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Faculty-Student Consensual Relationship Policies

Hillary Pettegrew, Esq.
October 2020
Guidelines for updating polcies on consensual romantic relationships between students and faculty

Consensual romantic relationships between undergraduate students and faculty at your college or university are potentially high-risk because they can generate costly sexual harassment claims by students. In addition, they may damage participants professionally and personally.

A 2016 review of United Educators’ (UE’s) higher education claims involving student allegations of sexual harassment and assault against employees revealed half of the alleged perpetrators were faculty members. These employees often claimed consensual relationships with complaining students. In recent years, national media attention has focused on multiple high-profile sexual harassment allegations against professors, including several who had consensual relationships with students.

To help prevent sexual harassment, review and, if appropriate, update your written consensual relationship policies. Don’t remain silent on this issue.

Take one of three approaches to regulating relationships between faculty and undergraduate students.

  1. Forbid consensual relationships when faculty have teaching, evaluative, or other supervisory authority over students. This type of policy, which has several variations, is likely the most common. For example, some schools require the faculty member to immediately report the relationship so an alternative class or other arrangements can be made. Universities with this policy include:
  2. Strongly discourage faculty from having consensual personal relationships with students. Point to professional ethics and potential conflicts of interest. This policy may require a faculty member to report the relationship. Among the universities with this approach:
  3. Prohibit all consensual relationships between faculty and undergraduate students. Do this regardless of whether a faculty member has ever had teaching, evaluative, or other supervisory authority over the student. These popular policies are based on the idea that personal relationships between faculty and undergraduates are never truly consensual — even when both are adults — because of the inherent power differential. Institutions with this approach include:

Keep your campus culture and history in mind when considering policy changes. In general, UE recommends either the first or third approach, which help institutions prevent potential sexual harassment of students by faculty and address it effectively if it occurs.

Consult legal counsel before revising significant polices. Because of possible arguments that banning consensual relationships may violate constitutional rights, consulting counsel is especially important for public institutions. However, the University of Connecticut adopted a policy banning consensual relationships and apparently faced no major opposition.

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