Harvard Bans Sexual Relationships Between Students & Professors

Earlier this month, Harvard University instituted a total ban “sexual and romantic relationships” between professors and undergraduate students. The university insisted that relationships of that nature between students and faculty are inappropriate, the Associated Press reported.

The policy also extends to encompass relationships between professors and graduate students who are under their supervision, while graduate students are prohibited from relationships with undergraduate students only, The Guardian quoted, “if the graduate student is in a position to grade, evaluate, or supervise the undergraduate.”

The university currently holds about 2,400 faculty members and about 6,700 undergraduate students. Prior to this latest decision, Harvard’s policy only banned professors from having sex with students under their direct supervision. Now the policy reads,  “No [Faculty of Arts and Sciences] Faculty member shall request or accept sexual favors from, or initiate or engage in a romantic or sexual relationship with, any undergraduate student at Harvard College.”

Alison Johnson, a Harvard professor and chair of the committee on sexual misconduct, told Bloomberg that the decision did not face much debate on campus. “Undergraduates come to college to learn from us,” she said. “We’re not here to have sexual or romantic relationships with them.” She further elaborated in an email, “As part of this process, we thought a lot about the way that power dynamics can contribute to sexual harassment…We wanted to emphasize that the central characteristic of any relationship between a professor and an undergraduate in the College should be pedagogical.”

As the New York Times noted, following courts’ decisions in the 1990s that institutions could be held responsible for sexual harassment, colleges began crafting policies that forbade relationships between faculty and students. Yet, these changes to Harvard’s policy no doubt come as a direct response to the Department of Education announcement that the university was among several being investigated for its responses to reports of sexual abuse and harassment.

While many institutions take a more informal, laissez-faire approach to this contentious—perhaps even taboo—issue, Harvard’s actions follow those of several other notable universities, including Yale University, which banned student-faculty relationships in 2010; the University of Connecticut, which banned them in 2013 and Arizona State University, whose faculty voted to prohibit themselves from dating students whom they might “reasonably be expected” to have academic authority over in January, as was reported by Arizona Central.

Nevertheless, though most institutions have yet to create formal policies discussing such relationships, like Harvard, many have already made informal statements about them. For example, the University of California, Santa Cruz and Northwestern University have similarly declared, “The best time to date your professor, if at all, is after you have graduated from school.”

Should more universities adopt similar policies? Or should it simply be expected that faculty and students do not engage in sexual or romantic relationships?