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Romance Moratorium: Dean Berger on Relationship Policy

By Featured, SAIC

Illustration by Ishita Dharap.

On May 1st, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) introduced a new Consensual Romantic or Sexual Relationship Policy. The policy, which regulates romantic and sexual relationships between students and faculty members, now bans romantic or consensual sexual relationships between undergraduate students and faculty of any level. 

SAIC’s previous policy on relationships between students and faculty can be found in the 2018-2019 student handbook. The policy strongly advises against student-faculty consensual relationships, only explicitly prohibiting those between graduate students and their assigned advisors. 

Just before the new policy was publicized via email, I sat down with then-Dean of Faculty, now-Provost Martin Berger to discuss how and why the administration decided to make changes.

Grace Wells: So, what’s different about this policy?

Martin Berger: The current policy bans relationships between faculty and students that they supervise. It also bans romantic sexual or relationships between faculty and all undergraduate students. Basically, the argument, as you can see in the first couple of paragraphs, is that we think that there’s such an inequality of power. Even if you’re not directly supervising, there are so many ways in which you can potentially impact the life of a student when you’re a faculty member. We think it’s safer for both students and faculty if we just say that these relationships or are no longer seen as acceptable by the institution.

GW: Is there anything in particular that caused this change?

MB: No one thing. There was a conversation this summer between Elissa and somebody who’s on our board. He was checking in about what our policy is because he’s someone who worked in human relations for years in the corporate world. Elissa explained that it covers only supervisory relationships. He said that he increasingly thinks that’s out of step with what’s happening in higher education and asked whether Elissa wanted to take another look at it. So, Elissa put together a small committee to review the existing policy and then to consider alternatives. Over the last couple of months, we’ve been working on writing this and also sharing it with the Senate and other internal committees just to get feedback. The Faculty Senate has been supportive. I think the whole #MeToo era we’re in just makes people more sensitized to relations of power and sex. I think that’s a good thing overall. 

GW: Do you see this having a really big impact on faculty and students?

MB: It’s hard for me to know exactly how many relationships it would stop. But, I think it sends an important signal about what our values are, even if it’s not going to change things on the ground because these relationships are probably rare.

GW: Some students would argue that, even as undergraduates, they’re adults and they have the ability to consent and determine if that relationship is a good idea for them.

MB: We heard some faculty express similar sentiments. While we absolutely agree that undergraduates are adults, we’re still concerned that the power differentiation is so great that it leaves undergraduates in a difficult position. We’ve also argued with faculty that we see this as offering a kind of protection to them, too. Most relationships end, and they often end acrimoniously. Why would you put yourself in that kind of challenging position?

GW: So, let’s say that you broke up with your professor and it went really badly, where do you go? What do you do about that?

MB: Even under the past policy, if there wasn’t a supervisor relationship, assuming that everything was consensual and that there were no, you know, policy violations or crimes committed, it’s just an emotional thing. This was hard. Obviously students could seek out counseling and that would certainly be appropriate. If there was any violation of our Title IX policy, I would encourage them to speak to the Title IX coordinator.

GW: I think a lot about how close the school is and the way that the school promotes the idea that we get to work with our faculty later on. Do you see this as something that lends itself to that relationship, of students being peers with their faculty after they graduate? 

MB: I think so. One of the things that’s special about art school is that faculty and students often form very close bonds. They work closely together and the mentoring relationships I think are vital to what makes art schools great. I don’t want young men or women to be second-guessing whether the attention they’re receiving is because he or she is attracted to them. I want it to be clear that this is just about the work and it’s just about the professional relationship. So, I think there’s a way in which it could actually foster closer relationships.

GW: So what happens if somebody breaks the ground rules?

MB: They will go through a disciplinary process as soon as the school becomes aware of the fact that the rules were broken.

GW: How does this impact graduate students?

MB: Faculty, under this policy, could theoretically still have relationships with graduate students. There were some people when we were developing the policy who thought that it should cover graduate students as well. But there were many others who thought graduate students were in a separate category because they tend to be older, and because many have experienced the professional work world before returning to school. So, Elissa ultimately concluded that she thought that this was an important first step and we could continue conversations on campus as to whether having graduate students part of the policy is or is not appropriate.

GW: We have some undergraduate students who are outside the sort of 18- to 22-year-old range. What about those students?

MB: What we’re basically saying — not that any relationship is necessarily a bad or an unhealthy one — is that the risks are so great that we ask people to refrain from those relationships. I think that if two people are really in love, who happened to be a faculty member and a student, wait a couple of years, or the student may transfer schools, or the faculty member might decide to take a job at Columbia College to be in the relationship. We’re not saying that people can’t have relationships, we’re saying that within the confines of the school, when you’re in certain roles, that they’re simply unwise and against policy.

There’s also a way in which those relationships can impact people who aren’t in them. When faculty are having relationships with students, it can corrode the trusting environment at the school. You might think, “Oh, so and so’s getting special treatment because he or she is dating our professor.” That’s also a way in which it can undermine that important relationship between faculty and students. I really want everybody to be on the same plane where it’s a meritocracy and people aren’t second-guessing why somebody is getting ahead. 

GW: How can students who think their professor and another student might be in a relationship address that without endangering themselves?

MB: You know, our goal is not for students and faculty and to be reporting on one another. Our goal is to educate people about this not being a good idea. We intend to roll out the policy to graduate students, undergraduates, and faculty. We want it to be about education. But individuals, of course, if they think that there’s a violation, they can obviously have a conversation with any of the people here that are outlined in the policy as being the people to whom you report. Our emphasis will be on education. We’re not looking to punish people, but we are looking to try and create a more equitable and open environment for learning. 

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