Harvard University has formally banned sexual and romantic relationships between professors and undergraduate students.
The decision came after a settlement with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in which Harvard and its law school agreed to revise sexual harassment policies to ensure student safety. When the investigation occurred a year ago, Harvard took immediate steps to appoint its first Title IX officer dedicated to investigating and preventing sexual harassment and assault, and this new policy is another step in the same process.
Harvard’s administration made it abundantly clear that professors were not in the habit of having relationships with students, but that the change merely formalized and specified the pre-existing policy. History Professor Alison Johnson agreed that the policy was not a radical change at Harvard, saying “We’re not seeing potential romantic partners. We are seeing students.”
Associate director of the American Association of University Professors Anita Levy warns that the policy might have the opposite of the intended effect and “might lead to, ironically, encouraging them in some way, and making them appear more attractive.” The AAUP does agree, however, that professors should not have relationships with students that they are responsible for supervising.
Penalties for students and professors who overstep these boundaries were not specified, and other similar relationships were not legislated. For example, relationships between graduate students and professors, or undergraduates and graduate students, are not against policy, but the existing warnings against inappropriate behavior between faculty and the students they are supervising still apply.
This is consistent with the Title IX harassment policy, which has recently received more attention on both the federal and collegiate level as discussions of gender and sexual issues continue to increase in frequency and sophistication. Participants in these discussions recognize that an unequal distribution of power between participants in a sexual relationship can complicate judgments about whether or not the actions were truly consensual, and most agree with Harvard’s decision to avoid the ethical gray area entirely.
Our Harvard Can Do Better, an anti-harassment student advocacy group, said that the policy change is:
“… a crucial indictment of unacceptable unequal-status relationships that have the potential to endanger students. We hope that this is just the beginning of a thorough investigation into the correlation between power disparity and sexual assault at Harvard, and we look forward to hearing more about Harvard’s plans for the implementation and the sanctions that will be put in place for violations.”
Harvard’s policy is more restrictive and specific than some other Massachusetts colleges. Boston College bans faculty from having relationships with the students they advise, and Boston University warns employees against undermining “the integrity of the educational process.” The University of Massachusetts Amherst says that faculty must “avoid any personal exploitation of students, staff, colleagues, and others.”