Paul L. Caron

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Do Faculty Have a Constitutional Right to Sleep With Their Students?

I'm not sure this week's Chronicle of Higher Education intended to run these stories next to each other in the faculty section:

  • The Right to Romance:  A psychology professor explains why universities should not try to forbid relationships between students and teachers.

Paul R. Abramson is a happily married, 57-year-old psychology professor at UCLA. He says he has never had a serious romantic relationship with one of his students. Nevertheless, Mr. Abramson doesn't think universities have any business telling professors whom they can date. In 2003, UCLA's Academic Senate did precisely that, joining a growing list of universities that have banned romance between professors and students. Mr. Abramson says the rules violate faculty members' constitutional rights. "The right to romance," he says, is protected by the Ninth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. ... The professor lays out his arguments in a book due out this fall called Romance in the Ivory Tower: The Rights and Liberty of Conscience (MIT Press).

Mr. Abramson talked to The Chronicle about the issues by telephone from his home outside Los Angeles.

Q. Have you ever dated a student?

A. I was 26 when I came to UCLA. I dated students, I dated faculty, I dated staff.

  • Life After Tenure Denial: Before you appeal, for the sake of your sanity and your bank account, consider all the reasons why you shouldn't.

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» "The Right to Romance": from The Volokh Conspiracy
Do Faculty Have a Constitutional Right to Sleep With Their Students? Heh. [Read More]

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Oh hell. Every day that passes I find another career that's got better perks than programming computers.

date sexy co-eds for the rest of my life vs sit in fabric covered cubicles like a veal.

Posted by: memomachine | Aug 24, 2007 8:35:44 AM

As a commentator above noted, much of this discussion about power differentials seems to often get out of hand. I think that we can all agree that dating a student in your class is a big no-no. I have yet to hear anyone argue in favor of this.

The issue of whether universities (public or private) should be policing other types of relationships such as those between faculty and students for which there is no supervisor or instructor/student relationship is not statutory. However, the desire to regulate such relationships arises from the same stream of thought in which many other domains of private behavior can be sanctioned legally (I am thinking about the shifting notions of harassment and "hostile work environment"). I do not object to rules governing sexual harassment certainly. However, not all boarish behavior requires legal remedy.

Students are young but they are adults. The task of universities should not be to protect students from the questionable decisions that they might make. Lets accept the fact that students can be attracted to professors and that while propriety and responsibility suggests that both parties "be excellent to each other", we should not attempt to use the blunt force of institutional policy to make two consenting adults do that. To try (vainly) to protect students because they might feel uncomfortable or it might turn out badly is to treat them like children and faculty like predators.

Posted by: glockenspieler | Aug 24, 2007 7:59:18 AM

"The matter may be ethically and morally hazy, but ought not be illegal."

The last I checked universities, despite their most ardent desire, did not have the authority to decide what is and is not legal. As such, a prefessor who sleeps with every student he/she has would never be arrested or go to jail on this basis. They do, however, have the authority to decide their requirements for employment, and if not sleeping with a student is one of the requirements they decide it is entirely within their perview to punish to the extent that normal employer-employee relations allows.

We have become such a right-happy group of nabobs that I tire of seeing otherwise reasonable folks conflate the policy decissions of an organization or entity with statutory sanctions. Just because UCLA (or whoever) prohibit an activity doesn't automatically make it equivalent to a legal ban.

Posted by: submandave | Aug 24, 2007 7:19:33 AM

What with the closing of the Catholic Church, and all the new sex offender public database laws ... where else is a devoted peadophile to go save the last bastion of child sex ... the Academy?

Posted by: sometaxprofreader | Aug 24, 2007 4:00:25 AM

Yeah, no matter how tempting it might be, student/teacher sex is a lousy idea. Not being all that involved with colleges (except for lecturing on an invited basis, and also giving them lots of money), I was not generally impressed by many of the 'persons' who taught there. One example was the married prof. (a pregnant wife, one of his former students) who took his mistress. another female graduate student along on a six week foreign Uni tour, where they roomed together, and other faculty and students quite knew all about it. At one of our exotic locations, he received a front desk telephone notice directly from his wife that she had delivered a full term child. The tour had five weeks still to go. And so it, and he marched bravely on. And a good time was had by all. This is only one example (I have others) of what I regard as 'really bad form' from Uni teachers and staff. Some of them at least.

Posted by: Gerry | Aug 24, 2007 12:28:53 AM

In loco parentis? We're talking about college students here(generally 18-21 years old), not high school students. They're no longer minors and are responsible for their own decisions. Do you have many 18 or 19 year-olds who bring their parents in the exam room with them, Doc? I would think not.

And as for the power differential, outside of a relationship where the student is taking a class from the professor--which I believe IS wrong--I don't think it's quite as much of a differential as you might think. In fact, I would argue that most professor-student relationships are kept secret for the sake of the PROFESSOR--his or her job and reputation. As someone in academia, if a colleague came to me and lobbied for, say, a higher grade for his girlfriend, at the very least, I would laugh him out of my office. At most, I might report him. No matter what, I would certainly think less of him. So, given the potential damage revealing the secret could cause, who really has the power in that relationship: the one who holds the threat of a failing grade(assuming they share a class), or the one who holds the threat of a ruined career? Ultimately, as a professor, I don't really have much power, outside of the ability to give a grade for a class, which could and possibly would be subject to review.

