Student-teacher romance redefined in Vermont

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February 12, 2008

12:24 PM

__Affairs arise from examination of sexual harassment policies__

Faculty and administration at Middlebury College in Vermont are putting together a policy that seeks to better define the rules governing student-teacher relationships sometime this month.

p. Currently, Middlebury possesses no official rules concerning romantic relationships between students and faculty, stating only that student-teacher relationships are “discouraged” but that “such involvements need not constitute a form of sexual harassment.”
However, the topic of creating policy on the subject has come into question with the recent examination of the college’s treatment of sexual harassment cases.

p. Faculty Council member Miguel Fernandez, associate professor at Middlebury, asserts that the school’s current definition of student-teacher relationships is vague and confusing. This idea has prompted the convening of several focus groups, the creation of a blog and a full faculty meeting to further discuss the issue.

p. However, Middlebury is not alone in its struggle to better define and regulate student-teacher relationships. Many colleges and universities across the United States have sought to deal with this issue in much the same manner. One of the main issues in creating policy is the nature of the social relationship that the student and teacher have. If the faculty member has the student in class or is in some position of authority over the student, the situation is widely regarded as more troublesome. Other colleges have entirely banned any type of relationship between faculty and students, classifying such acts as a form of unprofessional conduct that is grounds for dismissal.

p. Officially, the University of Vermont and the Vermont state college system ban relationships in which the faculty member has authority over the student. The ban extends to all situations in which the faculty member “is in a position of power with respect to that student, including but not limited to” the roles of instructor, coach, adviser, work-study supervisor and counselor.

p. Ultimately, the issue boils down to its legal ramifications. Frank Vinik, a lawyer and risk manager for United Educators, an education insurance company covering 800 colleges and universities, cites a case from the University of California — Berkeley, in which a law school dean resigned in 2002 after conducting an affair that he deemed consensual but the student considered harassment. His resignation prompted the creation of policies concerning such relationships at the university.

p. “We think having no policy is a mistake,” says Vinik.

p. The College’s policy, passed in 1991, insists that faculty report any romantic student relationship where the faculty member has a position of power.

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