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UMass bars faculty from dating students

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) campus Courtesy photo

  • UMass students take in sunny weather in the 60's outside the Campus Center, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018.



@dustyc123
Sunday, April 15, 2018

AMHERST — Consensual sexual relationships between University of Massachusetts faculty and students or postdoctoral researchers will be barred for the first time under a new policy.

The university unveiled the policy April 4 amid the #MeToo movement that has thrust conversations about the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment into the open.

At UMass Amherst, those conversations have been spurred in no small part by student activists, including the group Graduate Women in STEM, or GWIS.

“I am personally very happy to see this policy implemented,” Joelle Labastide, the group’s co-chairwoman, said. “It goes a long way toward allowing graduate students to survive this mismatching power that happens in relationships. It seems to be a really good step in the right direction.”

Effective immediately, the policy prohibits those sexual relationships when a faculty member “has any responsibility for supervision, evaluation, grading, advising, employment, or other instructional or supervisory activity related to a student or post-doc.” Faculty must report any previously existing relationships to their immediate supervisor and remove themselves from those responsibilities if possible.

“Dating or sexual relationships between faculty and students or post-docs are problematic in many ways, because of an unequal power dynamic between the parties,” reads an announcement jointly signed by John McCarthy, the provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, and Eve Weinbaum, president of the faculty union. “The integrity of the faculty when it comes to evaluating students’ work can be undermined, and trust and respect between faculty and students can erode.”

Locally, similar policies are already on the books at Smith College and Hampshire College.

At Amherst College, a policy that faculty approved in 1992 “discourages,” though does not explicitly bar, sexual relationships between faculty and students. That policy requires faculty to remove themselves from “any supervisory, evaluative, advisory or other pedagogical role” if there is a relationship.

Faculty at Mount Holyoke College have voted to draft a new policy on faculty-student relationships, and are expected to vote on that new policy soon, according to campus spokeswoman Keely Savoie.

The college’s current policy simply describes teacher-student relationships as “governed by norms of professional ethics,” and that sexual involvement with a student “represents a prima facie violation of those norms.”

“Because members of the College together constitute a community, these standards govern not only Faculty members’ relations with students they teach, coach, advise, or evaluate, but also their relations with all students in the College,” that policy concludes.

At a town hall event held by GWIS in October, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said that since 1997, there have been three failed attempts to implement a consensual relationship policy. But when asked why it had taken the university until now to implement such a policy, McCarthy said he didn’t know.

“Various institutions get to this at one point or another,” McCarthy said, adding that UMass Amherst already had a sexual harassment policy in place. “This goes a step further.”

McCarthy said that “nothing in particular” spurred the creation of the policy. “It’s just an awareness that other institutions have adopted policies like this,” he said.

Weinbaum, however, said the policy comes as a direct result of GWIS and its advocacy.

“I think that when all of that became more public and the administration was feeling some pressure from the grad students, they came to the union and asked if we would be open to jointly coming up with a policy,” Weinbaum said. “And we were happy to do it.”

Weinbaum said a consensual relationship policy had been talked about for years, and that it was her understanding that differing opinions among faculty and graduate students previously stymied efforts to get a policy passed.

“I think most universities have one now,” Weinbaum said, adding that troubling stories of abuses and conflicts in different university settings — departments, working groups, labs — had become more widely known. “We wanted to do anything we can to clear that up.”

Members of GWIS had a voice in the new rule’s wording, providing feedback on drafts of the policy. Co-chairwoman Raquel Bryant said the group has had success starting the kinds of conversations needed to push a policy like this one forward.

“People are really talking, they’re sharing experiences and minds are changing,” she said, describing how she has had frank talks with professors and others in her department about the climate on campus. “I’ve had people tell me it just feels different on campus.”

GWIS members have been at the table with administrators during policy discussions, making recommendations as part of a task force Subbaswamy convened to address sexual violence on campus. The group last Wednesday held a workshop attended by many deans and other top university brass, during which they conducted a teach-in on students’ experiences of sexual violence and faculty interventions.

“It was really well attended by people who have the power to help graduate students when they’re going through incidents of sexual violence,” Bryant said.

Weinbaum said the policy is just one piece in an ongoing discussion around sexual violence and gender relations at the university — a conversation they hope to continue with graduate students.

“I think now we’re seeing more of these systematic acknowledgments of the vulnerabilities of graduate students and particular groups,” Labastide said. “It has taken this long to start having the right conversation.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.