Staff-student relations heat up council

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Patrick Jobson

In a short but heated 20-minute debate, the Community Council’s weekly meeting on Nov. 12 revised the College’s policy on student-faculty relationships to include a prohibition against the practice.

The College has been discussing the possibility of updating the sexual relations policy since Sept. 24, when University of Virginia professor Ann. J. Lane delivered a lecture in McCardell Bicentennial Hall urging administrators to take a stand against relationships that place students in a position of relative weakness.

“What does it mean when you are having a relationship with someone who has great power over you?” asked Lane during her talk.

Until the Community Council’s action on Monday, the subject of student-faculty relationships had been ambiguous. The College Handbook currently advises employees that engaging in “romantic or sexual involvements with students Ö [is] discouraged by Middlebury College.”

Major discussion during the Council meeting sought to clarify the gray area of the term “faculty.” Members discussed whether the new policy should apply only to professors, or include all College employees, regardless of their position.

In drafting the proposal, administrators drew on Carleton College’s 2002 Statement on Consensual Relations, which commits the school to punishing any instance of student-faculty relations on campus “found to undermine the trust, respect and fairness that are central to the success of Carleton’s educational mission.”

In a near-unanimous decision, Middlebury’s Community Council ultimately endorsed the spirit of a proposal that appeared remarkably similar to Carleton’s policy.

“The well-being of the learning and teaching community at Middlebury College,” reads the legislation, “depends upon the existence of a relationship of trust, respect, and fairness between faculty and students. Romantic and/or sexual relations, even if consensual, between faculty and students over whom they have direct authority (those whom they currently teach, advise, supervise, coach, or evaluate in any way) violate the integrity of the student/educator relationship described above. Such relations are therefore prohibited by the College, even though such involvements need not constitute a form of sexual harassment.”

The only section of the proposal that the Council did not endorse was a sentence that outlined the penalties a faculty member would face if he or she violated the principles laid out in the motion. According to the rejected line, faculty members could be dismissed if found guilty of breaking the rule.

“The Council is basically saying that it endorses the ideas that are being expressed in this first paragraph,” said Tim Spears, dean of the College and co-chair of the Community Council, “all except for the last sentence, which deals with the issue of the outcome that would happen to a faculty member if they violated this call.”

Most Council members expressed concern with the proposal’s language, which they argued was still ambiguous. Nevertheless, the Council accepted the draft proposal under the basis that the language could be discussed on later occasions. What was important, said representatives, was the College’s establishment of a firm policy on student-faculty relationships at all.

The natural next step for the Council will be the implementation of the new policy. It remains to be seen whether the College community will accept and respect the motion approved on Monday. Still, Student Co-Chair of Community Council Eric Hoest ’08 called the initiative an “ongoing process” that may see the development of further amendments addressing more “gray areas” and ambiguity. One proposal that may soon be considered seeks to clarify the boundaries of employee-student relationships.