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December 7, 1995

Proposed policy would forbid consensual sexual relationships between faculty & their students

Pitt officially forbids faculty from harassing students, sexually or otherwise. But unlike many other universities, Pitt has no policy regarding sexual relationships between consenting students and faculty.

According to a task force appointed this fall by Provost James Maher, the University should adopt a policy to:

* Forbid sexual relationships between faculty and students they teach or whose academic work they supervise, including work as teaching assistants.

* Discourage any consensual sexual affairs between faculty and students.

Under a draft policy that the Provost's Task Force on Sexual Harassment is circulating around the University for comment, "faculty" would include all instructional personnel, including graduate students who teach.

The full text of the proposed policy appears on this page.

Task force chairperson Elizabeth Baranger, associate provost for graduate programs, said the proposed policy is a response to complaints from two kinds of students: those who resent preferential treatment enjoyed by classmates who have affairs with their teachers; and students who voluntarily entered into sexual affairs with faculty, only to see those relationships turn sour when the faculty members began abusing their power and sexually exploiting the students.

Some male department chairpersons, especially older ones, apparently see nothing wrong with sexual affairs between professors and students, said task force member Barbara Shore — not surprisingly, considering that some of the chairpersons themselves have had sex with their students, she said.

"There is still a lot of that 'boys will be boys' attitude among some administrators," said Shore, who presented the draft policy to Faculty Assembly Dec. 5.

Most of the Assembly members' responses to the proposed policy were negative.

University Senate Vice President Nathan Hershey questioned the need for a new policy dealing specifically with consensual relationships. Existing policies forbid faculty from abusing their power over students, he noted. "You can sum this up by saying to faculty:

Avoid abusive actions in dealing with students. And abusive action means the use of power to compromise the integrity of the educational process. That's all you would need," said Hershey, a professor in the Graduate School of Public Health.

If chairpersons and deans were doing their jobs, faculty would not get away with exploiting students sexually or otherwise, Hershey added. "This is not the first time that we have had concerns expressed — that there should be a new policy or action by faculty because people in positions of power in the administration were not enforcing policies that the University already has," he said.

Philip Wion, of the English department, called the draft policy "kind of a muddle," pointing out that it recommends no penalties against teachers who have affairs with students. Nor does the proposal suggest how supervisors should deal with such situations, Wion noted.

Some Assembly members suggested that the policy could poison normal academic relationships between teachers and students; faculty might be reluctant to advise or supervise students of the opposite sex, or even interact with them in class.

Still other faculty members criticized the two-page policy as being too wordy and euphemistic. "I could put this [policy] in Anglo-Saxon English in two sentences," said Christina Paulston, of the linguistics department.

Besides Shore, only one Assembly member — English department professor David Brumble — spoke in favor of the proposal. "There are all sorts of procedures in place for dealing with other kinds of abuses," Brumble said. "What this document, it seems to me, is trying to say is: It's a real dumb thing to sleep with your students. And, in fact, it's so dumb and it so often leads to trouble, that we might as well have a policy forbidding it." Faculty Assembly will get another chance, at a future meeting, to comment on the proposal before a final version is submitted to Pitt's senior administration, Shore said.

Baranger said the proposal is just one of the projects that the provost's task force is working on to address sexual harassment at Pitt. The group plans to issue a report to Provost Maher by the end of the spring 1996 semester, she said.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 28 Issue 8

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