Monday, April 05, 2010

"Parents don’t send their kids to Yale to sleep with their professors"

Yale's new ban on faculty-undergrad relationships, even if there's no teacher-student or advisor-advisee conflict, (via) strikes me as... I'm not quite sure. Assorted thoughts:

-Sayeth Yale: "Parents don’t send their kids to Yale to sleep with their professors." True enough, I suppose. But do parents send their kids to Yale or any other residential college with the hopes that their offspring will be having sex with people they meet there, even other undergrads? Or that they'll drink underage and whatever else? Sure, it can be a problem in the long run if students make it through college without any romantic attachments along the way, but I sort of assume most parents take an 'I don't want to know about it' stance towards their young-adult children's social lives, especially during that time.

-In terms of potential for disastrous fallout, it might make more sense for colleges to ban students from dating within the same year and major, because these people aren't going anywhere, than to worry about sociology majors dating middle-aged medievalists. When the latter couple splits, they never have to see each other again!

-In terms of parents, mentioning them in this context does, upon further reflection, kind of make sense. It never entered into my head to want to date any of my profs in part because it is my life's goal to make academia the least dramatic place on earth, but also because the very idea struck me as icky, given that these were people paid by my parents to take an interest in me. It's odd, now I don't much think about the fact that students/parents pay and profs/TAs get paid, but as an undergrad, I did, absolutely. It didn't matter that I worked as well - the dynamic created by parental tuition was what it was. Granted, I suppose this only works for students actually in a given prof's class. I didn't have much occasion to meet professors except in that situation, though, so it's hard to say if I'd have found that icky as well.

-A college is not a government. Yes, 22 would be an awfully old age of consent. But organizational rules can and do go above and beyond reasonable laws. If you think of this in terms of titles, as in, you can only date people whom you could call by a first name, then it's clear why profs are out of bounds, but why an 18-year-old in the workforce could date an older colleague. Even if Professor Smith is from a different department, she's still Professor Smith to your roommate, which means it'll be awfully strange if she swings by the dorm.

-Still, I suppose I fail to see the difference between the art student dating the math prof and two people of the equivalent ranks working in entirely unrelated parts of a business getting involved. Is this just about the further infantilization of college students? Perhaps not - according to the Gawker commentariat, mixed-rank dating can also be against the rules at corporations. Apparently it's all about lawsuits. Now it all makes sense.


Miss Self-Important said...

Clearly it is time to compose my manifesto advocating copious student-professor sex (that is, copious instances thereof, not copious sex, though that would be fine too).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Absolutely! Just as long as it's not for the reasons Judt gives...

What I realize I forgot to add to this post is that it's not just about defining 19-year-olds as children (i.e. potential victims of some kind of academic statutory rape), but also about the professionalization of academia. A generation of grad students who made it that far in school on account of being well-rounded and reasonable are not the sort to launch into erotic meeting-of-minds affairs with profs their parents' age.

PG said...

Hmm... based on a friend's experience in college, I'm OK with this rule.

She was in Program A and started dating a sophomore guy in Program B about a week after she first matriculated. He was her first serious boyfriend and she was really traumatized when they broke up after a year and a half. A very famous and "cool" professor in Program B with whom she'd become acquainted while dating her ex became a shoulder to cry on while she was getting over the breakup, and she looked upon him as a kind of father figure during a phase when all men were the enemy. (FWIW, she isn't very close to her own father, who is rarely in the U.S. at all.) When she was saying goodbye to the professor for the summer, they hugged -- as they'd done before -- and he kissed her. Including sticking his tongue in her mouth. She was so shocked and freaked out that she kind of just stumbled away. He then sent her a letter along the lines of "I thought you were mature enough to handle an adult relationship with me."

If all undergrad-faculty romance is ruled out, that shit can't happen. As for the parental viewpoint, her mom had tolerated her dating the upperclassman, but she threatened to file a complaint against the professor for Frenching her daughter. Really, there's a difference between "part of growing up is getting into relationships ... maybe, eek, even physical ones ... with your peers" and "a man my age took advantage of my daughter."

