Harvard University explicitly banned professors last week from having sexual relationships with undergraduate students, but University of Richmond does not have a similar policy.
Instead, Richmond requires all professors to adhere to the Code of Organizational Ethics and Integrity, which could be interpreted to outlaw such behavior, Provost Jacquelyn Fetrow said.
The code states, “Members of the university community are expected to conduct themselves according to the highest ethical and professional standards of conduct.”
Fetrow’s interpretation of the code of ethics does not allow sexual activity between undergraduate students and professors, even if that activity does not violate the recently updated sexual misconduct policy.
“To me, that is against the ethical code policy because you’re in an inferior-superior relationship,” Fetrow said. She said the university had procedures to evaluate such a situation if it were to arise, but the decision was not hers to make and it was a “gray area.”
That gray area stems from the lack of an explicit ban against sexual contact between undergraduates and professors, leaving professors free to challenge Fetrow’s interpretation that the vague wording in the code of ethics bars certain romantic relationships.
“One of the reasons in explicitly stating the rules is to make sure that everyone understands,” said Jennifer W. Nourse, chair of the department of sociology and anthropology and an associate professor in women, gender and sexuality studies. “If something is not explicitly stated, everyone says, ‘Well, I wasn’t breaking any rules,’ and there’s always one person that’s going to do that.”
Nourse said she believed that specific rules helped to educate the community. She cited the recent controversy at Stanford University – in which a student accused her mentor of forcing her into a sexual relationship and raping her – as an example when communication could have played a preventative role.
“If we explicitly state the rules, then it would be hopefully well-known so that there would be no future problem,” Nourse said.
But not everybody agrees with that sentiment.
“Harvard shouldn’t have to say that,” freshman Jessica Atkins said. “You with your Ph.D. should know that’s wrong. These kids are here to learn, not be preyed upon.”
Fetrow stressed that the policy can only have so much influence in these situations.
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“I don’t think it’s a matter of allowing or not, because we don’t control any of the adults’ lives on our campus to that extent,” Fetrow said.
The Harvard policy does not extend the same restrictions to professor-postgraduate sexual conduct, which is only limited when the professor has direct academic oversight of the student.
Nourse said that drawing a difference between undergraduates and postgraduates was necessary.
The postgraduate-undergraduate distinction “is on some level an arbitrary line,” Nourse said. “But 18 is an arbitrary line. There are some very mature 17-year-olds, but you have to draw the line somewhere.”
Fetrow did not rule out the possibility of updating the code of ethics to reflect Harvard’s changes.
“This is something we watch very, very closely,” Fetrow said. “Harvard’s going to be a case study.”
Despite agreeing that professors should avoid romantic relationships with students, Nourse acknowledged it was a thorny issue.
“You’re dictating rules for people’s most personal preferences in life, and there’s a question mark about that,” Nourse said. “Should we do that?”
Contact reporter Danny Heifetz at firstname.lastname@example.org
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