The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Professors have the responsibility to create strict lines

4 min read
In the academic setting of university life, where the undefined boundaries of student-professor relationships can become blurry, it is difficult to determine how far is too far.


In the academic setting of university life, where the undefined boundaries of student-professor relationships can become blurry, it is difficult to determine how far is too far.

Professors are in the perfect position to be a mentor to young students and to help them grow and mature into responsible adults during a time of great excitement and change.

A good, productive relationship between a professor and his or her student may motivate the student to participate more passionately in their learning. Individual guidance from a trusted adviser is a great way to motivate students to produce work that they are proud of. It is easy to argue that comfort in the classroom facilitates a better academic atmosphere. But this is a very slippery slope.

As comfort levels grow, a number of different methods of exchange may occur. Some students send Facebook messages and texts to their professors, sometimes unrelated to schoolwork or class. Some students stay in their professor’s office talking into the late hours of the night. Some students meet up with their professor away from campus or go have a cup of coffee. These interactions are rarely appropriate, but many people dispute whether the sex of the professor and student are the same or opposite, and how that changes the interaction.

Although it is possible for a female professor and her male student to engage in affairs, the general consensus of research on this topic shows that the opposite is more common. Jill Levenson of the Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics said in her article, “student sexual relations occur disproportionately between male instructors and female students.”

There are many debatable reasons for this varying gender-specific statistic, and one theory is that the professor’s charm level creates more response from the female students. Jeanny Liu of the Journal of Education for Business said, “There appears to be an interaction between the gender of the student and the influence of attractiveness; levels of attractiveness appear to affect female students more than male students.”

It is more typical for male professors to have these interactions with their female students. Is there a point in higher education where this relationship becomes acceptable? Undergraduate student, graduate student, post doctorate student? Some argue that each scenario is admissible because these students are old enough and mature enough to be considered a consenting adult. This is wrong. None of these scenarios are permitted for the simple underlying concept of power. A relationship between a student and their professor is not one of equality, and therefore cannot constitute as consensual.

The following statement is from C. Taylor’s “Sexual Harassment on College Campuses: Abusing the Ivory Power”: “All the power lies with the faculty member. While superior knowledge, and thus presumably greater wisdom, is often ascribed to faculty members by society at large, the students’ adolescent idealism exaggerates its extent.” The professor has direct control over the student on many levels, which are heightened past reality by the student’s naiveté and adoration.

In a relationship with such a steep power imbalance, it is fair to assume that exploitation would not be a rare occurrence. Students who experience special attention from their professors face a difficult decision. Depending on whether the student’s response is accepting or denying of the professor’s affection, this could determine which direction the chips may fall.

The threat of shame or disciplinary action from the school often outweighs the conceivable gain in these situations. Women cannot speak out about the sexual harassment that they endure because of the potential array of threats or shaming that often ensues. The risk is far too great for any young woman to stand up for herself or fight back because there is no way to predict the damaging consequences. A professor can be alarmingly influential over the student’s ability to make a sound decision.

Across the U.S., court cases have ruled in favor of disciplining professors who engage in consensual relations with students, even if the school’s written code of conduct does not explicitly forbid it. As Taylor states in “Disciplinary Relations/Sexual Relations: Feminist and Foucauldian Reflections on Professor-Student Sex”, “It is implicitly understood that professors should create a respectful learning environment for their students and should strive to be ‘intellectual guides’ and ‘positive role models.’”

Women should not be forced to continually feel assaulted and humiliated, especially in an environment intended for learning. The inequality of this type of relationship makes it unacceptable in every case because the professor is directly in control of evaluating and influencing the student.

It is the responsibility of the professor to maintain professional standards and to avoid engaging in immoral behavior. It is the responsibility of the student to prevent said professor from abusing the power they have.