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


That story's unsettling, but so is the assumption you sort of have to have to find it unsettling, which is that a college student is basically a child who can be "taken advantage of" by another person who's not in fact their own teacher or boss. I mean, being kissed by someone you don't want tongue from is always unpleasant, but I'm not sure what power the prof had in this case - "I thought you were more mature" might traumatize a 15-year-old, but a college student would be more likely to interpret this as "I sure hoped you'd be interested and want you to feel as crappy as I do."

(And if all that came out of this was that letter and the tongue that preceded it, I can think of far, far worse that occurs between theoretically-appropriate-for-each-other undergrads, who are effectively given license to stalk, assault, etc., in the privacy of their own dorms.)

And in terms of parents, yes, to them, college kids are children, but at what point can adults date other adults without age difference being interpreted as statutory rape? I know enough mid-20-somethings in serious relationships with mid-40-somethings, relationships that did not begin shall we say this week, where no one's taking advantage of anyone else. A rule like the one at Yale wouldn't prevent anyone's post-age-of-consent child from dating 40-year-olds, just from dating 40-year-old faculty members. Do you think it mattered, in the story you describe, that the old guy was a prof, or did that just put him in her path?

Basically, what I'm getting at is that I can understand these rules in terms of abuse of power, but not so much age. I fully buy that 15-year-olds are old enough to date one another but not 45-year olds. 19-year-olds are, I think, another story. Then again, by convention, there's a sort of post-college rule (as in, everyone post-college is an adult and thus a potential date), so who knows.

PG said...

The power to grade someone down or fire her is not the only kind of power that matters. This sort of goes back to my rational basis argument for having laws that forbid consensual adult incest. I think certain relationships should be free of sexual possibilities, in order to allow people to feel that giving trust and confidences doesn't have to be weighed against whether this will eventually be used in an effort at seduction.

I also tend to regard having sex with any one particular person, or at any particular time, as not so important that it takes priority over other values; e.g. I am not that troubled by strict liability in statutory rape cases. If the object of your affections is really so special, you can wait until he's 18, or in this case, no longer an undergraduate.

I'm not terming this as being about age so much as being about the type of relationship that undergrads should be able to have with faculty. So yes, what matters is that the "old guy was a prof," but it's relevant to that fact that being a prof "put him in her path," because it's not like she was hanging out on the Downtown Mall looking for support from random middle-aged men. Colleges sell the idea that it is part of the role of the faculty in general (not just one's own professors in a particular semester) to be mentors, advisers and all-around quasi-parental figures toward undergraduates. Mandating that the faculty not look upon the undergrad population as dating material fits with that marketing.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I'm curious about your argument, but your blog is not available to the uninvited. In terms of the rest, I think you might be overstating the emphasis schools put on faculty in general as opposed to one's own profs. (And by marketing, do you mean to the parents, the students, or both?)

A middle ground I could see making sense would be to ban relationships between not only current students and profs, but also between anyone in the same department/anyone who was once someone's student/prof. But yeah, this would be tough to enforce, and would fail to make things black-and-white. Because I see how authority goes beyond someone actually in control of a grade, but I still fail to see how it's wrong for the art student and math prof or vice versa to get involved. Faculty are not, at least I don't think, "quasi-parental," certainly not by virtue of being faculty. The remote possibility that a student in the math dept. will find a parental figure in someone in the art dept. isn't quite enough to make such a relationship inherently skeevy.

There's also a gender dynamic here. My (anecdotal) sense is that the weirdness factor is often much lower for gay men (not sure about lesbians) of very different ages than for straight couples, particularly when the younger party is female.

So basically, colleges need to ban all faculty-student relationships, only those between current students and profs, or none at all. I can see why banning all makes sense, since the boundary probably does go a bit beyond current student and current prof, but drawing it anywhere else is too complicated. For the other side, I guess we can wait for Miss Self-Important.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"overstating the emphasis schools put on faculty in general as opposed to one's own profs" - I mean, overstating the emphasis they put on profs as parental figures. I may be too tired for blog-comments...

PG said...

Oops, I don't post there anymore so I forgot that it was invite-only. I sent an invite to your Gmail address.

I'm referring to the marketing to both parents and students; I think it's somewhat difficult to disentangle the two, since nowadays a great deal of the college hunt is a joint parent-student effort. My parents were fairly moderate in their involvement in the process (they didn't look at my applications or read my essays or even suggest that I apply to any schools other than Harvard and Yale), but they still accompanied me when I visited colleges (since at the time I didn't have a driver's license).

