Thursday, December 2, 2021

Draft policy would ban faculty relationships with undergraduate students

March 28, 2019
The John A. Hannah Administration Building on Jan. 10, 2019.
The John A. Hannah Administration Building on Jan. 10, 2019. —
Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

Michigan State is considering a policy overhaul that completely prohibits relationships between faculty and undergraduate students.

The university’s current policy on consensual amorous or sexual relationships was enacted in 1996. The current policy states instructors shall not “assume or maintain educational responsibility” for a student they are in a relationship with, and must disclose a relationship so other oversight can be arranged. Under the new policy, entering into such a relationship is grounds for “appropriate disciplinary action up to and including termination.”

“The university is committed to creating a safe learning environment free of conflicts in achieving its educational mission,” the draft policy reads. “There is an inherent power differential between instructors and students making consensual amorous and sexual relationships between instructors and students fundamentally unequal.”

The draft policy was included as an information item on the agenda for the March 26 University Council meeting.

If the council passes the draft policy, it will need to be approved by the MSU Board of Trustees before it can be implemented. Associate Provost and Associate Vice President for Academic Human Resources Terry Curry said this is not likely to happen before the board’s June meeting, and that the policy will likely be effective at the start of the next academic year.

This policy change would apply to faculty, academic staff and graduate teaching assistants.

Graduate teaching assistants would only be prohibited from relationships with students they have “educational responsibility” for, or the authority to influence their education or professional development, according to the draft.  

Not only would faculty and academic staff be prohibited from relationships with students they have educational responsibility for, the draft policy would prohibit them from relationships with undergraduate students in general. 

“Such consensual amorous or sexual relationships, even absent any educational responsibility, may lead to unanticipated conflicts of interest since an instructor’s influence and power may extend beyond the classroom or department,” the draft reads. “Due to the institutional power differential in instructor and undergraduate student relationships, there is the inherent risk of coercion and the perception by others of exploitation.”

Relationships between faculty and graduate students they have educational responsibility for would also be prohibited.

Though the new policy states no exceptions will be made regarding educational responsibility, it would have some exceptions in rare circumstances. 

“There are possible exemptions, for example, if a spouse of yours were to take a class,” said MSU Associate Professor Mark Waddell, the chairperson of the University Committee on Faculty Affairs, which has endorsed the draft policy.

Some other Big Ten schools have enacted broad restrictions on relationships between students and faculty. The University of Michigan recently adopted a policy similar to the one MSU is deliberating, Waddell said.

“Across the Big Ten, Illinois is the farthest behind; Northwestern has a policy that’s similar to the one that we’re proposing and that U- of-M has; most of the others are sort of in the middle,” Curry said. “Many have policies that are quite similar to what we now have.”

The full draft is included on the University Council's meeting agenda, beginning on page 46.

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