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Over the past year or so, allegations of sexual impropriety have stained the sanctity of the Catholic priesthood, rattled the upper echelons of the U.S. military, and even threatened the presidency. Nor has academia been immune. In the face of embarrassing public revelations, a succession of leading universities across the country have been forced to take an uncomfortable look at their own regulations on sexual relationships. Just last month, the Yale Law School hosted a three-day conference on sexual harrassment that focused on the path-breaking scholarship of Catharine MacKinnon '77JD, '87PhD, who as a student did much to frame the debate that is now so widespread.
The conference came in the wake of a major change in Yale’s own policy on the subject. Following a year-long review, a ten-member campus committee in late November recommended that, instead of merely discouraging romantic contacts between professors and their students, as had been the case in the past, the University should ban them outright. “Any such relationship jeopardizes the integrity of the educational process by creating a conflict of interest,” the committee wrote in its report to the University’s provost, Alison Richard. After receiving administrative approval, a new policy based on the committee’s recommendations will likely take effect later this year.
The review followed a ruling in late 1996 by the Yale College Grievance Board for Student Complaints of Sexual Harassment. After investigating a complaint by a female undergraduate, the board found that a mathematics professor had violated University regulations by having a “non-consensual” sexual relationship with the woman, who was 17 at the time.
The board found that the relationship was “seriously inappropriate to the dealings between a teacher and a student” and recommended that the faculty member be dismissed at the end of the fall 1996 semester. Instead, he received a “stern reprimand,” because he was already scheduled to take up a teaching post at Ohio State University the following January. But in December 1996, Ohio State rescinded its offer, leaving the professor’s career in apparent limbo.
The mathematician had fallen afoul of a Yale policy that at the time considered sexual relations between professors and their students “potentially coercive,” even when they were apparently founded on mutual consent. The faculty handbook warned that “the faculty member will bear the burden of overcoming a presumption that the activity was not consensual on the part of the student.”
In the wake of the committee’s ruling however, many faculty members criticized the policy as well-intentioned but ambiguous, muddied by the fact that it was incorporated into a broader policy on sexual harassment. The accuser, for example, had described the two-month relationship as consensual at first, although she said it later left her “confused and distraught.” She said she did not consider her teacher’s actions to be sexual harassment and “an abuse of his authority” until several months after the relationship had soured.
Yale College dean Richard Brodhead was one of those who called for a review of the policy. “In an area that can’t entirely be rescued from the ambiguities of human nature and human conduct,” he wrote, “the least we can do is to give as clear a message as we can about the University’s expectations. If the teacher’s actions can be judged wrong in hindsight, then perhaps we ought to say up front: 'Just don’t.' Having sexual relations with one’s students is just not something teachers should do.”
The committee agreed. The new policy, which is published in the faculty handbook, explicitly states that teachers—whether professors or teaching assistants—may not have a sexual relationship with a student over whom they have direct supervisory responsibilities, “regardless of whether the relationship is consensual.” According to Calhoun College master William Sledge, who chaired the committee: “The main rule is now crystal clear. Teachers and [their] students cannot have sex, period.”
The policy has met with general approval on the campus. “We can be friendly, we can be social, we can be personable, but there’s also a line that can never be crossed,” history professor Jay Gitlin told the Yale Daily News.
But some feel that the restriction borders on the draconian, particularly because it applies to graduate students, who are generally older, and, presumably, wiser in the ways of the world than undergraduates are likely to be. “If two people are genuinely attracted to each other, why would anyone interfere, especially an institution?” Pascale Teysseire, a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, asked.
Sledge counters that Yale is not attempting to “moralize about people’s sexual involvement and behavior.” Rather, it is seeking to “change the milieu” by encouraging professors and students to assume responsibility for their actions when an affair of the heart presents a conflict of interest. The hope is that the policy will allow both parties to protect themselves against the fallout of a relationship gone bad. “There’ll be no 'sex police' reporting what’s going on,” says Sledge. “We’re not looking to control whether people fall in love. We’re just saying that, if they do, they can’t be in a teacher-student relationship.”
Although Yale was in the vanguard on such matters when it introduced its policy discouraging student-faculty relationships in the mid-1980s, it has been relatively slow to impose a total ban on sexual contact between professors and their students. Indeed, the Sledge committee found in a review of 15 peer institutions that more than a quarter of them had adopted such a policy in recent years.
