Abandon the ban on faculty-student relationships

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Banning faculty-student relationships protect universities, not their students. 

Martha Piper, UBC’s (University of British Columbia) interim president, recently stated that she would consider implementing a ban on relationships between students and faculty. UBC’s current conflict of interest policy requires full disclosure of such a relationship, but does not ban them outright. 

“While these provisions are in place, I still remain concerned about how ‘consent’ and ‘conflict’ are defined in an environment where there is a power imbalance,” Piper told The Ubyssey.

While the power imbalance inherent in faculty-student relationships is concerning, a complete ban won’t help the problem either.

Restricting all faculty-student relationships doesn’t necessarily guarantee that they won’t happen. It simply means that they will continue to occur behind closed doors. With students and faculty forced into secrecy about their relationships, victims of a power imbalance may be even less inclined to report potential abuse or sexual assault. 

Queen’s current conflict of interest policy, like UBC, also requires partners to disclose their relationship to a superior, who then makes arrangements for someone else to have control over the student’s grades. 

This opportunity to tell someone protects against the detriments of a power imbalance, but would be lost if a ban was in place. If there are punitive consequences to coming forward, partners may be more hesitant to report misconduct.

The idea of a ban is valid if universities are mainly concerned about their liability. If a relationship is happening in spite of a ban and an instance of abuse or sexual assault occurs, a university can’t be blamed for not taking preventative measures. 

However, a ban is an unhelpful way of addressing issues of power imbalances if we’re trying to protect students.

Models for a ban already exist in universities in the United States that have implemented such restrictions on all students except for graduate students. 

But, by placing a divide along those lines, these universities are making an unreasonable assumption that the same issues of power imbalances don’t occur among graduate students. 

If universities believe that professor-student relationships are harming students, they should focus on gathering research to prove that students are suffering without the ban and the current policy isn’t serving its purpose.

Potentially toxic power imbalances in faculty-student relationships is an important issue to discuss, but an outright ban protects universities against criticism rather than the students from harm.

Journal Editorial Board

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