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Sex Ed?

An inquiry in to SAIC’s undefined stance on professor-student romance.

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SAIC’s undefined stance on professor-student romance

“The rampant behavior of inappropriate flirting, favoritism, sexual advances, and hints of quid pro quo for sexual acts,” argue Students Against Unethical Professors (SAUP), “is insidious and toxic to the SAIC community. We look forward to a positive dialog on this matter and immediate changes in policy.”

On September 19 the email “SAIC Students Against Unethical Professors, Sex Abuse & Retaliation” circulated campus with a list of demands. The anonymously signed letter called for the school to immediately establish a non-fraternization policy between faculty and students, which would directly prohibit romantic and sexual relationships between the two.

What do the students think?
by Mitchell E. Mittelstedt

“I think it’s okay, ethically, that students and teachers have romantic relationships outside class. Even if the student is doing it to get a good grade — that’s their business. The one thing I’d worry about, though, is whether those relationships disrupt how the class operates.”
­—Harrison Browning, undergraduate, BFA

“It would be fine by me, but it sounds like it’d be easy for the relationship to affect the class. It’s definitely not cool if [the student] is doing it to pass. Maybe it’d be fine if the teacher and student were really in love, but that just seems really messy.”
­­—Sally Hyoung, undergraduate, BFA

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with student-teacher relationships, unless the teacher provides extra privileges to the student involved. There should just be an easy venue for other students to complain if they view anything unfair going on.”
—Elijah Llinas, undergraduate, BFAW

“People are going to do what they want to at the end of the day, so I don’t think there’s any reason to institute a steadfast rule. As far as something going wrong in a relationship — be an adult.”
—Kate Marx, undergraduate, BA

“We are all adults here at SAIC, so I don’t think the school needs to hold our hand. I don’t think it’s a good idea to have an intimate relationship with a professor, because it could adversely affect the work of the student in the relationship; but, again, I’m the one who’s making that decision. I think it’s good that the school leaves the decision to us. Just be smart.”
—Anonymous, graduate, MFA

“When a person enters college or grad school, they are, for all intents and purposes, an adult, both in age and intellect. Who they choose to have a sexual relationship with would fall under the scope of “their personal business.” On the other hand… there is a responsibility for teachers, who are in a position of power, not to abuse it. However, I don’t have a problem with it (student-faculty fraternization), and I don’t believe the school is in need of a policy change.”
—Joaquin Loa, graduate, MFAW

“I’m a Teaching Assistant for undergraduate Contemporary Practices. I don’t know whether there is one school-wide, though, but in the program I TA for, they do have a policy. You’re not allowed to do anything — have any contact like that at all [intimate or close]. Even in just a social situation, not involving anything sexual, many things can be read as inappropriate. But In graduate school I’ve never heard of anything like that happening.”
—Josh Rios, graduate, MA

“There are students of all different ages, but yeah I think there should be a policy just because as a student you’re in a somewhat vulnerable situation, but what the policy should be I don’t know. It should be enforced by the professors and student services.”
—Murphy Crain, graduate, MA

Despite Dean of Student Affairs Felice Dublon and Dean of Faculty Lisa Wainwright’s invitation to discuss their allegations of sexual harassment and the possible institution of a non-fraternization policy, SAUP has remained silent. Though anonymity was assured, SAUP has also not responded to multiple F Newsmagazine attempts to investigate the problem of faculty-student relationships.

The accusations raised by the September 19 email remain problematic. SAUP claims: “We have witnessed multiple inappropriate relationships between faculty and students. We have reported them and SAIC has turned its head. … We are aware of at least one federal lawsuit pending against SAIC and a class action lawsuit is now being discussed.” Dublon and Wainwright explain that SAIC has a “well-publicized, written policy prohibiting discrimination, harassment and retaliation” and do not know of any pending federal lawsuit.

It is surprising that SAIC, unlike other Chicago colleges and universities such as Columbia College, DePaul University, Northwestern University and University of Chicago, has no policy regulating consensual professor-student relationships. “At SAIC, we have resisted the tendency to have a lot of policies,” explains philosophy professor and author of “Virtuous Liaisons” Raja Halwani. “Precisely because we are an art school, we think that policies are on a collision course with what we pride ourselves on — freedom of expression and creativity. Of course, this is a little bit ironic, because all universities pride themselves on being bastions of freedom.”

