Harvard University this week banned its professors from having sex with undergraduates, revising a conduct policy that administrators decided did not fully recognize the “unequal status” between instructors and students.
The change, similar to those announced recently by other institutions, came as part of a review of Harvard’s schoolwide Title IX policy on sexual and gender-based harassment, and amid increased federal scrutiny of colleges nationwide.
The Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which oversees Harvard’s undergraduate programs, concluded that though there were some prohibitions on romantic involvement — professors couldn’t sleep with students they supervise — the rules needed to be clearer.
The language now explicitly bans undergrads and professors from having “romantic or sexual relationships,” regardless of whether the student is taking a course taught by that professor.
Under the previous policy, “relationships of unequal status did not explicitly reflect the faculty’s expectations of what constituted an appropriate relationship,” said Anna Cowenhoven, director of university communications.
The review of the Harvard policy was led by Alison Johnson, a history professor. Johnson said Thursday that professors should be focused on the intellectual development of university students.
“If you and I are sitting next to each other on a ski lift, and the sparks are flying, and it turns out I’m a professor in the history department, and you’re a senior at the computer science department at Harvard, now we are done,” she said. “No more sparks. I ski off to the left, and you ski off to the right.”
The policy also prohibits similar relationships between faculty members and the graduate students they supervise.
Harvard officials would not comment on what penalties might apply to professors or students who violate the policy.
Bloomberg News, which first reported the ban Thursday, said other New England colleges have taken similar steps.
Anita Levy, associate director of the American Association of University Professors, said she understands Harvard’s motivation for the ban, but worries that it might not achieve its intended results.
“I’m concerned that placing a blanket prohibition on consensual relationships . . . might lead to, ironically, encouraging them in some way, and making them appear more attractive,” she said.
The AUUP says instructors should not have mentoring responsibilities over students they are involved with sexually, she said.
“They should be approached with great care. It’s a highly charged, ethical issue,” she said. “But if they do occur, the faculty member should take every precaution to remove him or herself from having any kind of supervisory role with the student.”
Johnson said the Harvard committee did not intend to regulate every aspect of romantic life at Harvard.
“Faculty can’t have sex with undergraduates at Harvard College. Period. But there are all sorts of other power dynamics that aren’t included,” she said.
Johnson said most of the faculty she had talked to said they would never dream of having a sexual or romantic relationship with a student.
Harvard’s policy is more expansive than those at other area schools. At Boston College, faculty members and graduate student instructors are barred from having relationships with students they advise, according to the school’s website. The policy doesn’t explicitly ban students and faculty from otherwise having relationships, but it strongly discourages them.
On its website, Boston University says “affiliates,” including faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows, should avoid relationships with enrolled students that they are supervising. Such conduct could “undermine the integrity of the educational process,” its policy says.
The University of Massachusetts Amherst requires faculty to “adhere to their proper role as intellectual guide and counsel” and “avoid any personal exploitation of students, staff, colleagues and others.”
Students interviewed Thursday in Harvard Yard gave the new policy mixed reviews.
“I would think that most faculty would be upstanding in their acts,’’ said sophomore Dan Rubin. “It’s fine that it’s on record now, but I don’t think they were catching anyone.”
Andrew Kim, a junior, said there probably are instances when a student and faculty member who are romantically involved decided that being together was a good decision.
“It seems strange to legislate that,” he said.
Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.