I'd say the main difference in the marketing between generations is that parents are probably more easily fooled by it, being less cynical than their offspring. For example, when the UVa tour guide extolled the wonders of the Honor System, my dad and the other parents seemed quite impressed, while the applicants (including me) rolled our eyes.

But yeah, at nearly all the schools to which I applied, the printed materials and admissions tours emphasized the existence of an academic community beneficently overseen by the faculty at large. (The exception was UT-Austin, which is so huge that even parents couldn't be gulled into believing it.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Thanks, read it. A couple things...

1) I think we're agreed that all things equal, prof-student relationships (even if no one's anyone's teacher, adviser, etc) are not ideal. (I wouldn't say the taboo's at all the same as incest, though, and certainly not in the no one's anyone else's teacher scenario.) But nor are, say, down-the-hall dorm relationships, not because of power but because of the inescapability of the other person when things go downhill, and indeed it's these, not prof ones, that I've seen cause the biggest problems among undergrads.

If your point is that it's always OK to ban potentially problematic classes of relationship when people would theoretically have other options ("Someone who insists that she is attracted only to her siblings would have to go without any sexual relationships if all of her siblings died. Someone who insists that he is attracted only to other men has a much broader field."), this to me seems overly restrictive. Or at least, you have to take into account the damage done by forbidding otherwise reasonable pairings that happen to fall into the forbidden camp. It's admittedly hard to picture this with incest, but again, the 22-year-old math student and the 30-year-old art prof theoretically could find other partners, but if they're into each other, they won't.

2) There are two different 'college experiences.' There's the one presented to parents, put in brochures, etc., and the one students actually, well, experience. Of course these two are worlds apart. What's frustrating me about this is the 'parents don't ship their kids off to college to do X' line. When so much of what happens doesn't square with what parents imagine (both in terms of what their kids actually do and in terms of what they're day-to-day free to do), it seems arbitrary to use theoretical parental disapproval, of all things, as the basis for this ban. College exists in this realm of suspended disbelief, and I'm not convinced that most parents (your friend's experience notwithstanding) rank 'affairs with profs' high among their concerns. I mean, there's plenty a college student could do that would horrify parents more than dating a 30-year-old assistant professor. (Add 'of the opposite sex and preferred religion/ethnicity' and some parents would probably be thrilled.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Or, more succinctly, this comes down to whether you think a particular rule should round up or down. Any ban on relationships between consenting adults will prevent some harmless and even positive relationships as well as some harmful ones. But yeah, it makes sense that universities would round up.

PG said...

I mean, there's plenty a college student could do that would horrify parents more than dating a 30-year-old assistant professor.

Sure, but how much of it is plausibly under the college's control? My undergraduate school already banned drinking and drugs on campus, didn't allow unmarried students of the opposite sex to share campus housing, etc. In contrast, the behavior of the university's employees is much more under the school's control. If you ban people who live on the same hall from dating each other, and you penalize students who get caught at it, their parents will complain. In contrast, if you ban faculty from dating students and you penalize only faculty who get caught at it, parents won't give a damn. (Though who knows, when the helicopter-parented generation becomes professor age, perhaps their parents will call from retirement to bitch out their employers.)

Or at least, you have to take into account the damage done by forbidding otherwise reasonable pairings that happen to fall into the forbidden camp.

Here the analogy is better drawn to statutory rape than to incest prohibitions. If you really love (or just wanna have sex with) someone who's forbidden right now but will be totally fair game in a couple years, is it really that terrible to spend those two years being friends? Temporary restrictions strike me as far less harsh than permanent ones. I just don't think the damage can be that great by having people wait.

Even if someone hauls out an anecdote about how a professor loved an undergrad but was forbidden to date her under college rules, and then she got brain cancer and died before they could fulfill their love... I'm not weeping. I don't see sex with a particular person at a particular time to be very important.

Fundamentally, you're assuming that the relationships will be wholly prevented, while I assume that if there's really much there, the relationship is merely delayed.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"If you ban people who live on the same hall from dating each other, and you penalize students who get caught at it, their parents will complain."