Of course you could make the argument that the differential exists because the professor is in a position of authority, but then why stop there? Let's keep anyone from having a relationship with a police officer, or a judge, or a politician. And no more relationships with anyone you admire, either. Maybe we should have to exchange IQ scores before a first date, to make sure no one's being "brainwashed." In any relationship, there's always going to be one member who is smarter, or makes more money, or has a better job, or has a better social standing, or whatever. It's just the overly PC world of academia (where they have such things as "speech codes") that thinks such things can/should be "legislated."

Note: I don't have a low opinion of professors who have relationships with a student-- consenting adults, and all that. But I do have a low opinion of those who would--as in the above example--use their position to seek favors for the student.

Posted by: Dead Serious | Aug 23, 2007 10:58:21 PM

In loco parentis applies only to minors. College students are not minors, at least not after semester 1 of freshman year. The matter may be ethically and morally hazy, but ought not be illegal. If the university feels no obligation to police on-campus alchohol consumption effectively, it seems silly to get themselves worked up over a 40-year-old professor enjoying a May-August romance with a 20-year-old student.

Posted by: Andrew | Aug 23, 2007 8:58:36 PM

Somehow we always seem to frame sexual relations between professor and student as a professor and student who are not married starting a relationship. It also works the other way around-- what are the ethics of people who are married taking classes from each other? If sexual relations are banned between a professor and a student, should I stop sleeping with my husband if he enrolls in a class I'm teaching? Or is there an exception for couples whose marriage/sexual relationship predates the teacher/student relationship?

I actually almost was in this situation. My husband took the same course that I was teaching, at the same time. I had to make sure he ended up in someone else's section, because otherwise it wouldn't be fair to the other students who didn't get to sleep with the professor. ;)

Posted by: Wacky Hermit | Aug 23, 2007 8:08:41 PM

That a professor of psychology would suggest that it is OK -- indeed, somehow sanctioned by the US Constitution -- for professors to sleep with their students shows an unbelievable callousness and ignorance of his own field.

Is he really unaware of the power differential in these relationships? Does he not regard himself as, in some sense, in loco parentis?


James D. Woolery MD

Posted by: James D Woolery MD | Aug 23, 2007 3:41:54 PM

UCLA's policy is only that professors cannot date students in their classes - which seems to me perfectly reasonable because otherwise there is always a question whether the power relationship was a factor in the relationship or whether there was a quid pro quo for a grade or other reward.

When I was a TA at UC, before I saw the light and became a lawyer, that was the approach most reasonable faculty and TAs took anyway: if you had the hots for Sorority Sue or she for you, you could just wait until the end of the quarter (no more than 10 weeks!) and then get involved. I suppose it was more difficult with graduate students becoming involved with professors who were their dissertation supervisors or on their committees - and we did see that. I always thought it was a bad idea, though.

Posted by: CatoRenasci | Aug 23, 2007 3:16:25 PM

They can't keep them from dating students. But they can keep them from dating students and working for the university, which in my opinion should be any employer's right for any reason.

His 'right to romance' cannot be taken by an employer, as he can walk away from the employer and do it anyway.

Just as his right to free speech cannot be taken by his employer. He could call his students the n-word all day, and the university can't stop him. They can just stop employing him.

Posted by: Morgan | Aug 23, 2007 3:07:25 PM

I always thought that was one of the job perks.

Posted by: Tully | Aug 23, 2007 3:00:05 PM

I have a low opinion of professors who sleep with students, but I sure think that any two consenting adults have a right to have sex with each other if they want to. It might be a constitutional right but that would only involve a state university, not a private school.

However, while the professor and the student have a right to have sex with each other, the school also has a right to fire the professor and expel the student. Rights all around.

Posted by: Flash Gordon | Aug 23, 2007 2:37:04 PM

"Common sense" trumps any other law.
Doctors have that "constitutional right" but "common sense" - not talking about ethical "laws"- clearly prohibits it.
We have our own spaces, physical, emotional and psychological, that needs, actually must be respected for civilization to continue. Authoritative figures lose that authority when they do not respect “common sense” laws.
I do not want to continue regarding Incest and the like.

Posted by: Emiro Burbano | Aug 23, 2007 2:36:36 PM

This guy is part of the reason psychologists are held in low esteem by those with a modicum of common sense. he fails to considerr the students' right to not be subjected to pressure from someone in authority. Actually, I don't think he's able to consider anything sensible .hat's why he's all BS!

Posted by: Fred Edwards | Aug 23, 2007 2:21:56 PM

Groucho Marx aka Professor Wagstaff of Huxley College provides the best answer as to whether students and faculty can sleep together. Asked where the students will sleep in the college is torn down....

"Where they always sleep. The classrooms."

Professors can join students there and I see problem at all with it.



Posted by: The Florida Masochist | Aug 23, 2007 10:17:40 AM