Yale bans teacher-student sex

Is it really the university's place to "protect" undergrads from romantic relationships with faculty members?

Published April 6, 2010 7:40PM (EDT)

Back away, professors: Undergraduate students at Yale are strictly off limits. The university's alumni magazine reports that faculty members are now prohibited from having romantic relationships with any students, not just their own. As the magazine puts it, the ban marks the conclusion of "more than a quarter century of debate." 

Well, the debate may be over for university officials, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to keep this conversation going.

Despite the college cliche of flings with the prof, this sort of prohibition is fairly common. As Sarah Karnasiewicz reported several year ago in Salon, a series of mid-1990s court rulings finding schools financially responsible for on-campus sexual harassment pushed universities to outlaw relationships between teachers and their students. Some schools have gone as far as to ban "romances between all faculty and students, regardless of their academic relationships, ages or mutual consent." Yale used to only outlaw relationships where the teacher had "direct pedagogical or supervisory responsibilities" over the student, reports the magazine. "That remains the rule for affairs between faculty and graduate or professional students, and between grad students and undergrads."

Now it's just the undergrads who are strictly off-limits, no exceptions. The revised faculty handbook explains that undergrads are in need of such special protections because they "are particularly vulnerable to the unequal institutional power inherent in the teacher-student relationship and the potential for coercion, because of their age and relative lack of maturity." Deputy Provost Charles Long told the magazine, "I think we have a responsibility to protect students from behavior that is damaging to them and to the objectives for their being here."

OK, so universities, like workplaces, want to prohibit romances between teachers and their students -- I get it, it makes sense. Such a power imbalance carries the risk of sexual coercion and favoritism. (Yale certainly has experience with high-profile allegations of that sort.) Of course, people's hearts and libidos rarely follow such strict, sensible rules -- but it's a reasonably cautious measure meant to prevent abuses of power.

But, forbidding relationships between students and faculty members who don't even have a significant academic relationship with one another? That seems awfully paternalistic. We are talking about legal adults, remember. Students will inevitably encounter power imbalances -- rooted in differences in age, financial status and so on -- in their personal lives. It certainly isn't an unusual dynamic in an average 20-something woman's romantic life, let me tell you. I fail to see how it's any of the university's business unless the relationship -- "damaging" or not -- has a direct impact on a student's academic life.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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