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May 9, 1996

Assembly approves policy on faculty-student relationships, but with two amendments

A proposed policy that would restrict con- sensual sexual relationships between Pitt faculty and students has won conditional support from a key faculty group.

At its May 7 meeting, Faculty Assembly voted 18-3 to endorse the policy, but with two amendments. According to the Assembly, the policy should be rewritten to:

* Prohibit faculty from having sexual and/or romantic relationships only with students whose academic work, teaching and/or research they supervise. Faculty would not be barred from engaging in intimate relationships with students in their classes, as long as the faculty members and the University arranged for other people to grade, supervise and advise those students.

* Delete language stating that transgressions of the policy "violate [faculty members'] professional ethics." University Senate past president James Holland, who made the motion to delete the statement, called the language "judgmental and harsh-sounding" and irrelevant to the policy's main purposes — protecting students from abuses of power by faculty, avoiding apparent conflicts of interest, and warning faculty that they may forfeit University protection should students take legal action against them for violating the policy.

The policy was written by a subcommittee of the provost's Task Force on Sexual Harassment. Several subcommittee members, including the group's chairperson, Gerald Massey, attended the Faculty Assembly meeting. They agreed to accept the Assembly's amendments.

The proposed policy now moves on to Senate Council, which is scheduled to consider the three-paragraph document on May 13.

Provost James Maher, in a March 25 memo to deans, directors, department chairs and regional campus administrators, said the policy "protects the interests of students, faculty and the University, and it has my full endorsement." But he and Interim Chancellor Mark Nordenberg are holding off on approving the policy until it has been reviewed by the Assembly and Council (which are advisory groups that influence, but do not officially set, University policy).

The original draft of the faculty-student relationships policy raised controversy when it was circulated last fall. That version would have barred Pitt faculty from having intimate relationships with any students here, even those not under their supervision. Faculty Assembly members, during the group's Dec. 5 meeting, called that draft intrusive, wordy and redundant.

The latest draft reads as follows (language deleted by the Assembly amendments is italicized): "The University's educational mission is promoted by professional relationships between faculty members and students. Relationships of an intimate nature compromise the integrity of a faculty-student relationship whenever the faculty has a professional responsibility for the student.

The University prohibits intimate relationships between a faculty member and a student who is enrolled in his/her course or whose academic work, teaching, or research is being supervised by the faculty member. If an intimate relationship should exist or develop between a faculty member and a student, the University requires the faculty member to remove himself/herself from all supervisory, evaluative, and/or formal advisory roles with respect to the student. Failure to do so may subject the faculty member to disciplinary action.

Transgressions of this policy not only violate professional ethics, but also render both the University and the faculty member vulnerable to civil charges of sexual harassment. In addition, if a lawsuit or other claim is asserted against the faculty member on the basis of conduct prohibited by this policy, the faculty member may forfeit the legal and monetary protections of the Univer-sity's Indemnification Policy (Policy Number 07-06-06)." The policy defines a faculty member as anyone appointed by the University as a teacher, researcher or academic administrator, including graduate and undergraduate students so appointed.

During this week's Assembly meeting, Mark Ginsburg, of the education school, complained that the document fails to specify the "disciplinary action" that policy violators might face. Other Assembly members recommended that Pitt "strongly discourage" intimate faculty-student relationships rather than "prohibit" them.

Still other professors said they were worried by use of the word "asserted" in the policy's final sentence. As the sentence currently is worded, they said, a faculty member could lose protection under Pitt's indemnification policy just for being sued by a student citing the policy — however unfounded the student's accusations might be.

(Ginsburg and Richard Tobias, who chairs the Senate's tenure and academic freedom committee, noted that the indemnification policy spells out in-house procedures for determining whether the University Counsel's office will defend employees who are sued while carrying out their Pitt job duties. Each faculty or staff member's case is judged individually, Tobias said.) One Assembly member, Allan Walstad of the Johnstown campus, condemned the entire faculty-student relationships document as being "ill-advised," "lacking in substantive rationale" and based largely on innuendo.

In a statement that he read aloud, Walstad argued, in part, that the policy "betrays virtually no hint of appreciation that there might be trade-offs involved in implementing a policy on consensual relationships. There is, specifically, no acknowledge-ment that a relationship between a faculty member and a student might have any benefits at all.

"It is, presumably, a hoped-for benefit of the proposed policy that there would be fewer cases of favoritism stemming from student-faculty relationships. I wonder just how many such cases there are, and of those, how many would be eliminated by the proposed policy, and how many would just be pushed a bit further underground? By comparison, I think it's fair to inquire, as a matter of perspective, how many cases are there of other kinds of favoritism? Are Pitt Panther fans giving student-athletes a break in their classes? Are faculty advisers to fraternities and sororities partial to those organizations? How often do sons and daughters or other relatives of faculty members land in those faculty members' classes, and is there any favoritism in those cases? Why single out student-faculty romances when there are so many incentives for faculty to abuse their power of assigning grades? "What about the costs of the proposed policy?" Walstad continued. "How many marriages originate in faculty-student relationships? How many of them might have been stifled by the proposed policy?" Most Assembly members, including Walstad, acknowledged that faculty-student romances — even consensual ones — often pose problems because of the inherent power imbalance between participants.

Robert Mundell, of dental medicine, said he "reluctantly" supported the proposed policy even though he believes that the abuses it is intended to prohibit are covered by existing Pitt policies, including one barring sexual harassment. The proposed policy's chief advantage is that it seeks to prevent even the appearance of a conflict of interest, Mundell said.

In drafting the proposal on faculty-student consensual romances, the provost's Task Force on Sexual Harassment studied existing policies at other universities as well as a policy statement by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), according to Massey.

Associate Provost Elizabeth Baranger, who chairs the task force, said the group stopped short of adopting a University of Wisconsin policy that requires faculty there to tell the Wisconsin administration of any sexual relationships they enter into with students. But the Pitt policy is more specific than the AAUP statement, which does not recommend prohibiting consensual faculty-student romances. In other Assembly business, members approved a revised conflict of interest policy for Pitt researchers and instructors (the policy was amended to meet new National Institutes of Health regulations) and a proposed policy to manage and encourage commercialization of faculty inventions through independent spin-off companies. Senate Council will discuss both policies at its May 13 meeting.

–Bruce Steele

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