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Romantic relationships between a faculty member and a student at a university are an issue that is important for many people in an academic environment. The matter is discussed from many possible angles, including the need to distinguish sexual harassment from a consensual romantic involvement, and a real relationship from one that becomes a student’s instrument of improving the academic scores.
It is evident that even when such a relationship is real, there are just as many drawbacks, as there are advantages. In order to elucidate the nature of the problem, it is crucial to discuss both sides of the question, including an ethical dimension, and suggest a way to reach a middle option. We will argue that both sides of this ongoing debate are rather radical in their approach and a pressing need arises to find a middle ground. Thus, the discussed type of relations should not be prohibited but their formal aspect carefully regulated so as it would affect neither the professor’s nor the student’s reputation and academic career.
The “Pro” Position
Paul Abrams, the author of the article entitled The Right to Romance: Why Universities Shouldn’t Prohibit Relations Between Teachers and Students, is a psychology professor at the University of Los Angeles, California. Abrams argues that there are no reasonable grounds for the legal prohibition of romantic relations between students and professors. The author employs several strong arguments, e.g. the freedom of expression, or “the freedom of mind” (Abrams para. 7).
He maintains that it is unreasonable to forbid people from choosing freely their romantic partners in an academic milieu. Indeed, it is true that each individual has the right to choose whomever he or she pleases as a potential life partner. It is unreasonable and inconsistent with our understanding of the notion of freedom. Moreover, a law cannot regulate the emotional connection that is often established by the people involved. Thus, even professors and students that want to engage in such relations should have the right to do so. The tone Abrams uses to convince his audience is rather emotional and persuasive, as it emphasizes basic human aspects, to which everyone can easily relate. Official institutions should not have a say in such personal matters, as such an approach clearly infringes on human rights.
A teacher-student relation has a dimension of inequality, which is difficult to deny. However, Abrams points out that it is not a problem in such types of relationships save for those between a therapist and a patient. He compares the discussed relation with other types of relationships with a different degree of influence or separated by a power gap. Despite that fact, there is no valid reason for refraining from such relations. There is no possibility of serious damage that such a relationship could cause, except for ordinary problems that can be solved by certain adjustments in college education procedures.
Moreover, such a prohibition denies the students a basic right of free choices. According to Abrams (2007), students are old enough to vote and join the army, so there is no reason for them to be denied the right to establish a relationship with a teacher if they discover such a romantic inclination (12). It seems as though the main reason for educational institutions to impose such sort of restrictions on the faculty is the financial aspect. Since such relations may lead to the university being served with a lawsuit, it is advantageous for them to enforce legal prohibitions in that respect.
The last argument made by Abrams is the most emotionally charged. It is pointed out that for many students and professors their academic environment is the only source of their social encounters. Indeed, it often happens that partners find each other through their work, their field of study, or simply an official establishment where they work or study. It is unreasonable to expect that there can be no romantic relationships among people often passionate about similar things.
The “Against” Position
On average, the colleges’ policy regarding personal relationships between students and faculty members is prohibited. Harvard University was one of the first seats of learning to impose this rule in the 1980s. Such restrictions are introduced due to the fact that romantic relationships between people with a power gap may often result in an outcome that has a negative impact on the professional relationship. The validity of academic achievements may be questioned by others, implying a possibility of favoritism, which may become a problem for the people involved (“Consensual Relationships between Students and Faculty” para. 2).
Supporters of such restrictions often mention that in case the relationship does not work out well, it could influence the student’s grades, as well as negatively affect the perception of a particular student by other professors. A student might often feel vulnerable, threatened, or merely uncomfortable with the situation in the department (“Consensual Relationships between Students and Faculty” para. 3). Moreover, in case a recommendation is needed for the purposes of future employment, an unsuccessful relationship, and bitterness that often remains for a long time may prove to be a hindrance for a student.
According to the University of Michigan, it is often difficult to establish whether the student’s consent is, in fact, voluntary (para. 2). Sexual harassment accusations often lead to lawsuits that are costly for the institution, both in terms of finances and reputation. That is why the mentioned institution recommends refraining from engaging in such relationships, as it may negatively influence the reputation of a particular institution, faculty member, and the student involved.
It is necessary to emphasize that both positions are rather radical. The standpoint presented by Abrams appeals to the ideas of freedom of mind, as well as to the fundamental human rights issues. At the same time, the “against” position makes a desperate yet unsuccessful attempt to regulate human relationships in a formal manner, which is dubious from the start. Both positions entail certain drawbacks. The “pro” position proposes an exaggerated notion of students’ and teachers’ right to engage in whatever relations they see fit. Perhaps it is not wise to leave the matter unrestricted, as it is a delicate matter that needs a certain degree of regulation.
However, the existing regulations are also exaggerated, as they limit the faculty members’ actions in an excessive way. An excellent point is made in the article that points out that there is “no black and white when it comes to adult dating relationships” (“Gov’t Shouldn’t Try to Regulate Teacher-Student Relationships” para. 12). Indeed, the position of strict prohibition is, therefore, equally unsuitable, as it leaves no room for individual nuances of the problem.
It is reasonable to seek compromise in such disputable matters. While both positions discussed put forward valuable arguments, it is necessary to find a certain “middle ground” that would allow for student-teacher relations but would also ensure that no damage is caused regarding the professor’s and the student’s reputation and academic achievements.
According to the Policy Board of Trustees – Montgomery College, relations of a romantic nature between a student and a faculty member, pose substantial risks for the people involved (1). To this end, the college’s regulations specify that even though such types of relations may occur, it is recommended that the people in question disclose their relationship to the administration in order to ensure that no undesirable incidents occur. A compromise approach would involve ensuring that the faculty member in question does not grade the work done by the student, as a personal involvement could lead to unfair treatment, even on a subconscious level.
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An appropriate provision can be introduced to ensure that a conflict of interest is avoided. Admittedly, it does presume that the people involved are willing to disclose the nature of their relationship, which is often not the case. However, it is possible to conduct training that would provide all the information regarding such situations and make sure that both students and faculty members understand that it is the best approach.
Romantic relations between students and faculty members often become a burning issue for many colleges. Those advocating for the prohibition of such relations put forward valid arguments concerning the impact a personal involvement might have on the student’s and the professor’s reputation and academic activities. However, their opponents are right to point out that such a rule imposes excessive restrictions that infringe on the right of every person to choose a potential life partner. In an academic milieu, mutual understanding and personal connection are often established thanks to common academic interests. A compromise position outlined above is best, as it both ensures there is no conflict of interest and that the students and faculty members are free to choose a romantic partner.
Abrams, Paul. The Right to Romance. Why Universities Shouldn’t Prohibit Relations Between Teachers and Students. 2007. Web.
Consensual Relationships between Students and Faculty. n.d. Web.
Gov’t Shouldn’t Try to Regulate Teacher-Student Relationships. 2011. Web.
Policy Board of Trustees – Montgomery College. Personnel. Consensual Relationships. 2013. Web.
University of Michigan. Standard Practice Guide Policies. Faculty-Student Relationships. n.d. Web.