In the wake of the #MeToo movement, conversations about consent are increasingly prevalent on campus. However, while consent and sex are often discussed, especially during O-Week, we rarely discuss these things within the context of student-teacher relationships.
In June 2016, author and professor Steven Galloway was fired from his position as chairman of The University of British Columbia’s creative writing program. Galloway, who faced various allegations of sexual harassment, assault and threats, was ultimately fired because of a two-year relationship he had with a student. While the student alleges that Galloway sexually assaulted her, he insists that the entirety of the relationship was consensual.
Now, in light of her experience with Galloway, the student is calling on UBC to ban student-teacher relationships altogether. In an open letter written to UBC’s president, she states that “the undeniable risks for abuse and of coercion by professors over their students must ground a clear policy by UBC prohibiting such relationships.”
The thought of banning student-teacher relationships on university campuses has proven to be controversial; professors being romantically or sexually involved with their students presents a grey area in terms of consent and power.
On one hand university students are, of course, adults. It’s easy to argue that so long as they are above the age of consent, students should be able to choose who they want to be involved with at their own discretion. If a student consents to dating or having sex with a professor, then why should universities have the power to stop them?
However, the issue runs deeper than age or adulthood. The reality is that the power dynamic between students and professors is skewed. Professors should maintain respectful and professional relationships with their students — anything more risks escalating into dicey and dangerous territory. Intimate relationships of that nature also risk promoting favouritism in classes and research.
Furthermore, if things go sour in a relationship between a faculty member and a student, or if the relationship goes public, it doesn’t just reflect poorly on the professor: it reflects poorly on the university as a whole. In the case of UBC, the university is being heavily scrutinized for how poorly it dealt with the relationship and accusations against Galloway. If stronger policies had been set in place prior to the incident, the case wouldn’t have dragged on publicly for years and wouldn’t have been a national scandal. Policies that directly protect students and ban student-teacher relationships also protect a university’s reputation.
As of right now, most Canadian universities seem to have vague policies regarding whether or not professors can be involved with their students. A Western University policy for faculty members working with graduate research assistants, post-doctoral fellows and research collaborators simply states that faculty should “avoid personal or business relationships that may constitute a conflict of interest,” without going into detail about what the consequences would be if boundaries were to be crossed. While Schulich has a more rigid policy outlining that sexual or intimate relationships between students and learners are “unacceptable” behaviour, they still don’t outline consequences for such conduct.
It should be a university’s responsibility to protect its students from predatory behaviour. Boundaries and rigid policies should be implemented to avoid undergraduate and graduate programs from becoming dating pools for professors. Policies banning student-teacher relationships would ultimately serve to protect both students and their universities.
Because, sure, students are adults. But the relationships that students have with their professors should be positive opportunities for learning and growth — nothing more.