Harvard bans sexual relationships between staff and students

Rachel Balmer 15 February 2015

Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has taken steps this week to ban “sexual and romantic relationships” between professors and university students.

It has prohibited all relationships between undergraduates and faculty members, as well as between graduate students and their direct supervisors. This includes graduate students who are "in a position to grade, evaluate, or supervise the undergraduate student”.

This follows similar changes in policy from Yale University, the Universities of Connecticut and Arizona State.

The chair of the panel at Harvard that recommended a change in policy defended the decision, telling Bloomberg: “Undergraduates come to college to learn from us … We’re not here to have sexual or romantic relationships with them.”

Currently in Cambridge, some colleges give their own advice on relationships between staff and students. For example, a statement of policy on Murray Edward’s website says that “any romantic or sexual relationship between a member of staff and a student raises serious questions.”

Meanwhile Trinity College describes such relationships as “compromis[ing] … the normal professional relationship between a Senior and a Junior Member of the College”.

While neither of these colleges explicitly bans such relationships, both require members of staff to inform college officials. Murray Edwards adds: “wherever practicable, the outcome will involve the removal of the staff member from direct professional responsibility for and contact with the student.”

One student who spoke to The Cambridge Student believed that the University should take a stronger stance on student-staff relationships, saying that they “are fundamentally exploitative and come from unequal positions of power.”

Nonetheless, not all agreed as, Caitlín Milliken, Women’s Welfare Officer at Peterhouse, said on the idea of an introduction of Harvard-style prohibition at Cambridge: “It's important to avoid predation of vulnerable students but [I] don't think that limiting freedom is the way of achieving that.”

This sentiment was echoed by another undergraduate who felt that “as long as [a relationship] happens outside of your discipline then I don't see there being any problem regarding conflict of interests or protection issues”, whilst others criticised the paternalistic nature of an outright ban.

However, such rules do seem to have an effect, with one spokesperson telling Bloomberg that the ban at Yale, which was introduced in 2010, had resulted in “some faculty” being disciplined.

Thus, questions continue over the nature of relationships between university staff and students, and consequently the role that the universities should play in regulating them.