Dankprofessor’s Weblog

A weblog examining sexual politics in higher education and beyond.


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.


 Yes, amen


 If you wish, write to me directly at dankprofessor@msn.com 

August 23, 2007 Posted by | consensual relationships, fraternization, higher education, ivory tower romance, sexual politics, sexual rights, student professor dating | 2 Comments


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