Sex, Power, Professors & Students
In February of 2015 Laura Kipnis’ essay “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Though perhaps potentially controversial in content, the essay was a rational and balanced consideration of the subject of campus codes regarding relationships between students and professors. In response to this essay, Kipnis was subjected to what she rightly calls a Title IX Inquisition.
While I will not be addressing the specifics of Kipnis’ essays, reading them caused me to consider the topic of university regulation of relations between professors and students. While the legal issues are certainly interesting, my main concern as a philosopher lies in the domain of ethics.
I will begin by getting the easy stuff out of the way. Since universities have an obligation to provide a safe environment conducive to learning, universities should have rules that forbid professors from sexually harassing students or pressuring them. Since universities also have an obligation to ensure that grades are assigned based on merit, they should also have rules that forbid exchanging goods or services (in this case, sexual services) in return for better grades. Crimes such as sexual assault and rape should be handled by the police—though universities should certainly have rules governing the employment of professors who are convicted of assaulting or raping anyone. Of course, since the professor would most likely be in prison, this would probably make continued employment rather difficult.
Somewhat less easy is the issue of whether or not universities should forbid consenting relationships between professors and students when the student is enrolled in the professor’s class or otherwise professionally under the professor (such as being an advisee, TA, or RA). There is certainly a legitimate concern about fairness. After all, if a student is sexually involved with a professor, then the student might have an unfair advantage relative to other students. I consider this to be distinct from the exchange of a grade for sexual favors—rather, this is a matter of such things as positive bias in favor of the student that results in special treatment. For example, that a professor might grade her boyfriend’s paper much easier than those of other students.
While sexual relations can lead to bias, these are not the only relations that can have this effect. A professor who is friends with a student or related to a student can be subject to bias in favor of that student (as distinct from pure nepotism in which grades are simply handed out based on the relationship). So, if the principle justifying forbidding a professor from having a student in his class he has a relation with is based on the potential for bias, then students who are friends, relatives or otherwise comparably connected to the professor would also need to forbidden.
It can be argued that there is a relevant difference between sexual relations and non-sexual relations that would justify forbidding a professor from dating a student in her class, while still allowing her to have a friend or relative as a student. Alternatively, a university could simply place a general ban on professors having students with whom they have a potentially biasing relationship—be it sexual, platonic, or a family relationship. As a general policy, this does have some appeal on the grounds of fairness. It can, however, be countered on the grounds that a professional should be able to control her bias in regards to friends and family. This, of course, opens the door to the claim that a professional should also be able to control his bias in regards to a sexual relationship. However, many people would certainly be skeptical about that—and I recall from my own graduate school days the comments students would make about students who were sexual involved with their professor or TA. Put in polite terms, they expressed their skepticism about the fairness of the grading.
My considered view is a conditional one: if a professor can maintain her objectivity, then the unfairness argument would have no weight. However, there is the legitimate concern that some (or even many) professors could not maintain such objectivity, thus making such a general rule forbidding relationships justifiable. After all, rules limiting behavior are not crafted with the best people in mind, but those that are less than the best.
The fairness argument could not, of course, be used to justify forbidding professors from dating students who are not and will not be in their classes (or otherwise under them in a professional capacity). So, for example, if an engineering professor were to date an English Literature major who will never take any of the classes she teaches, then there would seem to be no basis in regards to fairness for forbidding this relationship. Since harassment and coercive relationships should be forbidden, there would thus seem to be no grounds for forbidding such a consensual relationship between two adults. However, there are those who argue that there are grounds for a general forbiddance.
There are, of course, practical reasons to have a general forbiddance of relationships between students and professors even when there is no coercion, no harassment, and no unfairness and so on. One reason is that relationships generally fail and often fail in dramatic ways—it could be problematic for a university to have such a dramatic failure play out on campus. Another reason is that such relationships can be a legal powder keg in terms of potential lawsuits against a university—as such, university administrators probably feel that their money and brand should be protected by forbidding any such relationships.
From a moral perspective, the concern is whether there are moral grounds for forbidding such relationships (other than, of course, a utilitarian argument about the potential for brand damage).
One stock argument is that there is always a power disparity between professors and students and this entails that all relationships are potentially coercive. Even if most professors would not consciously coerce a student, rules (as noted above) are not made for the best people. As such, the blanket ban on relationships is necessary to prevent any possibility of coercive relationships between students and professors.
It might be objected that a rule against coercive relationships would suffice and that if the professor has no professional relationship with the student, then they should be treated as adults. After all, the professor would seem to have no power at all over the student and coercion via professional position would not be a possibility. So, they should be free to have a relationship despite the worries of the “nanny” university.
It could be countered that a professor always has power over a student in virtue of being a professor—even when the professor has no professional relationship to the student. While a professor might have some “power” in regards to being older (usually), having some status, having more income (usually), and so on, these do not seem to be distinct from the “power” anyone could have over anyone else. That is, there seems to be nothing specific to being a professor that would give the professor power over the student that would make the relationship automatically coercive. As such, there would seem to be no grounds for forbidding the relationship.
It could be objected that students are vulnerable to the power of professors and lack the autonomy needed to resist this power. As such, the university must act in a paternalistic way and forbid all relationships—so as to protect the guileless, naïve and completely powerless students from the cunning, powerful predatory professors. This would be analogous to the laws that protect minors from adults—the minors cannot give informed consent. If college students are similarly vulnerable to professors, then the same sort of rule applies. Of course, if students are so vulnerable, then there should certainly be a reconsideration of the age of consent—increasing it to 23 might suffice. Then again, many students take six years to graduate, so perhaps it should be 24. There are also graduate students, so perhaps it should be extended to 30. Or even more—after all, a student could go to school at almost any age.
Unless it is assumed that students are powerless victims and professors are powerful predators, then a blanket ban on relationships seems morally unwarranted—at least on the grounds of forbidding relationships because of an assumption of coercion. However, there are other moral grounds for such rules—for example, a case can be made that dating students would be a violation of professionalism (on par with dating co-workers or clients). While the effect would be the same, the justification does seem to matter.