Universities offer a variety of settings that encourage meaningful teaching and learning relationships between faculty and students in classrooms, laboratories, studios, athletic facilities, and other areas. Many academic experiences also lead to faculty-student relationships such as advising, off-campus supervision, joint projects on research and artistry, and extra-curricular activities. In these settings and experiences, faculty members are expected to assume the role of teacher, advisor, supervisor, mentor, and coach. These relationships are intended to be professional and “foster free and open exchange of ideas, productive learning, and the work that supports it” (Portland Community College, 2012). Having a good relationship with your students can help students succeed academically and increase their overall satisfaction with the university experience. However, one such relationship, the consensual romantic relationship, often fails and can result in severe consequences for both the faculty member and the student.
Consensual romantic relationships are described “as romantic, amorous and/or sexual relationships between consenting employees and adult college students currently enrolled” at the university (Maricopa Community College, 2009). Northern Illinois University’s Policy on Relationships between University Employees and Students states that “a University employee should not be romantically or sexually involved with a student whom he or she teaches, advises, coaches, or supervises in any way” (Division of Academic Affairs, Academic Policies and Procedures 2010).
Incidents of consensual romantic relationships between faculty members and students are not new to higher education and engaging in such relationships with students may seem acceptable to those involved. However, the ramifications of these relationships can be substantial. In consensual romantic relationships that might lead to sexual harassment charges, which some do, the faculty member often bears the weight of the charges. Also,
- “Such relationships may undermine the real or perceived integrity of the supervision provided, and the particular trust inherent in the student-faculty relationship.
- Relationships in which one party is in a position to review the work, or influence the career of the other may provide grounds for complaint when that relationship appears to give undue access or advantage, restricts opportunities, or creates a hostile and unacceptable environment for others.
- Such relationships may, moreover, be less consensual than the individual whose position confers power believes. The relationship is likely to be perceived in different ways by each of the parties to it, especially in retrospect. While some relationships may begin and remain harmonious, they are susceptible to being characterized as unprofessional and disrespectful to others” (Portland Community College, 2012).
University faculty members assume a level of liability in their actions toward and conversations with students. Therefore, the best policy is to refrain from becoming involved in a consensual romantic relationship with a student about whom you “make determinations or evaluations” (Portland State University, 2012). Faculty who find themselves in such a relationship should report the situation to their immediate supervisor and remove themselves “from academic or professional decisions about the student” (Portland Community College, 2012). In other words, have another individual assess that student’s work and make final decisions related to their final performance in the course. Conversely, students who are in a consensual romantic relationship with a faculty member should not enroll in courses or participate in activities in which the faculty member is associated.
Faculty-student consensual romantic relationships can lead to confusion, distrust, and anger; subtleties can get you into trouble. For example, a young, vulnerable college student can become infatuated with a faculty member who assumes a role of power and that power differential, whether perceived or actual, may lead to an exploitive relationship. Teaching assistants, who often are close in age to the students they teach, can find themselves in confusing situations, not knowing where boundaries lie between being a voice of authority and a friend (or more) of their students. (Knowing boundaries was one of the most frequently mentioned responses by surveyed students who attended the fall 2012 Teaching Assistant Orientation.) Some students may become angry when a faculty member who flirted with them at an academic conference now shuns his or her advances after class. Even if that individual student truly sees it as a consensual relationship, others who observe the special nature of your relationship could perceive it as “third party harassment” if they feel the student in that consensual relationship has been advantaged through that special relationship. In any case, it is not your intentions that may be important but it is how others perceive the behavior and the impact of your actions.
Steps to take to avoid perceptions of improper relationships
- Use appropriate language when meeting and talking with students.
- Avoid use of suggestive remarks, jokes, cartoons, and certain websites in class and when communicating with students (there is a level of risk when using spontaneous and casual email messages and conversations).
- Avoid hugging, touching, or having personal contact with students.
- Make and enforce course policies.
- Be aware of students who attempt to make advances toward you and firmly say no.
- Know who you are with before acting in certain ways; actions can be misconstrued.
- Avoid gossiping about students with colleagues, other students, family, and friends.
- Be fair and avoid capricious grading or showing favoritism when evaluating student work.
- Establish clear roles when supervising, advising, and teaching students.
- Avoid shutting your office door fully when speaking to individual students.
- Become familiar with university services for students who may request them or show signs that they might need assistance beyond what you can provide. For example, Counseling and Student Development Center, Health Services, Office of the Ombudsperson, etc.
- Know the support services available for faculty such as Office of the Ombudsperson and the Employee Assistance Program.
Building meaningful relationships with your students is one of many benefits of being a member of the university community. Consensual romantic relationships, however, can have repercussions during and after the relationship has ended, especially for students. Universities are writing new and enforcing existing policies on faculty-student relationships. Although some of these policies do not outwardly forbid such relationships between consenting adults, they highly “discourage faculty from becoming [romantically] involved with their students” (Rimer, 2003). Violation of university policies on faculty-student relationships, including failure to report such relationships, can result in simple reprimand to dismissal (Rimer, 2003). The underlying tone in university policies on faculty-student consensual romantic relationships is this: Just don’t get involved! And because such policies exist does not mean that faculty and students cannot interact; use common sense and keep interactions with your student both professional and teaching- and learning-centered.
Special thanks to Deborah Haliczer, Division of Human Resources Services, for her expertise and helpful input in writing this article.
Anyone with questions and concerns about faculty-student consensual relationships should contact the NIU Office of Affirmative Action Office and Diversity Resources at 815-753-6000.
Upcoming workshop on campus-related relationships
Maintaining Constructive Relationships In and Out of the Classroom will be offered on Tuesday, November 13, 2012 from 9:30-11:30 a.m. in the Illinois Room, Holmes Student Center.
This workshop will address establishing and maintaining appropriate and constructive relationships in the classroom. Participants will discuss issues of communication, boundaries and relationships between faculty and students, both graduate and undergraduate. This workshop moves beyond general topics of sexual harassment, and addresses how to create and maintain supportive and mentoring relationships with students, and junior colleagues and avoiding any perception that one is crossing the boundary into personal relationships. The workshop will be presented by Deborah Haliczer, Human Resources Services, Sarah Klaper, Ombudsperson, and Toni Tollerud, Faculty and Supportive Professional Staff Personnel Advisor. Please call 815-753-6039 for more information on this workshop.
Northern Illinois University’s Division of Academic Affairs provides policies on relationships and professional ethics. See the following NIU sites for further information:
Maricopa Community College’s Online Policy Manual (2009). Consensual relationships. Retrieved from http://www.maricopa.edu/publicstewardship/governance/adminregs/auxiliary/4_18.php
Portland Community College’s Affirmative Action Office (2012). Consensual relationship statement. Retrieved from http://www.pcc.edu/about/affirmative-action/consensual.html
Portland State University’s Human Resources. (2012). Policy concerning consensual relationships. Retrieved from http://pdx.edu/hr/policy-concerning-consensual-relationships
Rimer, S. (2003, September 30). Universities tighten rules on faculty-student relationships. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/30/national/30CND-ROMA.html