Historiann

An exceedingly impolite post against sexual relationships with students. (Why is this still even an issue?)

Do you feel lucky today? Well, do ya, punk?

Via (I believe) David Schoppik at NYU and Twitter, I found this petition against sexual misconduct in academia:

Sexual harassment and other forms of sexual misconduct have no place in academia. These kinds of unethical behaviors, which often involve powerful males and their female students or junior colleagues, traumatize the victims, impede equal opportunity in academia, and impoverish the intellectual landscape of our scholarly communities.

As recent highly publicized news reports have made clear, the institutional response to cases of sexual misconduct often contributes to the problem [1-3]. Fear of negative publicity feeds bureaucratic inaction, but as these reports also illustrate, the consequences of institutional indolence can be worse. For the victims of sexual harassment or abuse, it is far worse.

Tough new policies emplaced by universities and professional organizations are welcome, but they will not lead to the needed cultural change without the commensurate commitment of individuals to provide a safe, supportive environment for women and men to learn and work together productively. An individual commitment entails disseminating a message of zero tolerance of sexual misconduct; educating faculty, staff and students about norms of workplace behavior and reporting pathways for their violation; and, most critically, publicly supporting the victims who come forward to report incidences of sexual misconduct. The reporting of misconduct by victims and bystanders should be recognized as courageous actions that are key to making our communities safer and stronger.

Go read the whole thing and sign on if you like–I did.  However, I think it’s offering only weak tea (or “spout water,” really) in its diagnosis and prescription.

“Individual commitments” are fine, but what about some real, professional rules or guidelines that would help clarify appropriate versus inappropriate behavior?  As I’ve said here for years, physicians can have their licenses revoked for dating patients (or the parents of patients, in the case of pediatricians); attorneys can be disbarred for dating clients; counselors and clergy must abide by strict rules prohibiting sexual contact with the people they are counseling or offering pastoral  care.

Why do faculty imagine they’re so special?  I’m perfectly willing never to date my students.  What are you willing never to do?

Why should responsible academics and professors be afraid to forswear dating or sexual contact with any and all of our students?  Let’s put this another way:  what’s the legitimate argument for dating or being intimate with any students of ours–undergraduate, graduate, post-docs?  What are the intellectual benefits to our students, in seeing their professors possible future sexual partners or in dating us?  What are the benefits to our teaching or research or to our professions that accrue from dating our students?

I don’t see any.  I don’t know of any.  Please enlighten me in the comments below.  But first, read the rest of this post.

The American Historical Association only addresses the prospect of sexual relationships in their “Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct” in the section on “Employment,” and even then, it’s only to proscribe sex discrimination or sexual harassment, both of which happen to be illegal in most states and/or already forbidden by university policy.  The implication here is that it’s only colleagues, not students, whom one must be careful about propositioning sexually, and it’s only unwanted sexual behavior that can pose an ethical and professional problem.

Why not add the following simple sentence to the beginning of the section called “Reputation and Trust?”  Historians shall not enter into any sexual or romantic relationships with their students or employees whose work they directly oversee and evaluate.  

What responsible, mature person would have a problem with that rule?  (Yes, this is a rhetorical question, but for gosh sakes:  when are you going to stop dating your students?  When will you stop seeing them as a perk of your job, rather than someone else’s children?)

Even in the most benign, consensual, “happy endings” in which professors and their students enter into a long-term, caring relationship, the students (all women, in the cases I’m familiar with) haven’t benefited unfairly from their marital association; in fact, in most cases it has caused all of these women at least temporary career setbacks if not complete career derailment.

Let’s also consider how faculty fishing in the student dating pool can poison whole classes or graduate school cohorts if fellow students know of or suspect an intimate relationship between a professor and a student.  Even if that student is the best, brightest, most meritorious student, will any of her successes or awards be understood to be the product of her hard work and brilliance, or will they always be assumed to be earned by emotional or sexual rather than intellectual labor?

If you want an illustration for how this worked and was still working into the current decade, do a little digging into the last forty years of the History Department at the University of Pennsylvania.  This is just one of the more public cases, featuring a grad school classmate of mine.  You could ask around and hear how the past forty-plus years of male professors dating and marrying women grad students has worked out for the Penn grad students, including more than one woman of my grad school generation.

The male professors, of course, kept their positions as well as the respect of their colleagues and students.  Many were and are highly esteemed in their fields, and have been offered honors, awards, and jobs at other prestigious institutions.  Some have even moved on to relationships with other, even younger graduate students of theirs.  Why not?  They’re busy men, the hunting is good, and there’s no price to pay.