Dankprofessor’s Weblog

A weblog examining sexual politics in higher education and beyond.

Middlebury College Update

The Burlington Free Press published an article entitled “Academic Affairs Rile Middlebury”( February 10) which deals with the ongoing consideration of a new student professor consenting sexual relationship policy. The dankprofessor has published a number of prior posts on the Middlebury situation.The headline of the article “Academic Affairs Rile Middlebury” was a misnomer since there was no academic affair of any sort mentioned in the article, and the dankprofessor has been unable to find any mention of any academic affair at any time of any kind, riling or otherwise, at Middlebury College. The fact of the matter is that the current Middlebury College policy discouraging such relationships has worked.

What riled up the Middlebury campus community was the visit of Ann Lane this past September to Middlebury College in the context of her presentation of a talk entitled “Consensual Relations in the Academy: Gender, Power and Sexuality”. The Burlington Free Press article stated: “Her speech lent some perspective to a discussion Middlebury’s faculty was beginning to have about one of academia’s thornier issues: faculty-student “amorous relationships” and what to do about them.” Of course, no where in the article was it demonstrated that the need had come up in the past at Middlebury to do anything about them.

However, Professor Lane did not see it that way. She stated in the Free Press article: “What struck me about my presentation at Middlebury were the number of students who attended, particularly the male students, probably half and half,” Lane wrote in an e-mail, “and the interest they showed in questions. I was impressed….At dinner that evening with administrators, faculty and students, what was interesting was that the faculty and administrators, thanking me for my talk, then went on to say how such relationships are rare or non-existent in their school. The students made eye contact and began to talk about several such relationships they all knew of, not naming anyone.”

So the good Professor Lane simply discards professorial input that these relationships are rare or non-existent at Middlebury and rather cites student scuttlebutt to support her position. Of course, the issue becomes whether gossip, and rumor should ever be the basis of any academic policy. Professor Lane or the Free Press did not report that any of these students have testified or are planning to testify concerning any such affairs. I think it is fair to say that at this point such affairs are simply a part of Lane’s fertile imagination.

In contrast to Professor Lane’s perception that there is great student interest in this issue, the Free Press reported the following student input:

“Among Middlebury students, by one account, this is not exactly a hot issue. Sarah Franco, a senior who writes Midd Blog, said she has “broached the subject of faculty/student relationships at least twice” but received no comments. “I stopped writing about it,” she said in an e-mail, “because students do not seem interested. I can only speculate as to why. For one thing, students speak up only if they fervently disagree with something and no student is going to openly advocate to have a relationship with a professor.”

Yes, I agree with Ms. Franco that no student is likely to advocate for student professor relationships and no professor is likely to engage in a similar advocacy. At Middlebury any such relationships if they have occurred remain out of sight
and out of mind, and this is as it should be if we respect the privacy rights of those engaging in intimate relationships.

What I find to be most depressing is the absence of any student or professor advocating for the right of any student or any professor to have a consensual relationship. Nowhere in the article is a rights perspective included or alluded to. If the Free Press writer had done his homework he would have found that over the last six months there has been much attention given in the media to a civil liberties perspective, particularly by UCLA professor Paul R. Abramson in his book ROMANCE IN THE IVORY TOWER: THE RIGHTS OF LIBERTY AND CONSCIENCE.  In fact, the Boston Globe recently carried an excellent op ed piece by Abramson which was totally ignored in the Free Press piece.

For example, the Free Press writer fails to understand the civil liberties implication when the opinion of feminist Bernice Sandler is cited: “A better option, Sandler said, citing an approach adopted at the University of Michigan, is a policy that requires disclosure. Such a policy “handles it without prohibiting,” she said, “but it gets at the professional issues involved.” After disclosure, a professor’s duties with respect to the student in question are assigned to someone else.”

What the article fails to note is that the student’s privacy is violated by a policy that would force the professor to reveal her identity to college authorities with the consequence that she is forcibly removed from the classroom. This seems like a pretty major omission, but never does Bernice Sandler in her media interviews state how this policy directly impacts on female students. The amazing thing is that for a feminist such as Sandler female students are invisible.

Another place where the article did not get it right was in the interview with Frank Vinik , a lawyer and risk manager for United Educators. The Free Press article reported:

“We think having no policy is a mistake,” said Frank Vinik, a lawyer and risk manager for United Educators, an insurance co-op with 800 college and university members. Vinik cited as an example the University of California, where a law school dean resigned in 2002 after engaging in an affair that he termed “consensual” and that the student deemed “harassment.” After that, Vinik said, the university formulated a consensual-relationships policy to go along with its harassment policy.”

One of the problems with the Vinik statement is that the law dean and the law student never had an affair. The length of their knowing each other was for a couple of hours. They met at a bar/restaurant in the context of a dining and drinking celebration of other students recent achievements. The student became inebriated; the dean drove her home, and while at her home while she was asleep the dean was reported to have assaulted her. How could one characterize such as representing an affair? How could one argue that this incident had any relevance to the current policy evaluation at Middlebury? Vinik must know that UC had a sexual harassment policy at that time that was applicable to the dean’s actions. The dean quickly resigned in the context of an impending sexual harassment charge. In fact, Frank Vinik engages in the same misstatement of the facts of this situation in a report on WCBV-TV Boston. If Mr. Vinik believes the dankprofessor has misrepresented him, I would welcome his input on this matter and if he wishes, I would publish his response on the dankprofessor blog.

The writer of the Free Press article, Tim Johnson, characterized this issue as being one of “academia’s thornier issues”. If such be the case, one would have been led to believe that the article would have made some attempt to bring forth the
conflicting perspectives on the student professor consenting sexual relationships issue. Such was not the case.
I had expected more from one of Vermont’s leading newspapers, a newspaper which is well known for its concern with civil liberty issues.

If you wish, you can write to me directly at dankprofessor@msn.com
Guest commentaries should also be submitted for consideration to the same email address.

Barry M. Dank aka the dankprofessorTM
© Copyright 2008

February 11, 2008 - Posted by | consensual relationships, ethics, feminism, fraternization, higher education, Middlebury College, sexual harassment, sexual policing, sexual politics, sexual rights, student professor dating, Uncategorized

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