The College has recently drafted a new policy forbidding consensual sexual and romantic relationships between students and faculty members. The subject is currently undergoing discussion and revision by the Faculty Policy and Conference Committee (FPCC), and is awaiting further developments.
Currently, the Faculty Handbook states, “The College strenuously discourages romantic or sexual relationships between faculty members and students, administrators and students, and staff members and students…A faculty member, administrator, or staff member who is involved in a romantic or sexual relationship with any student must disclose its existence to his or her department chair, dean or supervisor and must cooperate fully in making alternative arrangements for the supervision, evaluation, teaching, grading or advising of the student.”
This policy would, however, firmly ban all relationships between students and faculty. Violations of the potential change would be investigated by the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA), during which time alternative arrangements would be made for the future concerning issues of teaching, grading and advising.
Director of the Office of EOAA Julian Williams remarked, “The reason that this policy is in my office’s area is because it has to do with our Title IX-related policy, because even in these consensual relationships there’s always questions on whether or not there’s any sexual harassment involved, whether or not their relationship is truly consensual.”
He went on to say, “What we try to be is a resource for the campus, but also a resource for FPCC as they go about drafting this policy. We’re trying to give them some things to think about because it would be our office that would be, upon being alerted by a member of the community, the one to come in to investigate and make a determination on whether or not there has been a policy violation by a faculty member involved in one of these situations.”
If the change goes through, when a faculty member is determined to have committed a violation of the policy upon investigation by the EOAA Office, they may become subject to disciplinary action according to the Dean of the Faculty Office’s assignment.
Punishments may include a warning, temporary leave without pay and termination of employment, the last of which would require the approval of the Office of the President. The policy will, however, grant exceptions in the case of spouses or domestic partners of faculty members enrolling as students.
The vagueness of potential disciplinary actions as well as the lack of certainty as to a standard protocol for handling violations of the proposed policy has aroused confusion in many as to the what the severity of such future determinations would be.
Williams commented, “What we want to have is the ability to be flexible, in all situations. We want to be able to respond appropriately, swiftly and strongly, but that may not always equal somebody being fired. I think what a good policy is able to do is to really craft the flexibility that’s necessary instead of just having a blanket response. You’re going to need to look at the nuances of each particular situation when you’re looking at possible follow-ups.”
The potential policy change had been the subject of casual administrative discussions for over a year, although serious consideration of such a move began last semester at various meetings of the FPCC.
Because the existence of the policy draft was unknown to the student body until Wednesday, Feb. 18, when it was disclosed to the Vassar Student Association (VSA) Executive Board, many students have accused the College of simply following in the footsteps of other institutions that have recently enacted policies forbidding student-faculty relationships, such as Harvard University and Stanford University.
Professor of Greek and Roman Studies and Chair of the FPCC Bert Lott commented, in an emailed statement, “The interest reached the point that FPCC felt it needed to explore options last semester. This was certainly not a response to others schools considering or taking similar actions. The fact that other schools are considering the same issues, however, points to a desire generally across higher education to consider carefully the professional and ethical responsibilities of faculty members.”
Some students have labeled the policy change paternalistic and unfair, arguing that students and faculty members, as consenting adults, should have the right to pursue romantic and sexual relationships with whomever they choose.
“I take issue with the rhetoric used in the draft policy. While I agree that relationships with members of the faculty and members of the student body are indeed cause for concern regarding the ‘validity of consent,’ as the policy states, I do not believe that inherently students cannot consent to relationships with professors,” wrote VSA Vice President for Finance Max Moran ’16, in an emailed statement. “Individuals over the age of 18 can consent to sexual or romantic relationships with other individuals over the age of 18.”
“That [the policy comes off as paternalistic] is a real counterargument there,” Williams remarked. “We’re trying to legislate relationships between adults, yes, but also with that comes a lot of the different power differentials between faculty members and students on campus and also a real difficulty in terms of trying to investigate these sorts of relationships.”
Other students have cited the College’s decision to withhold the information until last week as an example of a fundamental lack of student voice in the College’s administrative changes that affect students on campus.
“The student government at Vassar College has lost its seat at the table,” Moran said. “Any issue that effects the student body, especially those regarding consent, given how important such a question is, should have a chance for formal student input. The voices of students aren’t being disregarded, they are not being sought out.”
Many of those involved with drafting the policy, however, have maintained that, because the policy change falls under the authority of the Dean of the Faculty and mainly concerns how the College intends to approach the issue of student-faculty relations with regard to their employees in the future, the issue is an administrative one and has been considered accordingly.
“This is a draft policy that addresses the professional roles and responsibilities of faculty and is properly debated by the faculty,” Lott said. “While I understand that students are naturally interested in the policy (for this reason it was shared with the leadership of the VSA), it is an employment policy of the faculty that properly belongs as a discussion among the faculty themselves.”
He continued, “This policy is being developed by a faculty committee; it is being discussed by the faculty as a whole; it will be voted up or down by the faculty as a whole. In this context, the process has not been top down, in my opinion.”
The FPCC and the Office of EOAA have also reassured community members that the policy change is still a work in progress and that there will be ample time for the inclusion of student and non-administrative voices.
Williams remarked, “[Consideration of the policy change] is very much in progress in the faculty, but they’re still at the drafting stages and are still at the stages where they want to hear from students, faculty members and community members on all sides of the issue to really get their thoughts. This is still very much in the beginning stages of trying to figure out what will work for Vassar.”