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A ban on student-professor relationships is long overdue

U of T must update its policies to keep students safe from harassment
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A few weeks ago, Brock University allowed Professor David Schimmelpenninck to return to teaching after he had been absent for three years as a result of a discipline in a sexual harassment case involving a student. Brock students staged a protest in response to the decision, calling for Schimmelpenninck’s resignation. Ultimately, the course was cancelled before the first lecture ever took place, but the professor should never have been allowed to return, and this is not the first time a Canadian university has mishandled a sexual harassment claim.

In recent years, a toxic culture of grooming, harassment, and abuse in academia has been unearthed. Consider the secrecy of the case against a high profile professor at the University of British Columbia in 2016, or the allegations of sexual harassment at Concordia University’s creative writing program that surfaced last year after almost two decades of complaints. 

Survivors said that the professors’ unwanted advances left them feeling violated and put their studies at risk. A new report released last week from Silence is Violence U of T contains many troubling stories of professors sexually harassing and assaulting students.

This report should serve as the catalyst for U of T to review its policies on sexual relationships between students and professors. It may seem antithetical to target ostensibly consensual relationships in order to stop harassment, but it’s time that the university realizes that the potential for a consensual relationship is undercut by the power imbalance between students and faculty members.

Currently, most Canadian universities do not have an explicit ban on these relationships. At U of T, professors may engage in sexual and romantic relationships with students, but are required to report any relationships of this nature to the chair of their department. The department chair is then responsible for relieving the professor of any professional duties relating to the student or appointing a third party to oversee these decisions.

While these guidelines are important for academic integrity, they do not go far enough to protect students or disrupt cultures of grooming and abuse in academia.

American schools like Yale University and Harvard University have already banned romantic and sexual relationships between students and professors for this reason, and U of T should follow their lead.

Anne Boucher, President of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), told Global News that she is inclined to believe that a relationship between a student and professor would be acceptable as long as the professor wasn’t directly teaching them because “students are adults.” 

However, a professor’s influence goes well beyond a final grade. Professors are often the gatekeepers to networking, research opportunities, and publication. They control spheres of influence that can propel a student’s career forward — or jeopardize it. 

Students and professors are part of a larger social hierarchy on campus. A professor’s tenureship, age, and prestige are all powers they have over students — even ones they aren’t teaching. A blanket ban remains the best approach to ensure that any inappropriate abuse of authority is not taking place.   

Ironically, some divisions of the university already recognize the ways in which power imbalances can affect consent. In the residence that I lived in during my first year, romantic and sexual relationships between students and residence dons were strictly forbidden. Although the age difference is often only a few years, residence dons are fellow students who first-years are meant to look up to as mentors and be able to turn to for conflict mediation. 

Because of this dynamic, a don choosing to pursue a resident is recognized as an inappropriate breach of trust. If romantic and sexual relationships between residents and dons are viewed as inappropriate, then relationships between students and professors — who are often much older and much more powerful — should be all the more unacceptable. 

A simple ban on student-professor relationships would also help to protect professors by clearly delineating inadmissible conduct. Professors would no longer be able to feign ignorance when they’ve crossed a line. Hopefully, this will compel them to cease making advances on students entirely. At the very least, it will demonstrate that the university administration does not condone this behaviour. 

Students should not be put in the position of having to make the difficult decision between accepting a professor’s advances or declining and potentially putting their studies and future in jeopardy. Student advocates like Boucher need to recognize that a ban on student-professor relationships is long overdue, and that they should use their powers to push for policy change. 

University administrations can no longer ignore the part they play in shaping department cultures. It is time they introduce a new policy banning student-professor relationships entirely.

Amelia Eaton is a second-year Political Science and Ethics, Society and Law student at Woodsworth College. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.