Since I’m on sabbatical this year, I guess I’m going to miss out on my chance to hit on hot young coeds…wait a minute. I never do that. I’ve been missing out all these years?
This is a good article on professors who abuse the system, but I find myself having reservations, because most professors would be horrified at the behavior described there.
Splinter spoke to 11 current and former students about his behavior. A number of them identified a pattern: He’d tell a female grad student that he liked her writing, encourage her to meet with him to discuss it, and then begin making sexual advances.
These students often described his behavior as “creepy,” even as it was discussed among faculty and students alike that he was being groomed to eventually become chair of the department. He served as graduate adviser beginning in the 2016 school year, which meant that every graduate student—whether or not they had been on the receiving end of these flirty emails, been desired by Hutchison enough to be pursued by him, or had reciprocated his interest—was obligated to talk to him each semester about their courses, their timeline to completion, their funding, and which classes they would teach.
I’m not some weird outlier, either: I can’t imagine any of my colleagues doing that kind of stunt, and there is a culture in academia of respecting the students, and we’re supposed to be savvy enough to recognize the exploitation evident in that behavior. But at the same time, I recognize that there is another problem that many of us do exhibit, a defensiveness of the system that allows predators to persist.
The town hall meeting quickly turned contentious. Almost 50 people were in attendance when department chair Elizabeth Cullingford and professor Gretchen Murphy started by telling the assembly not to “panic” over the allegations. They declined to name names, and insisted that the accusations against the unnamed professor in Shapland’s essay occurred under a previous policy—but Cullingford also described the new policy, which went into effect in 2017, as “draconian” due to its prohibition on certain kinds of faculty-student relationships. Cullingford urged students to keep the specifics of the meeting to themselves. When students asked questions, Murphy told them to address those questions specifically to the people involved—including Hutchison, who wasn’t in attendance.
The professoriate is really good at the wagon-circling maneuver, and academic freedom is used as a catch-all excuse for anything. But these excuses are inexcusable.
This is academia, “A place where deep and lasting collegial bonds are formed, where mentors and protégés can become close friends and where young lives are transformed by a galvanic encounter with knowledge and their own latent capabilities,” as Laura Miller wrote in a 2015 essay for the New Republic, which questioned if “erotic longing between professors and students” was “unavoidable.”
No, it’s avoidable. It’s pretty easily avoidable. Or do you think heterosexual male professors are all experiencing fierce erotic tensions with their male students? The idea that intellectual relationships between two people will inevitably lead to some steamy smoldering is entirely a product of masculine privilege, used as a rationalization when someone in a position of power uses that to take advantage in a way that is irrelevant to scholarship.
In 2001, Harper’s published an essay by Cristina Nehring called “The Higher Yearning: Bringing Eros Back to Academe,” in which she argued that “teacher-student chemistry is what sparks much of the best work that goes on at universities, today as always,” and “the university campus on which the erotic impulse between teachers and students is criminalized is the campus on which the pedagogical enterprise is deflated.” Six years later, UCLA professor Paul R. Abramson published a book called Romance in the Ivory Tower: The Rights and Liberty of Conscience, arguing within its pages that a university policy that prohibits professors from dating their students “tramples the very nature of freedom itself.”
In 1910, a 19 year old undergraduate began working with Thomas Hunt Morgan. This student, inspired and guided by Morgan’s mentorship, would do a series of experiments in recombination that would work out the principles of genetic mapping. These two would both have long careers of productive, influential research and would be recognized as pioneers in their discipline. It was a great example of a mutually rewarding teacher-student relationship.
I had no idea until now that the erotic impulse between TH Morgan and Alfred Sturtevant is what sparked their best work. Or that the freedom to indulge their passionate desires was necessary to achieve their accomplishments. Maybe if Tom hadn’t been so smitten with Alfred’s hot young body, he wouldn’t have been such a dick to Nettie Stevens, and she would have flourished under his tender, loving tutelage.
That is all nonsense, of course. It’s entirely possible and common to have a professional, productive relationship with other human beings without a sexual element. Most of our interactions are literally asexual…unless you’re going to tell me you can’t visit your pharmacist or buy groceries or go for a walk in the park or pick up a book at the library without banging everyone you meet. All of us, even the most horndoggy among us, know more people that we would not have sex with than those we would. The fact that there are 7.6 billion people I will not and would not have sex with on the planet right now does not imply that I cannot interact with them in other ways.
It is not draconian or repressive for an institution to inform its employees that they are not allowed to fuck the people over whom they have power and a responsibility to help; nor does it limit their ability to perform their duties well.
There will always be a few people who whine that they need sexual access to students to empower their best work. Just tell ’em to sit down and shut up, or fire them.