Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

October 13, 2016

Consensual relationship policy draft questioned

A provost’s committee will take another look at proposed revisions to the University’s policy on consensual relationships, following faculty requests to clarify and simplify the draft policy.

A Faculty Assembly review yielded suggestions but no formal action. “In essence, we want to approve this policy, but I’m thinking that wouldn’t happen if we brought it for a vote right now,” University Senate President Frank Wilson told Laurie J. Kirsch, vice provost for faculty affairs, development and diversity, at the end of an hourlong discussion at the Assembly’s Oct. 11 meeting.

“Do you think that it would be practical to take these suggestions back to see what changes of language could be made that would not require going all the way back to zero?” he asked.

Kirsch, chair of the provost’s ad hoc committee, agreed to return after addressing the faculty comments with her group.

The committee, which has been at work since early 2015, took up the consensual relationships policy after drafting a new sexual misconduct policy that, with the faculty’s endorsement, took effect this summer. (See Sept. 1 University Times.)


Current policy addresses faculty-student relationships, but does not cover staff-student relationships or relationships between employees.

The draft (posted at proposes expanding University policy on consensual relationships to limit consensual romantic, sexual or intimate relationships between faculty, staff and students.

The existing University policy (Policy 02-04-03), in effect since July 1996, prohibits intimate relationships between faculty and students “whose academic work, teaching or research is being supervised or evaluated by the faculty member.” It requires faculty to remove themselves from the supervisory role should a relationship exist or develop, or risk disciplinary action.

The updated policy would prohibit faculty or staff “from soliciting or having consensual relationships with any graduate or undergraduate student whose academic work, teaching, residence life, athletics, employment or conduct they are directly or indirectly responsible for supervising or evaluating, or for whom there is the reasonable likelihood of future supervision or evaluation,” and would require employees to disclose to their supervisor any consensual relationships that exist or develop while the employee is in an evaluative or supervisory position.

Likewise, the proposal would prohibit supervisors from beginning or attempting to begin consensual relationships with an employee under their area of responsibility.

It would discourage, but not prohibit, relationships between co-workers, although the draft states that “the University reserves the right to intervene if the relationship disrupts the working environment or violates the University’s sexual misconduct policy” and cautions that those who violate the policy “may be subject to a range in sanctions, depending on the facts and circumstances and the application of other policies, such as the sexual misconduct policy.”

In her presentation to the Assembly, Kirsch explained the spirit underlying the proposed draft, noting that the committee recognized the need to balance individual freedoms — “freedom to have relationships and associations” with protecting students, faculty and staff.

She cited protection of students as one of the “key guiding principles” underlying the proposed revisions, noting that not all faculty-student relationships would be banned.

“The committee felt strongly that the success of the University’s mission depends on trusting and respectful relationships between employees, and especially between faculty and students. Committee members also agreed that when individuals involved in a consensual relationship are in positions of unequal power — such as between a faculty member and a student — or work closely together, there is the potential for a conflict of interest, favoritism and exploitation.

“We believe that such relationships have the potential for unintended negative consequences on the students or the educational environment generally, and potentially impacts the learning environment for those involved in the relationship, and possibly others,” Kirsch said.

“Such relationships can lead to undesired behaviors or perceptions of undesired behaviors such as undue access or advantages or restricted opportunities for some,” she said.


In their comments, faculty took more issue with “nebulous” language than with the underlying intent to protect students and those with less power in a relationship.

“I think nobody’s questioning the intent,” said Maria Kovacs, co-chair of the Senate tenure and academic freedom committee (TAFC). “I think what everybody’s questioning is the execution and the language of the document.”

Former Senate president Nick Bircher, a TAFC member, expressed his concern, saying that the policy needs both “further definition of many of the terms, and some procedural guidelines for responding to inaccurate allegations.

“What if the allegation is incorrect?” he asked, noting that the policy provides no procedure for defending against such claims.

Jay Sukits of business was one of several who questioned the policy’s references to relationships that cause “significant disruptions and distractions” or “substantially interfere” with the educational environment.

“Some of this language … gives rise to all kinds of subjective opinions and subjective conclusions,” he said, adding that the vague language could leave individuals vulnerable to accusers who are angry or who have a vendetta. “Anyone can claim virtually anything,” sparking a probe, he cautioned.

Senate past president Michael Spring pointed out that the terms are open to interpretation. “Different people will have different views as to what is substantive and disruptive,” he said. “Who’s the arbiter of ‘substantially?’

“Every supervisor is going to have to identify what ‘substantially interferes’ means … or ‘disrupts the working environment,’” he said.

He suggested as well that the committee streamline the document by eliminating references to behavior that already is prohibited under the University’s sexual misconduct policy and to focus on the intent — the aim to remediate situations in which harm can be done — rather than go into lengthy references to disciplinary action.

“Accentuate the positive,” he urged.


Others inquired about the effect on married couples.

“Does this send a message about further chilling the possibility of spousal hires?” asked John Stoner of history, noting that a number of faculty are connected with other faculty or administrators within departments or centers. “The abstract nature of the language is concerning,” he said.

“This is not an attempt to ban all relationships; this is not saying that all relationships need to be reported,” Kirsch said. “It’s really focusing on where there is supervision or evaluation, or where with faculty and students there is likely to be supervision.”


Abbe deVallejo of medicine criticized the policy as “nothing more than ‘stop and frisk,’ questioning its references to “potential” for negative outcomes. “Is the University going to be engaged in examining personal relationships?” he asked, arguing that the policy acts “on the presumption of guilt rather than the presumption of innocence.

“The idea is to protect from abuse and to protect from hostile environment, so I think the language of the policy should be about that, rather than about the details of reporting because I am in love with somebody,” he said.

Several faculty, however, welcomed the provision requiring employees to report consensual relationships. Juan Taboas, co-chair of the Senate student admissions, aid and affairs committee, noted that reporting could protect individuals should questions about the consensual nature arise after a relationship ends.

Kacey Marra of medicine, co-chair of the Senate equity inclusion and anti-discriminatory policies committee, said her committee wanted clarification on whether postdocs would be considered faculty or students.

She agreed with other faculty who emphasized that faculty “are here to protect our students.”

As a faculty member who supervises a 25-member lab, she said she discourages all romance between lab members. “I don’t prohibit it, but it can be very disruptive,” she said. “Some are thinking it’s all Cupid going around with his arrow and love is in the air… but in reality, marriages end 50 percent in divorce. So, chances are, the relationships in your lab are not going to end well, so it becomes disruptive for others.”

As a parent of an undergraduate here, she said, “should he fall in love with his professor … it would be nice if those relationships had to be acknowledged and reported.

“Even if it is a professor who is not currently his professor, it doesn’t mean he would not have him or her in a year or two for another class, and it would be nice to have on record that there was a consensual relationship between a student and a professor.”


In other business:

Wilson said the Senate’s annual planning session between its executive committee and Senate committee chairs is set for Oct. 17. The expanded executive committee session will focus on planning the Senate’s agenda and discussing issues arising from committee discussions.

Wilson said he plans to seek ways of organizing working groups among committees that are addressing common issues, rather than to create ad hoc committees. One potential area would be related to various aspects of faculty evaluation.

That topic will be the subject of the Senate’s spring plenary session. Senate Vice President Robin Kear, who is leading the plenary planning, said a committee will meet later this month to discuss content for the plenary session and related events. Additional committee members would be welcomed to expand the current roster of nine, she said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow 





Filed under: Feature,Volume 49 Issue 4

Leave a Reply