A Lesson in Love? : The Latest Campus Debate is Whether Student-Professor Romances Are About Power or Passion

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It may start with a bawdy passage from Chaucer or a heated explication of cell mitosis. A student’s eyes meet a professor’s. Hearts pitter-pat.

And before you can say “Educating Rita,” homework has a whole new connotation.

Students returning to campus this fall will likely find the debate about “consensual relations” one of the hottest fronts in the ongoing gender wars.

From guidelines discouraging professors from dating people currently enrolled in their classes to blanket bans on fraternization between faculty and students, college administrators from Cal State Fullerton to Harvard have proposed or passed edicts on the subject.


In reaction to what some see as the authoritarian underpinnings of the “banning movement,” a loosely knit group called CASE--Consenting Academics For Sexual Equity--has taken the matter onto the Internet, where opponents are gathering via E-mail.

Virtually everyone who has jumped into the debate will concede that some student-professor flings can blossom into loving relationships--even marriage. Virtually everyone deplores harassment by professors or any exchange of sex for grades.

If the various sides agree on anything else, it is that this issue, like many other societal concerns these days, pivots on a handful of fundamental terms: power . . . consent . . . responsibility.

Beyond that, the argument moves quickly into the subtle semantics of gender politics.

Well before CASE sent the discussion sizzling through cyberspace, hanky-panky had been translated into the abstruse murk of academese. Student-professor shenanigans became “intimate asymmetrical relationships,” deriving from “power differentiated positions.”

Professors, in other words, have more clout than students. Therefore interactions between students and instructors are unequal.

“So what?” smirk opponents of restrictions.

“So stop it!” huff those who see themselves as supporters of students’ rights.

Barry Dank, a professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach who organized CASE last spring, says he has as strong a record as anyone of encouraging students to file complaints against harassers. But such cases, he adds, have nothing to do with students who enter freely into a relationship with a professor--or with anyone else.


He blames much of the anti-fraternization activity on “authoritarian feminists. . . . They take this motherly image--’We’ll protect you whether you want our help or not.’ How hypocritical! How offensive!”

In the late 1970s, Dank locked horns with Anita Bryant, whose “Save Our Children” campaign attempted to ban homosexual teachers from public schools. He sees similarities between that “crusade” and this one, which also presumes to protect innocent students, and paints men as sexual predators.

“I’m alienated from the idea of putting women back into the category of ‘women and children,’ ” he says, “from the whole victimization cult. . . .”

Norma Chinchilla, a sociology professor and director of the women’s studies program at Long Beach, doesn’t think much of the case made by CASE. Concern about relations between instructors and students who date is fueled by compassion, not ideology, she says. “So many women faculty members end up having to put the pieces together after these things go awry, after these students have major trauma.”

Bernice Sandler, a scholar with the National Assn. for Women in Education, a 3000-member professional support and development group, has studied numerous surveys of harassment on college campuses. She says that 20% to 30% of undergraduate women and 30% to 40% of women in graduate programs report that professors have subjected them to behavior that is defined as sexual harassment by those conducting the surveys--although the students did not initially consider it such.

By the same token, she says, women who have had relations with professors often believe that the affair is consensual as it occurs but later become convinced that they were exploited.


Some feminist scholars even contend that consent is a meaningless term in relations of this sort.

“The Lecherous Professor” (University of Illinois, 1984), an influential book on harassment, states that view emphatically. In a note added to the 1990 edition, co-author Billie Wright Dziech argues: “Where power differentials exist, there can be no ‘mutual consent.’ The infinitesimal number of cases in which professors/teaching assistants and students do develop genuine and seemingly abiding attractions can, as the book suggests, be treated on an individual basis without denying students protection from the campus Lotharios who claim ‘consent’ every time they seek to bed a confused or intimidated victim.”

Chinchilla recalls a student who came sobbing into her office after a male faculty member had dumped her.

“She said, ‘I was so flattered. He was the first man I had ever met who wasn’t interested in my body, but was interested in my mind.’

“She found that incredibly wonderful. But then she found out it wasn’t her mind that he was interested in. When I suggested that maybe she wanted to make a complaint, because after she had backed off she felt really pressured in her act, she said, ‘No, it was my fault for not realizing what was happening in the first place.’

“A lot of students never complain. They feel it’s their fault.”

