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New policy on student-staff relationships

Published: September 14, 2012
Section: Front Page, News


President Fred Lawrence approved a new university policy prohibiting consensual sexual and romantic relationships between students and faculty or staff that create the possibility of unfair power dynamics or conflicts of interest.
Three situations last spring involving inappropriate interactions, but not relationships, between instructors and undergraduate students probably inspired the new policy, a university official who asked not to be identified told The Hoot.
Lawrence notified the community of the new policy in an email on Wednesday, distinguishing between instructor-student and staff-student relationships.
“Romantic and sexual relationships between members of the staff and students—even if consensual—undermine the possibility of such a community by introducing the specter of favoritism, abuse of power, and conflict of interest, all of which compromise the ability of faculty and staff to carry out their responsibilities to both students and the University as a whole,” the policy states.
Lawrence approved the new policy after the University Advisory Council subcommittee on Consensual Relations, chaired by Professor Marion Smiley (PHIL), reviewed policies of peer institutions including Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Tufts, Harvard, MIT and Northeastern. Human Resources also reviewed the policy, along with feedback from Arts and Sciences chairs, who then sent it to the University Policy Review Committee.
The policy states that students may feel pressured by the unequal power hierarchy and thus be unable to provide consent to a relationship with instructors.
“Power differentials between students and those in a position to instruct, advise, supervise, evaluate, mentor or coach them bring into question the student’s ability to give consent meaningfully to such relationships,” according to the new policy. “Even when the Instructor and student act with integrity, others may perceive partiality and bias.”
The policy also outlined that relationships are acceptable as long as they do not create a conflict of interest, with one member having authority over the other.
“The pedagogical relationships between Instructor and student must be protected from influences or activities that can interfere with learning and fair evaluation,” according to the policy.
Similar language is applied to staff-student relationships.
“The Brandeis community often encourages students and Staff members to work together,” the policy states. “Trust and fairness in these relationships are essential. Given the inherent power differential, Staff members in such positions might not perform their duties effectively if they become romantically or sexually involved with students for whom they are responsible.”
The new policy, however, is separate from procedures for addressing claims of sexual harassment or assault.
Possible policy violations are handled by the appropriate dean if the person is an instructor, and by the Vice President for Human Resources Scot Bemis if the person is a staff member. Rights and Responsibilities outlines specific policies for inappropriate relationships or interactions between undergraduate students.
Lawrence’s email applauded the new policy for its effort to create a fair and professional environment for students, faculty and staff.
“In my view, this is an important step to assure students that the University is committed to supporting them and to maintaining a fair, professional and respectful environment so necessary for a thriving academic community,” he wrote.