Commentary  A Call for McGill to Ban Student-Teacher Relationships

For the consideration of the Ad-Hoc Senate Committee on Teaching Staff-Student Intimate Relationships, members of the McGill Senate, Drs. Angela Campbell (Associate Provost) and Christopher Manfredi (Vice-Provost), and the McGill community at large:

Over the past year, the question of intimate relationships between professors and students has become a major concern for the McGill community, with the formation of the Ad-Hoc Senate Committee being an encouraging step in the right direction. So far, the question has largely been framed in terms of consent and sexual violence; however—without denying the legitimate concerns surrounding these issues—we suggest a policy ‘bracketing’ these questions and approaching the matter from a different angle. The alternative we propose, in line with principles to which the university is already committed, would be easier to respect and to enforce. We propose that intimate relationships between students and teaching staff be understood in terms of professional misconduct and considered a violation of the trust (or a ‘fiduciary duty’) that must exist within an educational institution for it to be able to provide a positive, productive, and safe academic environment for all students, in accordance with McGill’s existing mandate.

We contend that all educators have a professional responsibility, in their interactions with all students at their institution, to act based on what is in the best pedagogical interests of these students (i.e. their interests as learners). Educators should always aim to put students’ interests as learners first in their interactions with them, and have a responsibility not to act contrary to these interests. That is, educators’ own interests in their students must be primarily ‘other- directed’, putting students’ interests as learners first whenever possible. A personal interest in a student involving some benefit to the educator— including as a potential romantic or sexual partner—renders that educator unable to ensure that they will act in the student’s best interests as a learner, as these personal and other-directed interests are incompatible.

we call for McGill to create and implement a policy (1) fully banning amorous or sexual relationships between any faculty members and any undergraduate student, and (2) banning amorous or sexual relationships between (i) faculty members and graduate students within the same department or who could influence the graduate student’s supervision or academic career, and (ii) course lecturers or TAs and any student currently enrolled in their courses (not just their conference sections), where these relationships were in any way initiated in or mediated through the involved persons’ roles within the university, or otherwise occurred within the university context

McGill’s existing Conflict of Interest policy does not adequately address the conflicts that arise between students and teaching staff involved in romantic or sexual relationships. Not only is the policy designed mainly to apply to matters of professional or academic status or financial benefit, but it requires people to disclose any potential conflicts of interest in advance of a conflict arising. However, an educator taking an active romantic or sexual interest in a student already involves a conflict
of the interests described above, and so already constitutes a violation of a fiduciary duty. By the time the personal interest starts to be an influence on the educator’s interactions with the student, even before any relationship has started, the relevant interests have already conflicted, making reporting the potential for conflict redundant.

Seen from the students’ side, a professor, course instructor, or TA expressing personal interest in a student breaches a trust that students must be able to place in those who are teaching them and supervising their education, where this applies beyond their current teachers in a particular term. Students need to be able to trust those teaching, supervising, or advising them (or who might plausibly do so at some point in their academic careers) to regard and relate to them primarily as learners when receiving grades and feedback, discussing ideas in office hours, seeking advice on academic careers, requesting reference letters, inquiring about a course, etc. Students who think an educator is actively personally interested in them beyond an interest in their thinking and academic development won’t be as free to express ideas, share knowledge and perspectives, take feedback as impartial constructive criticism, question grades, ask for extensions or accommodations, etc.—all of which present barriers to a positive and effective learning environment. And if an educator is known to be in relationships with students, or even to take an active ‘amorous’ interest in some students, other students in their courses or those who want to study the subject they teach won’t necessarily be able to trust the educator to regard or treat them equitably.

