The complicated issue of faculty-student romantic relationships

I have written before about the problematic nature of romantic relationships between college faculty and students. The college campus is a place of great ambiguity when it comes to these kinds of relationships. Since college students are adults who also have more freedom than secondary school students, it lacks the clear boundaries that one finds in secondary schools. Since the college classroom is not a workplace, it lacks some of the rules that have become the norm there.

Laura Kipnis discusses the reaction she received when she wrote an essay that explored this issue.

Her essay was about new codes in American universities prohibiting professor-student relationships, not sexual assault. For another, part of her argument with these new rules was that in addition to infantilising students, they would only heighten the accusatory atmosphere on campus. When the students spoke of their “visceral reaction” to her article and demanded that the authorities protect them from her “terrifying” ideas, they appeared to her only to be proving her point on both counts.

Kipnis’s original essay was provoked by an email she received about a year before, informing her that relationships – dating, romantic or sexual – between undergraduates and faculty members at Northwestern were now banned. The same email informed her that relationships between graduates and staff, though not forbidden, were also problematic, and had to be reported to department chairs. “It annoyed me,” she says. The language was neutral, but it seemed clear that it was mostly women this code was meant to protect. She thought of all those she knew who are married to former students, or who are the children of such couples, and wondered where this left them. It seemed to her this was part of a process that was transforming the “professoriate” into a sexually suspicious class: “would-be harassers all, sexual predators in waiting”. It was also of a piece with a wider mood. Another recent directive from Northwestern to its staff suggested they avoid making “unnecessary references to parts of the body”.

The problem is not that consensual adult faculty-student relationships are wrong in some general sense, it is that judging consensuality becomes problematic as soon as that premise is challenged by either party. I am not sure where the lines should be drawn. All I know is that I would recommend to any faculty member that they avoid having any romantic relationship with a student until the student has graduated and left the institution, so that there is no room for any ambiguity as to whether the relationship was consensual or not.


  1. deepak shetty says

    I am not sure where the lines should be drawn.

    Professionally there seems to be simple guidelines
    a. Avoid it
    b. If you must make sure you disclose it (to HR, managers) before you begin anything. If you are in positions, where you can do something for/against the other person then one of you’ll have to move to a different project/position/dept/job etc


  2. flex says

    A couple of my thoughts.

    1. The classroom is a workplace. The instructor assigns work, and the students perform the tasks assigned. This doesn’t mean rote learning. Even during a general discussion of a topic, where the instructor themselves is learning something, the instructor still has the role of directing the discussion and maintaining appropriate control in the classroom.

    2. The problem with workplace romances is the power differential. In the case of a subordinate dating a supervisor, not only is there a risk of special treatment for the subordinate, but also a risk of other subordinates not getting rewards they might deserve. So the entire team is compromised. The subordinate in the relationship will be suspected of getting undeserved rewards, and the remaining team members will likely feel they are getting less than they deserve. This is as much true in a workplace, a military command, and in a classroom.

    3. The final problem with a power differential in a situation like that is the ancillary affects. If a student does get special treatment, better grades, the student will be better positioned to remain in school or have a slightly better hiring opportunity. Small differences add up over time. But even worse is the possibility that a good student who is an relationship with an instructor which goes sour will be hurt by getting poorer grades than they deserve or potentially not being able to continue studying at that school. Which will have a long term affect on their life. Just as in a workplace, if a relationship between a supervisor and subordinate terminates, the supervisor has the ability to make that subordinates workload and life miserable. Generally, in a case like this the subordinate ends up leaving the company, potentially taking skills that the company wants and uses.

    If anyone wants to be in a relationship with a power differential, I would recommend getting into BSDM, not fucking the boss/instructor/commander. It’s much safer in the long run.

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