching assistants are breaking the rules?A. Yes, with the potential for termination. Love is a very powerful emotion, and that propels one forward. Think of it in terms of gay rights: All the prohibitions did nothing to preclude the clandestine pursuit of one’s love interest. What these policies are doing now is creating a very chilling effect on romantic pursuit, if not precluding it. They’re just forcing it underground.
Q. That sounds like a dangerous situation for professors who are involved in such relationships.
A. If you’re doing something that is illegal, you’re basically giving someone a justification for firing you. So, for example, let’s say you start doing research on Charles Dickens, and I hate Dickens and I don’t think he belongs in the academy, and you come up for tenure. And I say, Prof X is sexually involved with a student; I think we should get rid of her. The real reason we want to get rid of you is your work. But by having the relationship, you’re making yourself vulnerable to dismissal.
I agree, but it becomes further complicated in situations where a relationship is not taking place, but such a relatisnhip is perceived to be taking place due to the fact that it is a close relationship. Such is what I would consider to be one of the most negative effects of banning student-professor relationships- that it puts a chill on profs and students having close relationships. The chilly air passes thru open office doors that do not respect private conversations between students and professors.
Q. You talk about lofty principles being at stake here, Constitutional rights. What are they?
A. For me, this is not an issue about who’s sleeping with whom. It’s an issue about where the power to make the choice resides. Is it something that resides in an institution like a business or a university, or is this in that sphere of personal autonomy over which only you get to choose? We make choices over things that are exceedingly intimate: who to love, what to believe in, the character of our writing and speech. These are part of the fundamental nature of who we are, and they represent the autonomous way we relate to the world. What’s more fundamental to an adult than making a choice about who to love?
Probably nothing more fundamental. Taking away said right
and giving it to a dean or some other campus functionary reflects the essence of absurdity.
Q. Describe how you believe the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution protects, as you put it, “the right to romance.”A. In the first eight amendments, you have explicit rights that are enumerated or described. To preclude the government from saying: ‘Anything that’s not on this list we control,’ Madison created the Ninth Amendment. It says despite all those rights enumerated above, you cannot deny or disparage rights that are still retained by the people. Madison is saying, despite all the things we’ve described, the people still retain their fundamental rights. The right to reproduce is one of these. So one of the inherent rights of humanity is the right to reproduce, and you have to choose who you are going to reproduce with, who you are going to romance and love.
Q. How are university policies banning relationships between professors and students any different from policies that companies have developed to prevent relationships between employees and the workers they supervise?
A. In industry they’re referred to as nonfraternization policies. They say, I don’t want you to date anyone here. But industry is up front about it because they say, You guys could get angry at each other, and sue each other or us. We don’t want to deal with that, so we’re stopping it. But universities don’t do that. Universities present themselves as if they’re taking this moral high road that they are trying to protect students. I believe this is disingenuous. What they’re really trying to do is reduce their liability. That’s reasonable, but I want them to be honest about it.
Well, the effect of honest bans would be no difference in effect than dishonest bans. The interviewer implies that the university should apply the corporate model; if corporations ban, then universities ban. However, I think that most academics believe that the university world should be different than the corporate world even given that the corporate mentality is increasingly found
in the university world. Does the interviewer believe that
tenure should be abolished since it does not exist in the corporate world? Does she believe that universities should increase pay differentials between univ presidents and faculty since the corporate world has higher pay differentials between CEOs and line employees?
Q. What should universities be doing instead, then, particularly if they want to limit their liability?
A. I’d say to the university, OK, you don’t want to be vulnerable to litigation, but professors don’t want our rights to be trampled here. What’s the middle ground? One of the things I suggest is a “romance release.” Every professor and student would say they’d hold the university harmless if they fell in love. I’m very sympathetic to the university’s vulnerability to civil litigation and to the extent it’s an economic threat. But we wouldn’t prohibit people’s right to believe in God if that produced civil lawsuits as well.
A “romance release”; interesting idea; I will try to get Professor Abrahamson to elaborate on this.
Q. Naomi Wolf, the feminist writer, published a piece in New York magazine several years ago in which she wrote about how devastating it was to her self-confidence when one of her professors put his hand on her thigh when she asked him to read her prose. If relationships between professors and students had been outlawed at Yale back then, wouldn’t that have stopped the professor from doing what he did?
A. These policies don’t target that kind of foolish behavior. They’re not going to stop it. I would argue one needs to enact policies about a hostile working environment to stop that. You don’t need to legislate against touching the leg, because that’s sexual harassment and it’s covered. With Naomi Wolf, these two weren’t romantically involved. She felt that being sexually harassed by a professor was humiliating, and undoubtedly so.
A good effective response to a stupid question. Robin Wilson knows that his book deals with consenting relationships, but switches off to sexual harasment issues.
Q. Lots of universities put these policies in place because students were accusing their professors of sexual harassment. Isn’t that a valid concern?
A. A professor and a student get involved in a relationship; it goes great guns for eight months. They’re fabulously in love; they think they’ll get married and have kids. Then it somehow implodes. One or the other wants to continue the relationship and keeps pressuring the other. Eventually the one who wants out feels they’re being harassed and says, Look you continue with this, and I’m going to sue you. It is basically love gone awry that universities are afraid will turn into civil litigation. Therefore, universities will cut out love completely with these policies in order to protect themselves.
Well stated. It would be similar to attempting to ban rape by banning all sexual relationships.
The fact that a couple might break up should have no relevance to the university albeit student-faculty breakups or faculty-faculty breakups. In fact, universities hire married couples being fully aware that the marriage might end in divorce.
Q. Some parents might wonder whether they should be paying 40-grand a year to provide professors with a well-stocked pool of potential dating partners.
A. We allow any male or female to join the Army and Marines and fight in Iraq at 18. If that 18-year-old can make that decision about giving life for their country, that 18-year-old can make a decision about who they’re going to have romance with. People always ask me, How would you feel if your daughter had a relationship with a 40-something professor? My response has been, it’s her choice to make.
In fact, I know that parents might be quite supportive of such relationships. I can speak to this based on personal experience.
I had excellent relationships with the parents of students who I dated; I would have valued them as in-laws.
Of course, Ms. Wilson fails to note that professors have parents too and the case may be that a faculty parent may disapprove. In any case, so what? One more personal note. Unbeknownst to me I started dating a daughter of a prof at my university. Of course, I quickly found out such was the case, and ended up having a close friendship with her father.
Q. Don’t rules that prohibit sexual relationships between professors and students protect professors as much as students? It is tempting for a 40-something faculty member to fancy himself the romantic partner of an undergraduate woman. But before university rules banned these relationships, there were lots of stories of professors doing and saying ridiculous things with students in the name of “love.”
A. I think that’s a moralistic crusade under the guise of paternalism. It’s always important to make conscientious choices in one’s life. But to legislate that in any venue is absurd.
People make foolish sexual choices. People who are religious leaders, how many of them have fallen from grace because of their foolish sexual choices? To me that’s testament to the power of love and sex. Sexuality is an enormously powerful motive, and people are going to make foolish choices because of the power, but we don’t preclude it. We give freedom of speech despite the rubbish and crap that people air because it’s so essential to our survival to protect the freedom of speech. It’s essential to our pursuit of happiness and well-being to protect sexual rights, knowing full well people are going to make foolish choices.
If you wish, write to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
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