August 17, 2019

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Relationship ruling fails to protect students

Editorial

Google “should Canadian universities ban student-professor relationships?” and you’ll get over 17 million results, most of them headlines. It’s a question that gets asked — and considered, pondered, mulled and debated — every time a professor is accused of sexual misconduct.

Overwhelmingly, however, Canadian universities have decided that the answer to that question is no. And the University of Manitoba is one of them.

The U of M introduced last week a pair of policies about how employees should disclose intimate relationships between themselves and students. The three-page “Relationships Between University Employees and Students” document states intimate relationships must be disclosed, and romantic or sexual relationships where there is a power differential — i.e. staff and student — are “strongly discouraged and should be avoided.” But it stops short of banning student-employee relationships all together.

The U of M also launched an online course this week about sexual-violence awareness. The course is not mandatory.

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Google "should Canadian universities ban student-professor relationships?" and you’ll get over 17 million results, most of them headlines. It’s a question that gets asked — and considered, pondered, mulled and debated — every time a professor is accused of sexual misconduct.

Overwhelmingly, however, Canadian universities have decided that the answer to that question is no. And the University of Manitoba is one of them.

The U of M introduced last week a pair of policies about how employees should disclose intimate relationships between themselves and students. The three-page "Relationships Between University Employees and Students" document states intimate relationships must be disclosed, and romantic or sexual relationships where there is a power differential — i.e. staff and student — are "strongly discouraged and should be avoided." But it stops short of banning student-employee relationships all together.

The U of M also launched an online course this week about sexual-violence awareness. The course is not mandatory.

The policies come in the wake of multiple investigations into inappropriate faculty behaviour, conducted both internally and by police, that have rocked the post-secondary institution. In December 2018, the University of Manitoba Students Union called for restrictions on student-prof relationships after former U of M music professor Steve Kirby was charged with sexual assault.

Harvard, Stanford and Yale all prohibit relationships between faculty and undergraduate students.

"Strongly discouraged and should be avoided" isn’t really a restriction, especially when the policies do not say what the repercussions would be for anyone found breaching them. So, who do these policies really protect? It doesn’t seem like it’s the students.

There is precedent for a university-wide ban: Harvard, Stanford and Yale all prohibit relationships between faculty and undergraduate students.

U of M is far from the only university wary about an outright ban. Some argue a ban would impinge on the rights and privacy of university employees. Others argue that a ban infantilizes consenting adult students. There’s almost always talk of legal and ethical "grey areas," and concern that a ban steps over the line.

But grey areas can lead to loopholes, especially where predation and coercion are concerned. It’s worth remembering that students, especially at the undergrad level, are young and impressionable; in fact, they are paying good money to be impressed upon. Schools that allow professors to pursue relationships with students — or, at least, look the other way when they do — make students vulnerable to professors who abuse and exploit those power imbalances. Mandatory disclosures can help institutions manage ostensibly consensual relationships and conflicts of interest, but what happens if those relationships change or are not, in fact, all that consensual in the first place?

The power a professor has isn’t limited to the lecture hall. Professors also write recommendations and sit on boards and committees that let them exert influence in and outside of academia. An environment where students believe they need to sleep with a prof to be successful is not a safe one.

But perhaps we’re asking the wrong question when it comes to considering a ban on student-professor relationships. Maybe what we should be asking is, what is the benefit to allowing professor-student relationships? With reputations, careers and, in some cases, the safety of the student body on the line, it seems there’s very little.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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