Legislating Love On Campus

Why banning romantic relationships between professors and students is good policy. (Tobias Leeger/flickr)
Why banning romantic relationships between professors and students is good policy. (Tobias Leeger/flickr)

The age-old issue of love between teachers and their students has re-emerged amid other campus debates. Last month, Harvard established new rules forbidding members of the faculty and other instructors to have “romantic or sexual relationships” with students. Shortly after that announcement, the New York Times Magazine published a cover story about a relationship gone seriously wrong between a Stanford undergraduate and the alumni mentor assigned to her for a business class.

It’s always been tricky for colleges and universities when their faculty engage in relationships with students. Some faculty have considered a strict prohibition as an insult to their professionalism, a restriction on their freedom of association rights, or a sad encroachment on the beauty of romantic love.

in my view, the policy should also be there to protect the unloved, that is, the students who are <em>not</em> in a relationship with their professor.

Deans and provosts who have tried to initiate discussion of a “love policy” have received visits from distinguished tenured members of the faculty who are married to former students. These faculty have asked, with some disdain, if they and their eminently respectable spouses had “broken the law.” Beating a quick retreat, the administrators would sometimes take a path of less resistance, simply informing faculty that if they chose to engage in such relationships, the institution would not defend them in case of a lawsuit.

It’s unclear how much these warnings ever stuck. After all, aside from the large lecture hall context, the teacher-student relationship is frequently intended to be a close bond. A good teacher/mentor tries to learn about and understand his or her students in order to be effective in helping them to grow and develop, intellectually and vocationally. The best teachers do feel love for their students, and would tell you that. They work hard to keep the professional lines clear, but that’s the emotion they feel, and it’s rewarding for them.

However, once a relationship crosses the romantic and/or sexual line, it’s most likely illegal harassment. Thus, as a long-time university lawyer, I applaud a trend towards more policies that legislate love between teachers and their students — but for reasons you might not expect.

I believe that there’s a larger principle at work, beyond the teacher and the student in question. Obviously a teacher who preys on a student’s trust should be removed from the academic community. But, in my view, the policy should also be there to protect the unloved, that is, the students who are not in a relationship with their professor.

As the proverb says, “love and a sneeze cannot be hid,” and that’s especially true on a college campus. A teacher and a student who have a consensual relationship may believe that they are hiding their secret love, but believe me, they aren’t. The people around them may know about it even before they do.

And the effect on those people can be profound. The relationship disturbs the learning process of everyone who is caught up in the widening emotional ripples emanating from the couple. The classroom dynamics are only the beginning. Other students may be distracted, or resentful, or contemptuous, or fascinated, or amused. None of these emotions, and the electronic and other gossip that they inspire, will foster intellectual growth.

Every grade below an A on an assignment could lead to uncomfortable speculation. If I had smiled at him, would my grade have been higher?  Is my professor upset because I didn’t want to go for coffee with her? Would my GPA be better if I were more attractive? Whatever legal rights the unloved have (an interesting question), the situation is clearly unacceptable. College is stressful enough without this kind of needless drama.

In a relativist age, [Harvard and the other institutions] have chosen ethics over Eros.

In addition, outside the classroom context, the unloved students will be watching to see what the university does about the situation. Will the dean or other administrators take action, or not? If they don’t, what does that suggest about the values of the academic community? If a professor propositions the students he mentors, and nothing happens to him, there’s a statement there to the unloved, even if his mentees don’t complain. All the strong legal language in all the university handbooks in the world can’t counter that destructive impression.

None of this may occur to a professor who is smitten with a student. And some students are young and unwise enough to encourage the advances of their professors. But if the professor can’t exercise appropriate self-control, the institution must act — not just for the loved, but for the unloved.

So congratulations to Harvard and the other institutions that have imposed similar bans. In a relativist age, they have chosen ethics over Eros. And if it’s really true love — it will wait until after commencement.


Headshot of Judith Sizer

Judith Sizer Cognoscenti contributor
Judith R. Sizer is a higher education lawyer at Rose, Chinitz & Rose in Boston. She previously served as General Counsel of Brandeis University.



More from WBUR

Listen Live