June 5, 2002

Forbidden Love: Policies On Student-Teacher Romance

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Paul G. Lannon

All teaching institutions encourage faculty to develop close relationships with their students - but not too close.  While sharing an apple with a favorite teacher may still be an acceptable tradition, sharing a valentine is not.  Several major universities and colleges have recently adopted new policies strongly discouraging or absolutely prohibiting romantic relationships between students and their teachers or professors.  Publicized affairs prompted new rules at the College of William & Mary and Ohio Wesleyan University.  In other cases, the changes appear prophylactic.  Although this is a sensitive and sometimes embarrassing topic, it should be addressed.   

At first glance, it is easy to see why this topic is often ignored.  After all, the pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and, at least in college and university communities, teacher-student relationships typically involve consenting adults.  Academic institutions are also loathe to make value judgments and, admittedly, if there is no direct supervisory relationship between the student and faculty member, then there may not be much risk of harm to the individuals or their academic community. 

Nevertheless, romantic relationships between students and teachers frequently create disruption on campus and may lead to legal liability.  They strain the academic community in several significant respects.  Most obviously, the student is vulnerable to undue influence and may feel exceptional pressure to impress or protect the teacher.  The teacher, on the other hand, will naturally feel pressure to treat the student differently, sometimes better, sometimes more harshly, than other students.  Moreover, it is virtually impossible to prevent other students and faculty members from perceiving a conflict of interest or unfair advantage.  These perceptions, well founded or not, may lead to problems with student and faculty discipline, morale and retention.  In addition, the end of the romantic relationship may not conveniently coincide with the end of the student-teacher relationship.  The breakup likely will make the continuing student-teacher relationship awkward and less effective.  These pressures and perceptions ultimately may lead to lawsuits for breach of contract, emotional distress, discrimination or harassment claims.

Academic institutions, therefore, have strong interests in limiting romantic liaisons between students and their teachers.  When addressing this issue, it makes sense to keep in mind the following points. 

First, faculty members, like it or not, are in a position of special influence.  They are often seen as role models and are required to exemplify the academic and non-academic values of their institutions.  Behavior that is inconsistent with those values or disruptive to the community should be strongly discouraged.  With that in mind, it is important to develop a consensus among the faculty about the proper way to deal with student-teacher relationships.  This will take time.  Both Ohio Wesleyan and Duke University reported that their policies took many months and several drafts before final approval.  Second, it makes sense to identify not only prohibited or discouraged behavior but also how students and faculty members can take steps to avoid objectionable liaisons, as Duke has done in its policy.  Third, it is preferable to have a written policy that provides clear notice to students and faculty.  Last, and perhaps most importantly, the policy must be consistently enforced.  Institutions risk legal liability, particularly on disparate treatment claims, if they treat relationships differently based on the gender, age, race or sexual orientation of those involved.  The proper safeguards will protect not only the institution but also its faculty and students.

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