These considerations apply regardless of whether it is possible for the student to give consent in such relationships. In a case where, for the sake of argument, the relationship was consensual, the breach of professional responsibility and fiduciary duty outlined above will still have occurred, and will still negatively impact the academic environment of the university, contrary to McGill’s commitments to its students. In light of these considerations, we call for McGill to create and implement a policy (1) fully banning amorous or sexual relationships between any faculty members and any undergraduate student, and (2) banning amorous or sexual relationships between (i) faculty members and graduate students within the same department or who could influence the graduate student’s supervision or academic career, and (ii) course lecturers or TAs and any student currently enrolled in their courses (not just their conference sections), where these relationships were in any way initiated in or mediated through the involved persons’ roles within the university, or otherwise occurred within the university context. The last clause is meant to address worries about policing the private lives of members of the McGill community outside of any connection to their positions in the university. For instance, faculty members or students who choose to engage in anonymous consensual sex in their private lives should not be subject to sanctions for ‘honest mistakes’ arising from not knowing the status of their partners. It would also not apply to a professor whose spouse or partner decides to pursue a degree at McGill and thus becomes an undergraduate student after their relationships began—here, declaring a potential conflict of interest under the existing policy would suffice. However, the policy should apply to cases where two people already familiar with one another in their capacities as educator and student encounter one another off university property. This accords with McGill’s current definition of ‘University Context’, which includes actions occurring off-campus “where the conduct has consequences that may be reasonably seen to adversely affect … the right of a member of the University community to use or enjoy the University’s learning or working environment.”

A ban such as we propose is in line with articles 4.1 and 4.2 of the Charter of Students’ Rights, which guarantees students freedom from unwanted advances or expressions of interest from university employees. An official ban on ‘amorous’ student-professor relationships that the university was willing to enforce may be the only way to protect this right: one can never know in advance whether an expression of interest will be ‘wanted’ or not, so dis-incentivizing any such advances by prohibiting the goal of such advances (i.e. an intimate relationship) and making it subject to professional sanctions is the best way to avoid such advances occurring. Although a ban can’t stop inappropriate behaviour from ever occurring, anything less than a ban that includes significant sanctions (e.g. loss of tenure or firing) that are actually enforced will be insufficient as a deterrent, and will conflict with the university fulfilling its existing commitments to providing a positive, productive, safe, and inclusive educational environment.

We’ve suggested the policy should apply differently to undergraduate and graduate students. While there is added potential for abuse when it comes to graduate students and professors within their discipline in terms of possible effects on a student’s academic career, the potential for abuses of power and the breach of the fiduciary duty discussed above may not always apply when the graduate student and professor are from different departments where there is no professional or academic relation. However, because undergraduates take courses outside their majors and have the possibility of switching majors or minors, etc., where this is necessary for their academic flourishing, it seems reasonable to hold the professional responsibility to apply to all undergraduate students enrolled in an educator’s institution.

We urge that any policy implementing the above suggestions should clearly outline: which activities and relations the policy covers; which members of the university community it applies to; the procedures for filing complaints of policy violation; and meaningful sanctions for violation, up to and including loss of tenure or termination of employment. With the issue of consent bracketed, less proof would be required to demonstrate an ‘amorous’ relationship than is required to prove that sex occurred, which would make the policy less problematic to enforce while still requiring a standard of proof that would protect individuals from false allegations. With sanctions applying to the educator and not the student, with a reasonable standard of proof for an involved student to meet, and with the question of consent bracketed, such a policy would create the strongest possible dis-incentive for any educator to initiate or pursue such a relationship or to allow one to occur.

By banning student-teacher relationships, McGill would join a number of universities with similar bans such as Harvard, Yale, and MIT, and would bring itself in line with policies governing professionals in other fields, such as health care providers. It would also show the administration’s willingness to play a proactive leadership role in addressing inappropriate behaviour in workplaces and institutions. Just as a policy on plagiarism that only “strongly discouraged” it without outlining serious consequences for plagiarizing, up to and including expulsion, would show a lack of any serious commitment to doing as much as possible to prevent plagiarism, anything less than a full ban, at least as involves undergraduate students, will fail to show the university’s willingness to do what it can to prevent inappropriate behaviour that negatively impacts the educational life of its students—and, in some cases, to prevent full-fledged sexual abuse.

Sincerely,
David Collins, PhD Philosophy, and anonymous members of the Philosophy Students’ Association and the Philosophy Graduate Students’ Association.