Student-teacher relationships in college still a source of debate for many

May 1, 2012 Comments Off

Many would say that romantic relationships between students and teachers are unethical when the relationship in question takes place in a high school setting. Relationships between college students and their professors, however, have long been a topic of debate, both within the academic community and outside of it.

The same policy on consensual amorous relationships applies to all schools with the UM — system, which includes University of Missouri — St.Louis, Univeristy of Missouri — Columbia, University of Missouri — Kansas City and Missouri University of Science and Technology. According to the collected rules and regulations for personnel, consensual amorous relationships between members of the university community are “prohibited when one participant has direct evaluative or supervisory authority over the other because such relationships create an inherent conflict of interest.”

The university defines amorous relationships as being between two individuals who “mutually and consensually understand a relationship to be romantic and/or sexual in nature except when those two individuals are married to each other.” Examples of prohibited relationships include, but are not limited to, “employee (faculty, staff or student)/student and supervisor (faculty, staff or student)/subordinate, when those relationships involve direct evaluative or supervisory authority.”

In explaining their prohibition on the subject, Chapter 330: Employee Conduct of the collected rules and regulations prefaces itself by stating that the University “promotes an atmosphere of professionalism based on mutual trust and respect.  The integrity of interaction among faculty, staff and students must not be compromised.”

It is the aforementioned conflicts of interest in student-teacher interaction that cause many universities to take a solid stance against such relationships. The policy for those in the UM-System requires that the individual in the supervisory position disclose the relationship to his or her administrative superior and cooperate in removing themselves from any such supervisory activity in order to eliminate said conflict of interest.

“The student-teacher relationship is inherently an uneven one and fraught with peril,”  Paul Lannon, Boston education lawyer, said  to ABCNews.com in 2009.

One such relationship was the 2011 case of 22-year-old Katy Benoit, a graduate student at the University of Idaho, and Ernesto Bustamonte, a psychology professor at the university at the time of their relationship. The relationship ended in murder-suicide, after Benoit filed a complaint against Bustamonte that resulted in his losing his job. Shortly after, Benoit was fatally shot outside her apartment by Bustamonte, who was later found dead in a hotel room, having shot himself. Preceding the fatal shooting, Benoit had told friends that Bustamonte had threatened her with a gun multiple times.

Also in 2011, a music professor at Montana State University was accused of having sex with a student and threatening to ruin her career if she ended the relationship.

Sadly, occurrences such as these are far too common, as the student-teacher relationship is one that is inherently unequal in terms of the distribution of power, and such relationships can often result in the abuse of that power within the confines of the relationship. The student-teacher relationship leaves ample room for coercion and manipulation, which is why many universities have policies against it.

“The teacher obviously has authority over the student, and the student is vulnerable to undue influence. There is always going to be that pressure,” Middlebury College professor Miguel Fernandez told ABCNews.com.

Not all cases of student-professor romances end in tragedy and strife, however. In early 2012, Columbia law professor Philip Bobbitt married former student Maya Ondalikoglu. Previously, Ondalikoglu had been a student in one of Bobbitt’s classes when the two traveled to an academic conference together. Following the trip, Ondalikoglu withdrew from the class, as they both agreed that this was the appropriate course of action in order to avoid an unhealthy power dynamic and to remain ethical in their actions. The two married only months later in a wedding officiated by Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who is a former dean at Harvard Law.

By Sharon Pruitt, Opinions editor for The Current

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