In the past week, The Miscellany News received a draft of a document which would change the College’s policy on consensual relationships between faculty and students in a significant way. According to this year’s Faculty Handbook, “The College strenuously discourages romantic or sexual relationships between faculty members and students, administrators and students, and staff members and students,” (68).
The policy also recognizes that consenting adults within the institution should be allowed to pursue relationships, permits such relationships upon specific conditions, among them: that the faculty member, administrator, or staff member must disclose the relationship with a student to the department chair or supervisor; that the faculty member does not teach in the same field of concentration as the student; and prepare alternative methods of supervision.
Only a failure to comply with these regulations would result in disciplinary actions, which may range from verbal warnings to a complete dismissal from the college. With the new policy, set to be voted on by the faculty on March 11, any relationships between students and faculty would be prohibited and punishable by disciplinary action such as leave without pay or termination. The policy does not apply to current relationships between faculty and students, or to the spouse or partner of a professor who enrolls as a student.
This policy has been abruptly made known to students less than a month before it will go to the faculty for a vote, which allows little time for dialogue with the students. While giving some notice to the student body is appreciated, this gesture leaves the impression that notice was given only as a courtesy for students, rather than a chance for meaningful input that could actually affect the draft. Moreover the limited nature of the notice – originally restricted to the VSA Executive Board instead of spread through a campus-wide email – means that student awareness was unnecessarily limited to those paying close attention to the Vassar Student Association, which can be, at times, a small segment of the campus.
This act by the Administration only worsens the lack of transparency that many students feel is affecting the Administrationís ability to enact meaningful discussion with the student body.
As for the drafting of the policy, it seems that such an action should have happened earlier in the year when there was discussion about the contractual obligations of house team members. If student fellows are prohibited from having relationships with their freshmen fellowees, it would logically follow that professors should be prohibited from relationships with students, as the power dynamics are far greater than those between a sophomore or junior student and a freshman.
Currently, the policy of the College is to strongly discourage student-faculty relationships, which seems to already be in line with the standard that the vast majority of students and professors maintain. Students assume that their professors will keep a professional, working relationship with them both in and out of the classroom.
The new policy, while making it clear that this professional relationship must be maintained, in many regards, seems unnecessary. An outright prohibition of student and faculty relationships will not affect the majority of students and their professors, therefore the motives behind drafting such a policy remain unclear.
Recently, prominent institutions like Harvard and Stanford Universities have also moved in the direction of this kind of policy, which has, for many, called into question the real motive behind Vassarís decision to do so as well.
We at The Miscellany News believe that major changes to what the College deems permissible for students to do with other consenting adults should not be the product of a top-down policy change. Change like this, particularly in the existing campus climate surrounding issues of consent, should have been a student-led effort, and should have been inspired by the voices of students here than of major universities elsewhere.
Many businesses and academic institutions have long forbidden such relationships, and we at The Miscellany News do not find such a rule particularly unfair or feel that it exists without its merits.
In a professional environment, it is not unreasonable to expect the employees of that institution to conduct themselves appropriately, and colleges and universities are not exceptions to that.
Students generally hold their professors to a high enough standard. This standard often includes that students do not expect their professors to pursue romantic or sexual relationships with students. While acknowledging that student-faculty and staff relationships do occur and can be perceived as independent of a professor or staff membersí professionalism to some, to codify this rule of thumb in such a policy as the one proposed does not seem unreasonable to us.
What is more concerning is the approach the College chose to take in drafting this policy. Trickle-down change such as this is symptomatic of exactly the kind of powerlessness and lack of representation many students feel, especially given the unresponsiveness of the Administration to many of the requests the student body has made on other issues this year and in years past.
This policy could have been the product of a student-led dialogue, and we at The Miscellany News believe that if the College intends to get students to go along with it, that dialogue must be centered around studentsí voices.
We understand that the policy is still only in its early draft stages, and that student voices may soon have their turn to weigh in on the potential change. Yet, the fact that the College decided not to inform students of their desire to limit our right to engage in activities that are not illegal is extremely disconcerting to the students.
The change seemed to fall into the student bodyís lap in the middle of the semester without warning. That the Faculty Policy and Conference Committee chose to divulge the existence of efforts to create this policy to the VSA seems a more like a gesture of courtesy than a request for student input, and without any tangible reason other than to pacify potential reactions to it by students.
This academic year has seen more than simply the development of studentsí desire for more immediate progress on issues of consent and appropriate interpersonal behavior. It has brought the broader issue of studentsí voices in the Collegeís policy-making and direction to a head.
Although this policy serves a legitimate and justifiable purpose, we at The Miscellany News believe that if the College and its leadership wish to garner the support of the student body on issues such as these, then they must see the broader context and ramifications of this issue.