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April 25, 1996


Proposed policy is unjustifiably intrusive

To the editor:

According to a news story in the Times (April 11, 1996, page 3), both Interim Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and Provost James Maher wisely and responsibly said that the proposed policy prohibiting romantic relationships between faculty and students "is not a done deal," that the final decision will not be made until "University Senate groups and Pitt deans have had a chance to comment on the latest draft" of this controversial policy. I beseech the chancellor and the provost to also heed the following reactions to this policy.

While the newest version of this arrogant and intrusive invasion into the personal lives of professors and students is an improvement over the earlier policy insofar as this, the latest draft, is confined to relationships between a faculty person and a student over whom the faculty person has supervisory authority as opposed to barring relationships between any faculty person and any student, to me it is still objectionable, and on the following counts: –It assumes guilt and therefore sanctionable behavior before any inappropriate behavior has occurred. Simply because a professor and a student are intimately involved, this does not mean ipso facto that there will be an abuse of power by the professor or that other students will feel that the conventional evaluation criteria extant academically will be circumvented in the case of the student who is shacking up with the professor. I call this proposal by the administration to prohibit such relationships as committing the eighth deadly sin, that is declaring something sinful that is not a sin in the first place. This is an odious example of precensorship, censorship declaration before an action has taken place.

–To prohibit relationships of this sort because they may later prove to be abusive or perceived by others as an assault upon the educational process is grossly insulting to the professor and the student. It is alleging that they will not know the difference between right and wrong and that they will be insensitive to the canons of decorum and good taste. Let us give these people the benefit of the doubt and refrain from condemning them until condemnable behavior has indeed taken place. Punish actual behavior, not behavior which may later turn out to be punishable. Take each case one at a time, with the assumption — reasonable anywhere in civilized society, no less in the University than anywhere else on God's green earth — that abusive, immoral, or otherwise inappropriate behavior is the exception rather than the rule.

Here are analogous examples of this proposed precensorship Pitt policy, in other venues of human discourse: a white person walks across the street rather than side by side with a young African American male for fear that he will be mugged or otherwise accosted by the young black man; a heterosexual fearful that a homosexual will make a pass at him in the shower or at a cocktail party; the director of the National Science Foundation prohibiting, as an example, a microbiologist on his staff from interacting with microbiologists in a particular university because it might appear that the staff biologist might make grant or contract award decisions unethically; prohibiting members of the Motion Picture Academy from interacting with movie stars or directors who might be Oscar nominees.

Frankly, I suspect that the University administration is anxious to institute this policy, notwithstanding its flaws and patently unfair thesis, mainly to protect the University administration in the event of litigation, where the administration in an effort to cover its ass could point to this policy and say, "See, we have a policy in place and don't blame us in this particular case where a relationship has been abusive." In short, justification for a policy should not be the avoidance of the University administration from getting its ass in a sling, as it were, but rather that the policy is fair and does not condemn unjustly many more people who are basically innocent and who comport themselves properly than the few who are culpable. For these reasons, therefore, I urge the administration to review its current tendency to view this policy favorably and to reject the policy as being unjustifiably intrusive and unworthy of the respect with which it should view the vast majority of its professors and student body.

Robert Perloff

Professor Emeritus

Katz Graduate School of Business

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