Really? I could imagine plenty of parents, including not-at-all socially-conservative ones, loving this rule. I think you hit the heart of the matter, though, by pointing out how much easier it is for universities to regulate employee than student behavior. There's not much in it for a college not to have a rule like this.

Finally, I don't quite agree with the comparison to statutory rape. Yes, both involve waiting, but a) if the waiting has to extend not till the student gets the grade and the semester's over, but rather until the student graduates, it's a tough order to expect a love 'so great' that even unconsummated, the student will stick around in the college's town to see what comes of it. Because the alternative is beginning a relationship long-distance, when I suspect long-distance works best when there's some kind of established same-town relationship prior. If you look at relationships as fated, soul-mates, all that, then 'if it was meant to be...' makes sense. But if you keep in mind the extent to which circumstance and proximity matters, this rule is effectively a lifelong ban on relationships between people who happened to be faculty/students at a particular time.

PG said...

But if you keep in mind the extent to which circumstance and proximity matters, this rule is effectively a lifelong ban on relationships between people who happened to be faculty/students at a particular time.

But this is just as true for the statutory rape issue, particularly in the several states (AZ, CA, DE, FL, ID, ND, OR, TN, UR, VA, WA, WI, WY) where the age of consent is 18 and many potential partnerships will never reach the romantic stage because the younger party has left to go to college or pursue other opportunities.

My most serious relationship before marriage was with a guy I went to college with and had been friends with there, but didn't date until we were both living elsewhere. I don't see why a few relationships that end up not happening, because the people weren't interested enough to stay in touch or stay in the same town to make them, is such a significant social cost.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


OK. In the interest of not talking past each other... I agree with you that it's understandable for colleges to have such rules. I disagree a) that parents by and large care about universities having such rules, b) that there's an inherent power imbalance worthy of concern between the 30-year-old math prof and the 20-year-old art student, c) that 'if there's something there' a relationship will typically begin long-distance yet still thrive (your experience notwithstanding).

I do think there's harm that can come from such a ban, but not quite the harm you seem to think I mean. It's not so much about preventing the math prof and art student from the love affair that might have been, but about defining college students as children even more than is already the case.

PG said...

but about defining college students as children even more than is already the case.

I guess I don't see this as defining college students as children even more than is already the case, given the set of restrictions, monitoring and so forth that already exists at many undergraduate schools. I mean, my school had mandatory orientation sessions about what was appropriate and acceptable to do when expressing romantic interest in someone, or when trying to have sexual relations. I don't think we could have been more infantilized short of having our meat cut up for us.

It's not like the students are being forbidden to date anyone older than themselves; only that they will not be dating faculty so long as they are undergrads. And again, I think the schools that adopt this policy are probably the ones trying to advertise themselves as places where the faculty at large acts as mentors and advisers rather than as potential romantic partners; i.e. schools that promote themselves as nurturing and supporting students. Schools that have a more "throw them in the deep end and see who can swim" attitude (which I think larger state schools like UMich and UTexas do) are less likely to adopt such policies, because they would be at odds with the existing atmosphere of the school. But at schools that set up mentoring and tutoring programs specifically for students recruited from underprivileged backgrounds, in order to ensure they succeed at university? Yeah, it makes sense. And I think it's something that the parents who want their children at the nurturing-style schools will like. It probably won't make the difference for a parent influencing a student who's choosing between Fordham and Georgetown, but it might have some marginal effect, just as UVa's honor system had in my dad's feeling more positively toward the school than he otherwise would have done.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


The very fact that this rule evokes statutory rape laws tells me that it's about college students being defined as over-18s who don't count as such, in part because their parents are (presumed to be) paying their way. That other such rules already exist (although I'm not remembering a whole lot existing at my college or at ones my friends went to) doesn't make tossing one more into the pile such a fabulous idea.

Again, I don't see any tragedy in undergrads not dating faculty, and have agreed with you that it's understandable that schools would have such a rule. But I think defining faculty as experts in their fields there to teach their subjects and only there to intervene if a student is seriously troubled (i.e. not as overall mentors-slash-parent-figures) announces to students - the vast majority of whom aren't about to date or be pursued romantically by faculty members - that they are, slowly but surely, becoming adults. I do think there's some value in that.