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    June 2016

    Faculty-Student Consensual Relationship Policies

    view of female student with backpack walking away from camera

    Consensual romantic relationships between undergraduate students and faculty are not necessarily common, but they are potentially high-risk because they can generate costly sexual harassment claims by students against colleges and universities. In addition, they may damage the participants professionally and personally.

    In a review of UE’s higher education claims involving student allegations of sexual harassment and assault against employees, 50 percent of the alleged perpetrators were faculty members—who often claimed consensual relationships with the complaining students. Recently, national media attention has focused on multiple high-profile sexual harassment allegations against professors, including several who had consensual relationships with students.

    In their efforts to prevent sexual harassment, institutions should review and, if appropriate, consider updating their written consensual relationship policies. UE does not recommend remaining silent on this. Schools can take one of three approaches to regulating relationships between faculty and undergraduate students.

    1. Forbid consensual relationships when faculty have teaching, evaluative, or other supervisory authority over students. This type of policy, which has a number of variations (e.g., some schools require the faculty member to immediately report the relationship so alternative class or other arrangements can be made), is likely the most common. These three universities use this type of policy.
    2. Strongly discourage faculty from having consensual personal relationships with students, pointing to professional ethics and potential conflicts of interest. This policy may require a faculty member to report the relationship. Here are two policies that use this approach.
    3. The institution prohibits all consensual relationships between faculty and undergraduate students, regardless of whether a faculty member has ever had teaching, evaluative, or other supervisory authority over the student. These popular policies are based on the idea that personal relationships between faculty and undergraduates are never truly consensual—even when both participants are adults—because of the inherent power differential. Here are three examples of this type of policy.

    Institutions should keep their campus culture and history in mind when considering policy changes. In general, UE recommends either the first or third approach, which help institutions prevent potential sexual harassment of students by faculty and address it effectively if it occurs.

    All schools should consult legal counsel before revising significant polices. Public institutions in particular should do so in this case because of possible arguments that banning consensual relationships may violate constitutional rights. However, the University of Connecticut adopted this type of policy and apparently faced no major opposition.

    Resource

    Employee-on-Student Sexual Harassment Claims in Higher Education

    Hillary Pettegrew, senior risk management counsel

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