It is a quintessential college story, the stuff of books, movies, and real-life marriages: the romance between the tweedy professor and the student.
But a rash of sexual harassment scandals at universities from coast to coast, part of the nationwide awakening underway in the MeToo era, has led many institutions to tighten rules around these relationships and has revived questions about whether such pairings can ever be consensual.
Given the uneven power dynamics at play in any student-teacher interaction, it might come as a surprise that rules aren’t in place already. But in many cases the rules were unclear or nonexistent.
This winter, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology followed institutions such as Harvard University, Northwestern University, and Yale University in outlawing sexual or romantic relationships between professors and undergraduate students. MIT also sought to limit these relationships between graduate students and professors and barred student teaching assistants from dating other students they may have authority over.
MIT’s prior rules merely cautioned that professor-student relationships could create potential conflicts of interest, but it wasn’t explicit enough, said David Singer, a political science professor at MIT and chairman of the committee that helped draw up the new rules.
“We wanted to make sure the policy was fair,” Singer said. But ultimately, school officials “were concerned about relationships of asymmetry of power.”
MIT’s new policy, two years in the making, is long overdue, some students said.
These romances might start innocently enough, through chats on the campus lawn or by working together in labs, or over other shared research interests, but they can be fraught with potential pitfalls that could derail a student’s career and erode morale within a department.
Students have their future careers at stake. Their professors — some of whom can be much older — could have a tremendous influence on their professional lives through networks on campus and connections to potential employers off campus. Students could also put their personal safety at risk with their reluctance to flag inappropriate behavior by those in authority.
“Even though it’s technically consensual, when there’s a power dynamic, it can’t be,” said Molly Bird, 24, a graduate biological engineering student at MIT and cochairwoman of New England Graduate Women in Science & Engineering. “I’m glad that they recognize that things can go wrong in these relationships.”
Under MIT’s procedures, faculty who violate the university’s policies can face a range of disciplinary actions depending on the details of the case, from a written reprimand up to dismissal.
At area universities, the rules on relationships vary. The University of Massachusetts Amherst instructs faculty that the school “does not wish to interfere with private choices” but requires them to inform supervisors if they are in a relationship with a student. Berklee College of Music prohibits professors from having intimate relationships only with students whom they will be grading, advising, or selecting for employment or awards. Tufts University and Boston University have similar policies. BU also suggests that faculty and staff avoid sexual interactions with undergraduates.
Officials at UMass Amherst said they are in negotiations with their faculty union to revise the school’s policy. Berklee, which revealed last fall that it had terminated 11 faculty members in the past 13 years for sexual misconduct, said it’s in discussions with the faculty union to make the policy more “clear and comprehensive.” Tufts said its policy is under review.
Even universities that have banned undergraduate-faculty relationships are considering whether to draw even tighter boundaries.
At Dartmouth College, where three psychology professors are under investigation for alleged sexual misconduct, a committee of faculty and staff is reviewing the harassment and relationship policy to determine whether there are gaps, officials there said.
Outside examiners have urged the University of Rochester in New York to ban sexual relationships between professors and graduate students in their particular department. That suggestion and other proposals came after an inquiry into how the university handled the case of a professor who had relationships with two students and participated in sexual banter that drew complaints from students and faculty. His conduct and the university’s handling of the incident have spurred a lawsuit and led to the resignation of the college’s president this month.
“The tide has changed in many campuses and many systems,” said Tara Richards, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Baltimore who has studied campus relationship policies. “We’re in the era of MeToo and Time’s Up. There’s a magnifying glass on how institutions are responding.”
Richards recalled that a decade ago, when she was a graduate student, several of her female professors had married their mentors. Those relationships are increasingly taboo and, in many cases, now banned, because of the unequal power held by professors over students, Richards said.
In 2014, when Richards sampled policies of 55 colleges and universities around the country, only one, Yale, specifically banned faculty-undergraduate relationships. Since then, more colleges have adopted similar policies, but they remain a minority around the country, according to the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, which investigated the University of Rochester case.
But critics of such policies worry these prohibitions go too far and intrude into the private lives of consenting adults.
Professors who are asking for sexual favors in return for good grades or retaliating against students who shun their advances should be disciplined, said Laura Kipnis, a Northwestern University professor and author of a book on universities and Title IX gender discrimination policies.
She fears that the new policies being adopted assume — oftentimes, wrongly — professors are sexual predators.
“I think that students over the age of consent can make their own decisions,” Kipnis said. “These are tough situations. It’s very hard to have sexual relationship with equal power. We all have to negotiate these situations.”
But some students and campus safety experts say that’s easier said than done.
Students can be reluctant to brush off the advances of a professor or supervisor. And when a relationship sours, even if the professor doesn’t have direct supervision of a student, a friend on the faculty could affect a student’s grade or experience.
Students said changes in the intimate relationship policies are part of broader reforms that many students want to ensure a safe campus, including more training for faculty and students on sexual harassment and how to stop it, and more information and greater transparency about how universities make disciplinary decisions about potential violations.
Still, a strict policy is no guarantee of eliminating the relationships.
Even at Yale, cases of professors running afoul of the consensual relationship policy arise every year. In early 2017, Yale suspended a faculty member for two years and revoked some privileges for having a sexual relationship with a student. And the university’s Title IX office, which handles gender bias and sexual harassment complaints, routinely investigates whether relationships between faculty and students, and graduates and undergraduates break the rules.
Yale officials said the policy acts as a deterrent.
“No institution has full compliance with its policies on the issue of sexual misconduct,” said Thomas Conroy, a spokesman for Yale. “We hope that our policies and practices have reduced incidence, but we don’t know what goes unreported. We do believe the prohibition on the teacher-student relationships is sound.”Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.