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.”