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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

A ban on student-professor relationships is long overdue

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.

What are U of T’s policies on student-professor relationships?

No Canadian universities ban such relationships, despite recent controversy at UBC

What are U of T’s policies on student-professor relationships?

The debate around student-professor relationships was recently reopened in Canada in the wake of an alleged sexual assault of a former University of British Columbia (UBC) student by her professor, author and former UBC creative writing chair Steven Galloway. Galloway admitted to having an affair with the student, though he denied sexually assaulting her. Since the issue began in 2016, the student has called on UBC to ban relationships between students and professors.

While many American universities such as Harvard University and Yale University have policies banning sexual relationships between professors and students, no Canadian university has a specific ban on student-professor relationships.

U of T’s policy on such relationships is codified under the Memorandum on Conflict of Interest and Close Personal Relations from the Division of the Vice-President & Provost.

According to the memorandum, instructors romantically involved with a student must disclose their relationship to the chair of their department.

“We also have guidelines that make it clear that faculty members who have close personal relationships with students are in a conflict of interest if they exercise any influence, direct or indirect, in decisions that may affect the student,” said Heather Boon, Vice-Provost Faculty and Academic Life.

It’s the chair’s responsibility to relieve the instructor of their “professional duties” involving the student with whom they have a conflict of interest, or assign a third-party to oversee decisions made by the instructor, according to the memorandum.

The memorandum also states that the academic staff member “should also be aware that if [they] become romantically or sexually involved with a student or a subordinate, [they] leave [themselves] open to allegations of sexual harassment.”

As to whether U of T is considering banning student-professor relationships, Boon said that discussions “on this issue continue to evolve, and we will continue to listen to our community and consider updating policies.”

According to Joshua Grondin, Vice-President University Affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the UTSU has not been made aware of any potential changes to the Conflict of Interest Policy or if these conversations are happening at the administrative level.

“I would imagine that a standalone policy [for student-professor relationships] would be difficult to coordinate, as relationships often fall on a spectrum that can be difficult to pinpoint concretely,” said Grondin in an email. “The current policy allows for this flexibility and makes it easier to apply, in my opinion.”

However, Grondin believes that student-professor relationships should be banned.

“There are very complex power dynamics involved, and I think it exposes students to situations that could be unsafe or unfair if things do not work out,” said Grondin. “Relationships would create a bias, either good or bad, that I feel would inevitably interfere with the professor’s ability to treat the entire class fairly.”

In the worst-case scenario of an abusive professor-student relationship, Grondin said that, regardless of specific U of T policies, “all staff and students are still bound to the law, wherein abuse in relationships is not and should not be tolerated.”

“The UTSU would work to ensure that professors are held accountable to their actions, and that the student can have any resources/exemptions necessary to navigate the situation,” continued Grondin.

Boon noted that U of T’s Sexual Violence Policy covers all members of the U of T community, including faculty, students, and staff.

“Under the policy, supports including accommodations are available to all members of the community.”

Comparing free speech policies across Ontario universities

Less than half of publicly funded universities confirm they are working on a policy

Comparing free speech policies across Ontario universities

In the wake of the provincial government’s announcement that all universities must have freedom of speech policies in place by January 1, The Varsity examined the state of such policies in Ontario. Out of the 21 publicly funded universities represented by the Council of Ontario Universities, only three have posted freedom of speech policies and six others have confirmed with The Varsity that they are currently taking steps to develop one. U of T is among the universities with an existing policy.

The remaining 12 universities have no confirmed plans to develop the required policies nor do they have a publicly posted freedom of speech policy.

According to Premier Doug Ford’s government, these policies must contain a definition of freedom of speech, principles of free expression, disciplinary measures for actions contrary to the policy, and mechanisms for complaints and compliance.

Failure to comply with the provincial mandate, both in the development and enforcement of the policy, may lead to the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities reducing the institution’s operating grant. In addition to the development of free speech policies, student unions and governments are required to abide by these policies and are also encouraged to develop their own guidelines on freedom of expression.

Existing policies

U of T, McMaster University, and Wilfrid Laurier University are the only publicly assisted universities in Ontario that currently have freedom of speech policies that would theoretically conform to the mandate of the provincial government.

U of T has the oldest policy in the province, released in May 1992 under the title “Statement on Freedom of Expression.” It was established by Governing Council and acts as the university’s policy on freedom of speech.

This was reaffirmed by President Meric Gertler in September, following the Ontario government’s announcement.

“These are the principles that guide the advancement of knowledge and enable academic excellence,” said Gertler in a press release.

The U of T policy is not as fully-formed as the other universities’ ones; it serves mainly as a guideline without fully establishing the principles of free expression that are required by the provincial government.

