College implements new policy regarding consensual relationships between faculty members, grad students

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COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

This semester, the College of William and Mary will implement a new policy regarding consensual amorous relationships between faculty members and graduate students.

In the new policy, consensual amorous relationships between faculty members and graduate students are considered to violate university policy if the student is enrolled in a degree-seeking program in the school of the faculty member’s primary appointment, as well as if the faculty member has an “evaluative, collaborative or supervisory role” with the student at the time the relationship begins.

Faculty members may engage in these relationships if they recuse themselves from any future professional role with the student. 

The former policy prohibited any romantic or sexual relationships between faculty members and graduate students over whom the faculty member has direct professional responsibility. According to the faculty handbook, this responsibility entails supervision in academic, co-curricular and extracurricular settings. 

Vice President of the Faculty Assembly David Armstrong said the former policy was created by a subcommittee during the 2000-2001 school year at the request of Gillian Cell, the provost at the time. 

“The policy that was arrived at was one of the strongest such policies amongst U.S. universities,” Armstrong said. “Previous to this, the topic had not been addressed in the Faculty Handbook, i.e. there were no restrictions.”

“The policy that was arrived at was one of the strongest such policies amongst U.S. universities,” Armstrong said. “Previous to this, the topic had not been addressed in the Faculty Handbook, i.e. there were no restrictions.”

In October 2018, former Provost Michael Halleran, who retired from his position earlier this year, asked the FA to reconsider the consensual amorous relationships policy. 

“The issue at hand is whether the current policy properly addresses power imbalances, particularly in the case of graduate students,” Armstrong said.

According to Faculty Assembly President Tom Ward, Halleran’s request sparked a long and thorough decision-making process. It began within a subcommittee of the FA, which was tasked with examining the policies of colleges and universities across the country to determine if any change in the College’s policy was necessary. The committee brought their initial recommendations to the executive board of the assembly, which then voted to allow the proposed changes to go to a full plenary vote. 

Ward and Armstrong both said that the proposed changes fomented lively debate when they reached the full Assembly. Some opposing the policy alteration argued that the Faculty Handbook already covered the issues which the changes were designed to address. Others argued that relationships between faculty members and graduate students should not be allowed whatsoever and that the policy allowed too much flexibility regarding these relationships.

“The position that received consensus was that we should advance a formal position that said relationships of this type with individuals that you are supervising certainly are forbidden,” Ward said. “How you can articulate that in terms of divisions of schools was the point of discussion.”

“The position that received consensus was that we should advance a formal position that said relationships of this type with individuals that you are supervising certainly are forbidden,” Ward said. “How you can articulate that in terms of divisions of schools was the point of discussion.” 

Many Faculty Assembly members also emphasized student safety during the debate.  

“Protecting the rights and interests of the students was viewed as of paramount importance,” Armstrong said. Armstrong said that the policy changes that were initially approved by the FA in March were rejected by the Personnel Policy Committee with little explanation. This led to the assembly approving changes which were less restrictive than some on the Assembly wanted, including Armstrong.  

“I was one of those on Assembly who argued for a more restrictive policy, in order to best protect the interests of graduate students,” Armstrong said. 

Once the change was approved by the Faculty Assembly in April, it went to the PPC for review on the condition that they would continue reconsidering the policy this year. After gaining approval from the PPC, the proposed change was sent to the Board of Visitors, which sanctioned the policy going into effect at the beginning of this academic year. 

The new policy does allow for some exemptions. The previous policy also allowed for exemptions but failed to specify under what circumstances they should be granted. The new policy specifies that the Dean of the School or Faculty where the related faculty member has a primary appointment may grant an exemption after considering any connections between the faculty member’s duties and the graduate student’s studies, the feasibility of ensuring no conflicts of interest arise during the relationship and whether the faculty member and student were engaged in a committed relationship prior to becoming colleagues at the university. 

“As an example, if my wife decided to return to school to get an MBA, the fact that I am a physics faculty member should not prevent her from becoming a graduate student in the Mason School of Business or require us to get a divorce,” Armstrong said. 

One important constant in the policy is that these relationships must be both consensual and free of domestic violence, which falls under the College’s broader efforts to abide by ongoing Title IX compliance efforts. The relationship must also fall under the consensual amorous relationship policy outlined by the College.   

“If a faculty member violates the policy by being in an impermissible consensual relationship, that will be addressed through the Faculty Handbook misconduct process, not through Title IX process,” the College’s Title IX Coordinator Pamela Mason said. “On the other hand, a permissible consensual relationship between a faculty member and a graduate student not in their department or school may violate Title IX if there is relationship violence, stalking or sexual exploitation that occurs in that relationship.” 

Lauren McQuilkin ’23 sees this policy change as a step in the right direction. 

“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,” McQuilkin said. “They might as well be open about it and then they can work from there.”

“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,” McQuilkin said. “They might as well be open about it and then they can work from there.”