According to many, the harder line can be traced to the heightened awareness of sexual harassment issues since the highly publicized Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings that followed Thomas’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. But other factors are involved. A series of studies such as that recently conducted by Yale psychologist Suzanne Swan have found that most women suffer sexual harassment in the workplace. Of 300 female university employees surveyed by Swan in her study, 68 percent reported an unwanted sexual experience, and of 447 women in the private sector, 63 percent had experienced at least one incident of sexually harassing behavior in the past 24 months.
As it turns out, private universities have somewhat more leeway than public institutions in attempting to restrict faculty-student affairs. According to Jonathan Alger, associate counsel with the American Association of University Professors, public institutions face various potential legal challenges regarding the right to privacy and free association. “If the university is saying who I can and cannot go out with, they can be accused of violating my constitutional rights,” Alger argues.
Yale’s approach to the issue rests largely on the conviction that a professor’s responsibilities toward students are little different than those of a doctor or psychiatrist. Just as those in medical professions are held accountable for their actions toward patients, this position holds, so too should professors be in their dealings with students. Moreover, say proponents of the Yale policy, professors can have a major impact on a student’s academic career and future prospects, whether through grades, letters of recommendation, or simple personal influence over colleagues' decisions. This imbalance of power is particularly evident in relationships with undergraduates, given the typical gap in age and worldly experience between most professors and their students. “Some students are to professors what groupies are to rock stars,” says Rosalyn Amenta '76MAR, co-coordinator of women’s studies at Southern Connecticut State University. “The potential for exploitation is enormous.”
Perhaps so, but faculty members who find themselves accused of misconduct might argue that the system is weighted against them. The former Yale mathematician’s attorney, John Stewart, decried the lack of due process during his client’s Yale hearing (the professor was allowed no legal representation) and the basic presumption that he was “guilty until proven innocent.” Stewart points out that the teacher denied all the allegations made by the student, saying that he never so much as held her hand. “Yet he’s been punished twice: Yale gave him a reprimand, and Ohio State withdrew a job offer. If other institutions take the same attitude, then this man will never teach again, and his career in math is probably over.”
Mary Gray, a mathematics professor at American University who has worked with the American Association of University Professors on its guidelines for handling sexual harassment, takes a different tack. She argued in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education that if academics took harassment as seriously as they do other forms of professional misconduct, like plagiarism, then such career-threatening situations would be less likely to occur. “The notion of institutions acting in a parental capacity for students is old, but I still think that institutions have some obligation not to put someone who has a propensity to harass in a situation where he can do it easily,” said Gray. She believes that warning other universities about an accused harasser should be compared to notifying communities when convicted sex offenders move into a neighborhood.
Others say that is going too far. “The attitude seems to be that this is some kind of pedophilia, some child-molestation business, some kind of compulsion that’s bound to recur,” argued Roger Howe, a Yale mathematics professor and one of 15 faculty members who issued a letter supporting the accused tea cher. In most sexual harassment cases, Howe told the Chronicle,”my instincts would be that you’re dealing with intelligent people who crossed some kind of gray line without understanding where they were, and they understand that now and will not repeat it.”
Indeed, no one is saying that it is a crime to fall in love. And there certainly have been faculty-student relationships that have prospered, and even some that have developed into happy, lasting unions. But, as the writer Jeffrey Toobin put it in an article entitled “The Trouble with Sex,” published in the February 9 New Yorker: “Between students and their teachers at Yale, there is now, officially, no sex without harassment.” Toobin went on to note that “it is worth pausing to consider the costs of policing consensual sex. They include expanding the university’s responsibility for private, intimate conduct; they institutionalize the university’s role as a bedroom snoop; and, perhaps most important, they apply the rules of sexual harassment—a law that is supposed to concern discrimination—to what are often victimless crimes.”
Whatever the merits of that argument, Southern Connecticut’s Rosalyn Amenta observes that the mathematician’s case and others like it should serve as a warning. “Certainly, seduction can be a two-way street,” she says. “But the bottom line is: “Who’s going to pay the biggest price if the relationship unravels? The answer is: the faculty member.”
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