Opinion | Columns

Lift the ban on student-professor relationships

When I was a student at Cleveland State, I was heavily involved on campus, voraciously collecting as many new experiences as I could. One of those experiences—perhaps the experience I should be the most reticent to talk about—was my relationship with one of my professors.

While I can’t speak on behalf of all students who have had a romantic relationship with a professor, I have become increasingly concerned about relationships between students and their superiors.

Columbia’s current policy states that “no faculty member shall have a consensual romantic or sexual relationship with a student over whom he or she exercises academic or professional authority.” I believe that the ban on consensual romantic relationships between students and professors, while well-intentioned, should be lifted.

In my first women’s studies course in college, I remember my professor telling us that many sexual taboos exist because of our discomfort with power imbalances. The taboos surrounding relationships exist to keep people from being taken advantage of, but, as I remember my professor arguing, “A perceived power difference is not always an actual power difference.”

My professor’s words shook up my conceptualization of power dynamics completely. Hearing this made me think about whether “power imbalances” are inherently part of student-teacher romances. Not more than a year later, I was reminded of this question when I became involved in one such relationship.

While I concede that there is indeed a power differential between students and professors, this can often be mitigated or even reversed by the specifics of the relationship. For example, a self-assured student may not be intimidated or impressed by the professor, even if the professor is enamored with them.

A professor engaging in a relationship with a student is in an extremely vulnerable position. A professor may have much more to lose than a student, since they would be risking their job security. For example, as seen in the case of Peter Ludlow, formerly a professor at Northwestern University, a consensual relationship with a student can result in financial and professional ruin. We students have much less to lose—maybe a few knocks to our ego, but that’s it.

Thus, banning these relationships on the basis of a power imbalance is overly simplistic. This is not to say that there isn’t a power difference at all. Instead, I believe that the power difference isn’t as large as we like to believe it is.

Professor Laura Kipnis, also of Northwestern, recently echoed this sentiment by stating that relationships between students and their superiors can be an “excellent education in not taking power too seriously.”

She further notes that these trysts can be beneficial because “the less seriously you take [power], the more strategies you have for contending with it.” While the purpose of a relationship is not to learn how to “contend” with superiors’ power, it can certainly be a lesson in learning that “power” isn’t as significant as it seems.  

Another reason commonly given as to why these relationships should be banned is that they can pollute the learning environment. Indeed, it is easy to imagine that the tension between a professor and a student could do so. However, this argument underestimates the professionalism of a teacher.

In my experience, it is prudent for both parties to avoid being seen together on campus outside of class hours. This is to prevent other students from discovering the relationship and spreading inflammatory gossip or complaining to a dean. Without ostentatious advertising of the relationship, I doubt that the learning environment would be negatively affected.

Many people believe that these relationships should be banned because of the grading bias that they can cause. I concede that this is true. Grading biases can and do happen in favor of students because of their romantic entanglements with professors. However, focusing solely on grading bias because of romantic involvement is narrow-minded. There are many types of grading biases that can occur in a classroom, including bias in favor of students of a particular gender or race, and bias directed towards the “teacher’s pet.” Although it has a different etiology, bias stemming from romance is functionally the same as other types of biases.

Still, we rarely express concern over these other biases although they are arguably more common, and thus should be more of a concern. However, at the end of the day, biases are facts of life. No amount of regulation will completely stop them from existing.

Perceived power dynamics, concerns over grading biases, and the potential for harassment were definitely considered as the ban was created. One can see that grading concerns were not the only motivating factor. Preventing sexual harassment is something universities are incentivized to do, lest they be served with a lawsuit. People don’t usually sue over grades.

Finally, I must remind the reader of the etiology of the movement to ban relationships between students and teachers—which was partially feminism’s crusade against sexual harassment, as recounted in Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment by professor Jane Gallop. It is absurd to me that the same movement that stresses female independence and agency simultaneously seeks to create policies that view students, usually female, as “putty in the hands of all powerful professors,” as Laura Kipnis writes.  

I applaud efforts to make Columbia a better place for all. But a ban on all relationships between students and professors hinges on an overly simplistic understanding of power and underestimates professors’ self-control.

Toni Airaksinen is a Barnard College sophomore majoring in urban studies. She is a first-generation college student. She tweets @Toni_Airaksinen. The Ivory Tower: Deconstructed runs alternate Wednesdays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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