- Seven years after the U.S. Department of Education issued new guidance for institutions on relationships between professors and college students, increasing awareness about sexual harassment and assault as powered by the #MeToo movement has many institutions looking to make those standards more stringent, according to Inside Higher Ed.
- The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania and Syracuse, Cornell, Columbia and Duke universities banned dating between professors and undergraduate students this year, without regard for if a supervisory role is present between the two people. The new policies take their cues from a 2014 amendment to faculty member-student dating policy at Northwestern University, which spells out the inherent threat of controversy in these types of consensual relationships.
- The emerging policies aren’t without critics. Inside Higher Ed quoted experts who said that the policies are difficult to enforce because they require one party to disclose the relationship, and thus out the couple as in violation of policy. Others say the costs for legal recourse against violations, up to $250,000 according to one quoted average, are prohibitive to enforcement. And some say blanket policies infringe on individual rights of consenting adults. University of Manitoba applied philosophy professor Neil McArthur wrote last year “...adults have a fundamental right to engage in intimate relationships without interference.”
In the same ways that legal action against faculty member-student dating prohibitions can be costly, they pale in comparison to the legal fees, public relations hits and tuition dips an institution can take if exposed for having a rampant culture of policy breaking or sexual harassment and assault against students. Michigan State University is paying a heavy price for an institutional culture that, while it spoke to specific elements about prohibited behavior and the power of reporting, did not yield strong results in the case of women being assaulted by Larry Nassar, a former university doctor, or the pursuit of allegations against sexual assault claims made against student-athletes.
Institutions that take a proactive stand in prohibiting dating relationships add another element of institutional protection against accusations of lax culture and allowance of bad and unlawful behavior. When combined with strong messaging about the dangers and consequences of this behavior, it can underscore institutions’ commitment to student protections. And that’s something that will be a critical part of universities' and colleges’ abilities to answer protests, media coverage and lawsuits associated with future harassment and assault claims that could be headed towards new precedents in institutional liability according to recent rulings on student safety.