F Newsmagazine asked Dublon and Wainwright why SAIC does not have a policy regarding consensual relations. “I believe there is an implicit understanding of the social contract between faculty and students,” Wainwright explained, “an understanding that one does not engage in this kind of behavior. We have never put it down on paper because it is so central to how we live our professional lives that it seemed like stating the obvious.” When pressed further regarding her opinion of faculty-student romantic relationships, Wainwright replied, “I don’t condone this. At the same time, I can’t condemn it.”

As a result of headline-grabbing public relations nightmares, colleges are increasingly adopting policies limiting consensual sexual relations. In 2001, the College of William and Mary enforced a sweeping ban on sexual relationships between professors and students after Writer-in-Residence Sam Kashner published a shocking essay, “The Professor of Desire.” In his confessional first-person narrative, Kashner describes his affair with a married student, whose husband subsequently committed suicide.

Romances between professors and students raise serious ethical questions. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) argues that “sexual relations between students and faculty are fraught with the potential for exploitation.” The implied favoritism created by the unique professor-student relationship undermines fairness of evaluation, supervision and professional judgment.

Halwani points out that consensual relations are a form of favoritism: “When you have a different type of access to a teacher, it is a form of favoritism. If the teacher decides to give more time to the student than he gives to his other students, it is a form of favoritism. There will be questions whether the teacher can fairly grade the student’s paper. It can affect the entire atmosphere of a classroom. Even if the relationship is not disclosed to the rest of the students, which it usually isn’t, the students can tell that the atmosphere is somehow charged.”

Professor-student relationships are characterized by a delicate balance of trust and power. “The minute you fall in love or initiate a sexual relationship with someone,” contends Halwani, “you turn upside down whatever pre-existing relationships two people tended to have.”
Policies of sexual harassment and consensual relations are rooted in 1970s feminism and its aim to prohibit discrimination against women in the workplace and in higher education.

Plagued by unwanted sexual advances, abusive language and quid pro quo demands, feminists demanded an understanding of sexual harassment as discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Sexual relationships between professors and students can be understood as a form of sexual harassment because of the problematic nature of mutual consent (also termed “exploited consent”), tainted by inherently unequal power dynamics. “The respect and trust accorded a professor by a student,” declares the AAUP, “as well as the power exercised by the professor in an academic or evaluative role, make voluntary consent by the student suspect.”

Feminist professors Billy Wright Dzeich and Linda Weiner debunk what they term the myth of the consenting student in “The Lecherous Professor.” “Few students are ever, in the strictest sense, consenting adults. A student can never be a genuine equal of a professor insofar as his professional position gives him power over her. The issue is that the power and the role disparity always exist, making it virtually impossible for the student to act as freely as she would with a male peer.”
In an interview with F Newsmagazine, feminist scholar Daphne Patai criticizes the radical feminist position: “I believe that women should be able to stand up for themselves and should think twice before they urge the paternalistic administration or government to act as their protector.”

In “Heterophobia,” Patai criticizes what she terms “the sexual harassment industry” for propagating stereotypes of male aggression and female victimhood. She questions the implied assumption that women in “consensual relationships” cannot give informed consent: “What kind of reflection does this cast on the image of women as responsible adults?”

“University students are not children who need to be guarded against predatory adults. Nor are they mental patients requiring tender care. Universities are in fact splendid places where mature, young adults — all post-pubescent, most of them with the right to vote, to reproduce or not, and to kill and be killed in military service — congregate, teach and learn, and pursue intellectual and personal relationships.”

Patai argues that there exists a double standard in policies of sexual harassment and consensual relations, where these are limited to male-against-female aggression. Following a highly publicized French kiss at the Annual Graduate Student Gay and Lesbian Conference in 1991, Professor Jane Gallop declared “graduate students as [her] sexual preference.”

Accused of quid pro quo harassment, Gallop defended herself: “Female sexual harasser seems like a contradiction in terms. University policies against sexual harassment aim to ensure that women have as much chance as men to pursue knowledge. After all, feminism invented sexual harassment.”

Supporters of strict sexual harassment and regulated consensual relationship policies insist not only that students are easy targets but also point out the discriminatory effect such behavior has on other students in the classroom and the campus community at large. The SAUP email expressed extreme concern at “the predatory environment that flourishes at [SAIC].”

Increased awareness of the power of harassment accusations — which can range from an unwanted look to a flippant remark — has resulted in a repressive academic climate. Many professors are extremely careful with every word and gesture, leave their office doors open, and are hesitant to engage with students outside the classroom lest it be misconstrued as romantic interest.

F Newsmagazine discussed with Professor Maud Lavin the cooling effect on professor-student interactions that a strict non-fraternization policy might have. Firm in her view that SAIC should introduce a policy discouraging faculty-student relationships, Lavin explains: “I don’t think a policy should affect relationships outside the classroom. You just meet in public and keep your clothes on!”

