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Harvard Ban on Sex between Professor and Undergraduates likely to lead to more sex with Graduate Stu

Harvard Policy does not go far enough

This is the second of a three-part series on the ethics of academics. My blog on February 4 dealt with politically correct speech on college campuses. Today's blog looks at Harvard University's recently announced ban on sexual relationships between professors and undergraduates. On February 11, I will look at civility on campus.

Today's blog is done in a tongue-and-cheek way built on a cynical belief about Harvard's new policy. The University announced last week that it will ban such sexual relationships but the ban does not seem to include graduate students in Master's and Ph.D. programs. This makes no sense because professors are more likely to be sexually attracted to older, more mature students.

Harvard’s previous policy only banned sexual relationships between professors and the students they taught. This also makes no sense because a professor can’t be sure a student not currently in his/her class will become a student at a later date.

Harvard released a statement saying a specially appointed committee "determined that the existing language on relationships of unequal status did not explicitly reflect the faculty's expectations of what constituted an appropriate relationship between undergraduate students and faculty members ... therefore, the committee revised the policy to include a clear prohibition to better accord with these expectations."

The new rule reads, "No FAS [Faculty of Arts and Sciences] Faculty member shall request or accept sexual favors from, or initiate or engage in romantic or sexual relationship with, any undergraduate student at Harvard College." Previously, the University had prohibited sex between professors and students only where the student was under direct supervision of the professor without defining what this means. Harvard said in a statement that the clarification of rules came as part of a review of its compliance with Title IX policies that prohibits sex discrimination in education.

"As part of this process, we thought a lot about the way that power dynamics can contribute to sexual harassment," Alison Johnson, a Harvard history professor who led the committee said in an email, adding that the policy makes clear "a longstanding expectation that professors focus on the intellectual development of our students." No kidding!

Why in the world would Harvard have allowed such relationships to go on for so long? Don’t they teach about the dangers of such entanglements in the workplace? Isn’t fairness in performance evaluation a key component of human resource courses at Harvard? Don’t they discuss social responsibility issues and the need to protect against sexual harassment charges?

The action comes nearly a year after the U.S. Department of Education announced it was investigating 55 colleges and universities, including Harvard, for violations pertaining to Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination on college campuses.

In the past, many U.S. colleges have lacked a formal policy on professors dating students. That has begun to change in recent years, with schools either barring professors from having sex with students they oversee or requiring them to recuse themselves from such situations. I’m not sure what they mean by “recuse themselves from such situations.” Does it mean the offending faculty member should find another professor not so similarly biased to grade students with whom the professor of record has had sexual relations?

Harvard’s policy doesn’t go far enough. It should take a cue from Arizona State University and other schools that have expanded the dating prohibition to include any student whom the professors have a chance of overseeing.

Arizona State University faculty voted on January 25 to revise a policy on dating between faculty and students, which might avoid more situations like Tasha Kunzi says she found herself in with a graduate school ­professor in 2010.

Kunzi's course work suffered after she ended a "personal relationship" with the professor, she claimed in a lawsuit filed in federal court.

He kept telephoning and texting her, according to the suit. He told colleagues in the School of Criminology and ­Criminal Justice about the relationship. (How ironic is that -- The School of Criminology and Criminal Justice?) The school assigned her clerical work, instead of research, and she found it ­difficult to complete her Ph.D. The ­harassment and retaliation forced her to withdraw from the doctoral program, she said.

The professor was fired for violating the university's amorous- ­relationship policy, according to ASU dismissal documents obtained ­under public-records ­request. ASU's policy required him to disclose the relationship and immediately remove himself from a position of academic authority over the student. Pratt initially denied having an amorous relationship with the unnamed student, according to university documents.

Kunzi's federal lawsuit was settled out of court with Pratt, shortly after she asked the court to dismiss the regents and another party. The state paid Kunzi and her attorney $44,000 last year.

Sexual relations between parties in a workplace setting is nothing new. However, getting romantically involved with someone in the workplace is always risky business. Despite their popularity, romantic interludes can ruin a career. It is no different in an academic setting. What’s different is the obvious power that faculty have over their students, a major factor in sexual harassment cases. I’d like to believe such lapses are a temporary case of moral blindness. However, I can’t stop there because as role models we should know better.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 9, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:

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