The right to romance
Why universities shouldn't prohibit relations between teachers and students
TO UNDERSTAND how twisted the sexual politics of university life have become, consider the movie "Legally Blonde." Elle Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon, is a fashion-design student who ends up, almost accidentally, at Harvard Law School. At one point in the movie, her professor (played by Victor Garber) invites her into his office, asks her "how far [she] will go" for an important summer job, and - you can see where this is going - puts his hand on her leg.
The incident nearly causes Elle to leave law school, but she grits her teeth and perseveres. Eventually, after winning a not-guilty verdict in a murder case, she falls in love with Emmett (played by Luke Wilson), her attractive young cocounsel who was also a teaching assistant in one of her classes. At the end of the film, before the credits roll, the audience is told: "Emmett and Elle dated for the past 2 years. Emmett is proposing to Elle tonight." The audience, of course, is thrilled.
But under the rules that increasingly hold sway on many university campuses, both relationships - sleazy sexual harassment and true love by consenting adults - are prohibited.
Over the last decade, there has been a dramatic shift in how universities handle romantic relationships between teachers and students. Sparked in part by fears of expensive sexual harassment lawsuits, colleges have widely banned such relationships, adopting strict rules on dating among students, professors, and even teaching assistants. These rules ignore the rights and liberties of students and professors alike, and treat both as if they were children. They also represent an assault on one of the most fundamental rights of conscience: the right to choose our relationships.
If universities - whose existence is built on the value of freedom of expression - were attacking the freedom of religion, or the freedom of speech, there would be a great outcry. But this is a topic that touches on sex, and so it seems difficult to have a reasonable, dispassionate debate on the merits.
There are clearly dangers in allowing romantic relations between teachers and students. Academia can be a fiercely competitive environment, so romance between professors and students invariably creates a risk of favoritism. And the power difference between professors and students raises the possibility that a young student could be coerced - or just charmed - into a relationship with an older teacher. However, if there are straightforward ways of mitigating the potential for damage, like strict conflict-of-interest rules, then the outright bans in place at many universities are an unnecessary affront.
The US Constitution, of course, does not explicitly recognize a "right to romance," but the basis for the right runs deep. Freedom of the mind was an essential concept for the Founders. They sought to protect the rights of conscience, which encompass the rights to think, choose, and judge freely. This is the constitutional bedrock that supports our religious rights, and more generally, our right to make our own intimate choices. The choices we make about love are no less critical to our identity than the choices we make about God and religion. Absent some clear harm, the government should not be in the business of dictating our romantic choices; this is one of the many reasons that laws against marriage between races, or for gay couples, are outrageous. And it certainly shouldn't fall within the power of a quasi-governmental institution such as a university or corporation to rule our private lives.
Yet universities have been increasingly assuming this power. In the late 1990s, these rules started to become more common. In 1998, for example, Yale University passed a ban on consensual romantic relations between students and professors (and others in teaching roles) who supervise them, or could in the future. Offenders would receive disciplinary action. In 2002 the American Association of University Professors concluded that consensual sexual relationships between professors and students are "fraught with difficulties," and suggested that schools address the problem. Some universities, notably Harvard, have opted for a more nuanced position, recommending that professors refrain from a sexual relationship with a student whom they are "officially" grading. But more common are rules, like Yale's, that ban all relationships between professors and students they supervise or could potentially supervise.
There are, undoubtedly, real dangers in professors playing favorites or exploiting their power, but the important question is whether there are more reasonable ways to deal with the issue.
Universities have clear rules about sexual harassment, and these rules should be strictly enforced. Sexual harassment is a coercive and hostile assault upon the integrity and autonomy of another person. It is potentially illegal and always immoral. Many of the worst situations people imagine fall indisputably under the heading of harassment, and are already prohibited and punishable.
Clearly, there is a power differential between professor and student. A professor's position and experience can be both persuasive and attractive. But with one exception (the relationship between psychotherapist and client), people are not generally precluded from romance because of social power gaps. There are no laws stating that judges and senators, billionaires and rock stars, can date only people of comparable influence. The difference in psychotherapy is that it is a nonreciprocal relationship from the start (the client unburdens, but the therapist never does) and the process of transference, whereby the client projects needs and desires on the therapist, is an essential part of therapy. Sex between a therapist and client is thus an abuse of transference, which is not a factor in the faculty-student relationship.
A ban on romantic relations also fails to accord autonomy to students who are legal adults, old enough to vote or to join the Army. Furthermore, although Hollywood is fond of portraying the aging professor and young coed falling in love ("The Wonder Boys" comes to mind), in the real world it is usually people of comparable ages and interests who find each other and start to date - a young professor and a PhD student, for instance, or a graduate student and a college senior. This is no less true on a college campus than in any other environment.
Favoritism is a more pressing concern, but there are solutions. Judges, for example, must disqualify themselves in cases in which a personal bias exists (for example, a former partnership with an attorney on the case). Medical researchers must disclose all sources of funding, particularly from drug manufacturers whose products they are evaluating.
A professor who is romantically involved with a student faces the same problem, and similar procedures should be used: recusal, disclosure, and third-party evaluations. If a student falls in love, he or she should switch classes or professors. If that is not feasible, the professor should assign someone else (another professor, a teaching assistant) to do the grading. These options are not perfect, but they are reasonable, and have been adopted as the standard in other professions.
Despite the high-minded rhetoric of universities, there is a more mundane reason driving these new rules: they save money. In sexual harassment lawsuits, the aggrieved party usually sues the deep-pocketed university as well as the alleged perpetrator. A blanket prohibition on romantic relations gives the university a stronger defense. It is not a coincidence that both Yale and the University of California system adopted their new consensual-romance rules after embarrassing, and presumably expensive, lawsuits.
In any case, the burden should fall on universities to prove that their rules, which abridge a fundamental right, are absolutely necessary. The Ninth Amendment is clear: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." The choice of one's romantic partner is no less essential to the formation of the self, no less a matter of the integrity of our private sphere, than well-protected First Amendment rights such as religion and speech.
For many students and professors, the university represents virtually their entire social world. This is where they are likely to meet people, and romance is occasionally the result. If we let universities prohibit consenting adults from falling in love, what will be next? Our ultimate freedom lies in our power to make choices, and a university prohibition that suppresses choice tramples the very nature of freedom itself.
Paul R. Abramson is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of "Romance in the Ivory Tower: The Rights and Liberty of Conscience" (MIT Press).