Courtesy of Marina Salsbury
There are many complex personal relationships in the academic world, and as in any setting where people work together closely and often, romance can blossom easily. When romantic relationships develop between teachers, online PhD graduate students and their advisors, or even professors and undergraduates, questions often are raised as to whether they are appropriate, ethical, or even legal.
Although sexual misconduct by teachers is perceived variably by adolescents, the law is usually quite clear in its definition of criminal activity when a legal adult and a person under the age of consent become romantically involved. A romantic, physical involvement or communication between an underage student and a teacher is grounds for legal action. This may involve sexual harassment or statutory rape charges. Accordingly, such relationships are relatively uncommon and tend to be kept quite under wraps.
A sexual relationship between a professor and a student of legal age is more likely in a college setting, isn’t generally considered a criminal offense. Since the student is in a subordinate position to the teacher however, it must be very clear that the student was not coerced into the relationship. There is an obvious imbalance of power inherent in the teacher-student relationship and this may be used in some cases to advance a romantic involvement in unhealthy ways.
Problems may also arise after such a romance has ended if the student seeks legal recourse against the professor. Also, although such relationships may not be criminal, universities may consider them legally perilous and unethical. In this case the school may address this issue in its school policies and with sanctions against the professor.
Despite all this, romantic relationships can and do flourish in academic settings. Professors often meet and marry at the same university or get together after meeting at a conference. There are no constraints in these cases as the two people are on more or less equal footing as far as professional standing and there are almost no ethical considerations involved.
Romances between professors and older students are often regarded differently than those involving students much younger than the professors, let alone those still in their teens. Although there still is an element of power imbalance, the older student presumably has a more mature approach to relationships that would mitigate this dynamic. Regardless, such relationships can turn out quite well. One professor at my college married one of her senior thesis advisees after he graduated.
Due to the many considerations involved, some universities are rewriting their policies to simply discourage rather than actually ban romantic relationships between professors and students. Most university policies require the professor to disclose this relationship to school administrators, who then will arrange for the student to be managed academically by other teachers. Universities continue to encourage discretion by the professors and students and to conduct themselves professionally. Much like in other professional contexts, affairs between academics are viewed with some skepticism and even caution, yet are also accepted as a likely occurrence despite their borderline status.
Thank you Marina!