Published in June, McMaster’s policy is outlined in the “Guidance for Event Organizers and Participants,” which was developed in collaboration with its Ad Hoc Committee on Protest and Freedom of Expression as well as the McMaster community. The policy is much more detailed about the specific elements of protest and free speech, including outlining examples of “acceptable protest and dissent.” Within the policy, roles and responsibilities are defined for audience members, organizers, and facilitators. The policy also includes a specific section to define the “Promotion of Dialogue,” which specifically addresses the inclusion of opposing viewpoints and dialogue within the context of controversial material.

After a censorship controversy in November last year, the Senate of Wilfrid Laurier University published its “Statement of Freedom of Expression” in May.

The document lays out the idea of “inclusive freedom,” which defines the role of marginalized communities and actively assures “that all members – including those who could be marginalized, silenced, or excluded from full participation – have an opportunity to meaningfully engage in free expression, enquiry, and learning.” Unlike U of T and McMaster, the statement defines the role of marginalized communities within the context of the free speech policy, encouraging active opposition through an “educational and intellectual approach.”

In progress

The University of Ottawa, the University of Windsor, Carleton University, Trent University, Nipissing University, and the University of Waterloo all confirmed with The Varsity that various degrees of progress have been made toward developing a free speech policy.

Windsor and Nipissing have both formed committees to develop policies that would abide by the mandate set forth by the provincial government.

Ottawa, Carleton, and Waterloo all endorsed a general statement by the Council of Ontario Universities that welcomes “further discussion” with the Ontario government to “balance the right to free expression with universities’ duty to maintain a civil campus environment.”

Trent confirmed that a draft is being circulated within its community. All six universities mentioned above have also committed to consultations with their provincial counterparts and cooperation with the government.

No confirmed plans

Queen’s University, University of Western Ontario, Ryerson University, Algoma University, and York University all either echo or directly endorse the statement by the Council of Ontario Universities, but have no publicly posted information on their free speech policies. They have confirmed with The Varsity that they will take action to meet the Ontario government’s mandate.

All universities have committed to meeting the deadlines set by the provincial government and pledge a thorough commitment to freedom of expression and speech.

In statements to The Varsity, a main concern of all the universities above was ensuring the maintenance of the universities’ policies on civil discourse, physical safety, and security — as well as finding a balance between freedom of expression and an inclusive environment.

Western’s Director of Media and Community Relations added in his statement to The Varsity, “We need that framework to balance the right to freely express with Western’s duty to offer a civil and inclusive campus environment, along with considerations for the safety and security of our campus community.”

The University of Guelph, Lakehead University, the Ontario College of Art and Design University, Royal Military College, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Brock University, and Laurentian University did not respond to requests for comment.

Climate change policy is costly, why don’t we take note?

Government commitment to action is hollow

Climate change policy is costly, why don’t we take note?

Students have a vested interest in the fight against climate change, not least because their age makes them among those mostly likely to be affected by it. Any actions that the current government postpones to a later date, creates an intergenerational transfer to the next group of taxpayers. There is little doubt that climate change is occurring, and few oppose the efforts to fight it, yet many do not care much about the fight either. 

I believe this disparity is a result of the vagueness around the costs and benefits that our government’s actions will bring. For example, elements of the recent COP21 Paris Agreement are vague. The statements indicating that parties will pursue efforts to limit global temperature increase to “well below” 2°C, or that developed countries should help developing ones reach their decarbonization goals, hardly spell out definitive action that the signatory countries intend to make.

Without any mention of monetary costs or other sacrifices that will be required of us, we cannot evaluate the significance of the agreement on a personal level or feel involved in the fight. We then have no other answer to it than a hollow “Hurrah!”  After all, what else can be said of a plan that contains lofty goals and nothing else? 

Some will undoubtedly retort that the international nature of the Paris Agreement necessarily limits its scope. But provincial-level plans like the Ontario Climate Change Strategy published last year suffer, too, from politicians’ unwillingness to flesh out the full costs of their plans. For example, the only economic cost of the cap and trade system Ontario will introduce is supposedly an increase of two to four cents per liter at the pump; emissions from our buildings, the source of 24 per cent of our total emissions, can simply be reduced through updated building codes and better city planning, presumably at no cost; emissions from transportation, source of 35 per cent of our total emissions, can be reduced by ensuring access to electric vehicle charging stations. 

While I do not know the efficiency of these measures, they certainly give the impression that climate change can be solved at next to no cost. No wonder many students feel apathetic and pay only lip service to the cause. Judging from our governments’ action plans, lip service seems all that is needed of us anyway. 

In a way, this is just politics as usual. When politicians announce new measures to fight climate change, they do not want us to think about any associated cost. They merely wish to appear progressive, and perhaps remind us of all the jobs these measures will create. This is a mistake. We will likely support climate change measures even when stronger ones are taken, and the costs are more clearly spelled out. Not doing so only leads to our disengagement from the process. After all, it’s not much of a fight if we can win it for free. 

Li Pan is a fourth-year student at Trinity College studying math and economics.