“Sexual harassment charges become a powerful weapon in the hands of ambitious and resentful students,” Patai observed in our interview. It is difficult to provide concrete evidence in incidents of intimate relationships and oftentimes the professor is immediately assumed to be guilty. “The stigma resulting from a charge of harassment,” argues Patai, “a mere accusation, however flimsy, however transparently fabricated, may well cost the accused his job.”

Claire Pentecost echoes a similar concern: “The problem for me with trying to legislate a policy, is that it becomes a weapon. There may be other reasons — whether political or personal politics — why students want to silence a given professor. Once you get accused, it is very damaging, even if you’re cleared.”

In 2009, East Georgia College Professor Thomas Thibeault was forced to resign after criticizing the school’s sexual harassment policy because it did not protect faculty against false or malicious harassment accusations. The police escorted Thibeault from the college and he was refused rehiring on the basis of “offensive speech.”

Professor Barbara DeGenevieve argues that our contemporary American culture has gone overboard with political correctness. In her article “Censorship in the US,” DeGenevieve criticizes political correctness as “an intellectual prison within which an extremely limited conversation can take place, and in fact where monologues and diatribes are the usual discursive practice.”

In an effort to avoid “monologues and diatribes,” F Newsmagazine hopes to cultivate a discussion between administration, professors and students at SAIC. How can we promote an academic culture where both parties are careful and cognizant of the potential damages and risks? How do we uphold an environment where knowledge and creativity flourish? Should SAIC encourage a more traditional policy based on restraint? After all, true love can wait — at least until graduation.


The accusations raised by the September 19 email remain problematic. Dean of Student Affairs Felice Dublon and Dean of Faculty Lisa Wainwright explain that SAIC has a “well-publicized, written policy prohibiting discrimination, harassment and retaliation.”

“If a student is in a compromised position, there is a support system in the school that will immediately be activated if the student simply asks for it,” reaffirms Graduate Division Chair Barbara DeGenevieve. “All student concerns as to any sort of discrimination, sexual harassment, or non-consensual interactions are thoroughly investigated. Great care is taken to protect student anonymity and protect them from retaliation.”

Both male and female students are subjects of sexual harassment in the U.S. According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), 62 % of female college students and 61% of male college students report having been sexually harassed at their university, 66% of college students personally know someone who was harassed and 10% or less of student sexual harassment victims attempt to report their experiences to a university employee.

In August 2009, Governor Pat Quinn signed into law a measure that requires all institutions of higher education covered by the Illinois Human Rights Act to inform their student bodies of the illegality of sexual harassment. According to the law, Public Act 96-0574, every institution is required to post in a prominent and accessible location a poster outlining sexual harassment laws and policies. After receiving the email, SAIC authorities stapled bright pink sheets of paper on the school hallways with a text that refers all victims or witnesses of sexual harassment to the Illinois Department of Human Rights.

“We take allegations of sexual harassment in higher education very seriously, and we certainly encourage students to report allegations to the Department so they can be investigated,” Mike Claffey, spokesman of the Illinois Department of Human Rights, told F Newsmagazine. “This would include cases in which someone feels that a hostile environment has been created in a higher education setting,” he continued. “Under the Illinois Human Rights Act, schools are required to inform students of their right to be free from sexual harassment.”

“If the SAIC does not have a policy and set of procedures in place to address complaints arising from sexual misconduct, then these should be developed by the faculty,” Anita Levy, Senior Program Officer of AAUP, told F Newsmagazine. “I would be glad to consult further with interested faculty on the specifics of sexual misconduct policy that would comport with AAUP recommended standards.”

2 Responses to Sex Ed?

  1. I agree with all of the stated problems of a professor-student relationships, but don’t think an explicit policy banning it would be much, if any, help. We are all adults here and we know right from wrong. These things happen even in schools where a policy is already in place, and like Daphne Patai, I agree that it can easily become a weapon for resentful, crazy students, with the mere accusation of it potentially causing professors their jobs and damaging their reputations.

    Those who want to respect the professor-student “sanctity” will do so, and those who will not won’t, regardless of any policy.

  2. Meg Griffin says:

    The schools with policies are no more immune to inappropriate relationships than SAIC. The policy is there purely to protect the administration when and if the sh.t hits the fan. I personally know of several stories of serial offenses by Northwestern faculty members on the downtown campus, one of which was carrying on with a much younger, female student in his department in full view of other students at baseball games, parties, etc.

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