Sex U

Students and professors: A complicated relationship. (August 28, 2013)

The University of Connecticut earlier this month banned all sex between professors and undergraduate students. Yale University did the same in 2010. (Well, at least both schools have tried to ban it.)

The idea is to protect both students and the institutions, but some argue that seeking to regulate lust and love between consenting adults is not only wrong but downright futile.

“It’s none of a university’s business if a professor has no professional responsibility over a student,” says Cynara Stites, who spent 31 years as a clinical social worker at UConn’s Counseling and Mental Health Services.

When Stites recently heard UConn was going to follow Yale University’s total ban policy (Yale enacted it three years ago), she says she was “just absolutely flabbergasted.”

“They can get sued up the ying-yang,” says Stites.

If you’re wondering about the enforceability of these no-love policies, consider that the chairman of Yale’s Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations Department was this year suspended because he violated the university’s three-year-old ban. John Darnell sent an e-mail out in January announcing his 12-month suspension and apologizing for his intimate relationships with a student and a professor — both of whom he had authority over.

Those affairs were, according to Yale Daily News sources, “an open secret within the department.”

Stites has long been in favor of colleges and universities adopting policies that prohibit sex between a professor and a student when the professor has some authority over the student. In fact, she says she lobbied for 25 years to get UConn to adopt such a policy and to get tough on professors who abused their positions and student trust for sex.

Stites says it’s clear from her experience and other research that “the most common participants” in professor-student relationships are grad students and that nearly all involved male professors and female students.

“It’s very rare among same-sex couples… or when it’s a female faculty member,” says Stites.

The debate and the stories surrounding professor-student sex have been going on for a very long time. Colleges and universities around the U.S. began establishing policies to discourage that sort of hanky-panky at least as long ago as the 1980s.

It wasn’t until the beginning of this month that UConn’s board of trustees finally went with the absolute no-professor-undergrad-sex policy.

UConn President Susan Herbst said when the new policy was adopted that the university had already been operating under guidelines that “strongly discouraged” any professor-student sexual or romantic relationships where there was “a power differential” between the two people involved.

That power differential is the key. If a professor has authority over a student’s or grad-student’s grades or chances for postgraduate work, then sex between them can get complicated fast. Is the student swapping sex for a good grade? Does the graduate assistant believe sex is required to get into that doctoral program?

Herbst also indicated she’d been surprised when she arrived in the president’s office a couple of years ago that UConn’s policy seemed a lot milder than those of many other universities and colleges.

Some Connecticut schools, like Trinity and the University of New Haven, have long-standing policies of various degrees of toughness governing student-professor affairs. Others, like Wesleyan University, still have no formal policy at all.

It probably wasn’t a coincidence that UConn’s board acted swiftly to approve the new policy just after an embarrassing sex scandal hit the headlines.

Police and the university are investigating allegations that a longtime UConn music professor named Robert Miller was giving drugs to students in freshmen dorms, having sex with students, and having sexual contact with children.

Miller, 66, was placed on paid leave after the accusations were made public. He’s the former head of the school’s music department and had worked at the university since 1982. The UConn part of the probe may be the least of his worries.