In fact, says Ann J. Lane, a history professor and chair of the women’s studies program at the University of Virginia, most of the students alleging sexual harassment against professors on her campus say the relationships began as consensual ones.

Last year Lane spearheaded an effort at Virginia to enact guidelines that included a ban of all relations between undergraduate students and their professors. Lane says she was astonished at the intensity of the national debate on the guidelines--which the administration ultimately refused to enact.


“The purpose of the regulation was to empower students. . . . Many students said, ‘I didn’t know how to say no.’

“How do you say no,” asks Lane, “to someone who’s your father’s age and on your dissertation committee? . . . I have students who drop out of school, who say ‘I can’t go back into the chemistry building.’ ”

To those who say students are adults and don’t need to be told how to behave, Lane replies: “We do that all the time. We tell these adults what courses they can take, what alcohol they can drink.”

Which is not to say, Lane contends, that she and those who support her views are interested in regulating the sexual lives of students. “It would be impossible. It’s the professors we’re talking about.”


Students who say they are involved in good relationships with professors are as reluctant to speak on the record as those who say they have been devastated. Both fear repercussions.

A woman who asked to be identified only as a graduate student at a Midwest college, for instance, tells of falling in love with a professor while she served as his graduate research assistant.


The couple waited until the student was no longer the professor’s charge before consummating their attraction. But then one of the young woman’s classmates spotted the couple at an off-campus cafe.

“She called a meeting of my other classmates (in the department). . . . The department chair called us in and said, ‘This will stop.’ ”

The couple refused to break up. So the chair refused to issue a letter critiquing the student’s progress. Meanwhile, word of the relationship spread.

“I felt like I had the scarlet letter on my head,” the woman says. “I consider myself fairly liberal, but I am very offended by the feminist insinuation that as a woman I am incapable of making my own decisions.

“We all make mistakes,” she continues. “If dating a professor is a mistake, we learn from it. But we could make that same mistake with a businessman or banker. . . . If you are a male in this society, you always have more power than a woman, so any relationship could be considered asymmetrical.”


Like that student, Daphne Patai, a professor of Spanish and Women’s Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has tapped into CASE’s nascent electronic debate on the Internet.

She hasn’t formally affiliated herself with the group. But Patai, who co-authored an upcoming book--”Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales From the Strange World of Women’s Studies” (Basic Books, 1994)--does worry about the “crusade mentality,” on campuses.


“Professors,” she says, “are not ogres, and students are not children. . . . When I was a grad student, women had to be in the dorms at 10:30 or 11:00. . . . In the bad old days, people lost jobs because they had relations with students. Do we want to do that all over again?”

At least some critics of student-faculty relations scoff at the notion that it must come to that. Judith Sheine, an assistant professor of architecture at UCLA and Cal Poly Pomona, notes that she and many of her female colleagues have, on occasion, been hit upon by young men in their classes.

The proper response, she says, is simply to “act professorial.” One way or another, she says, she and the professors she knows get the student’s focus back on the class. “As a faculty member, it seems to me, you should have some self-control.”

Dank, of Long Beach, is rankled that the argument so often is cast in such highbrow tones--as if professors were all-powerful gods and students mere mortals. The issue for him hinges on logic, not sex--although the sex aspect is what keeps the thinking skewed, he says.

For instance: If conflict of interest is such a concern, why do ban supporters tend to ignore other obvious breeches, such as professors who have colleagues’ children or spouses in their classes?

“And what about friendships? Think about the components of friendship: Caring, loyalty. . . . Why select out the sexual component for special attention?”


By Dank’s analysis, the challenge to “asymmetry” stems not from true concern about conflict of interest or compassion for fragile young souls, but from “older females attempts to control younger females.”

Dank shifts into very professorial, one-man Socratic dialogue:

“One would say, ‘Well Dank, I don’t quite get it. Why would middle-aged females’--which is basically what we’re talking about--’why would they want to control younger students?’ ”

There is, Dank answers, a historic tension between the generations. He sees it like this: Older men have never been averse to younger women’s charms. Younger women are naturally--perhaps biologically --attracted to men of power and wisdom, who happen to be older as a rule. So young women are always draining the pool of mature, intelligent men from which middle-aged women hope to find mates. This is especially true at the university, where older men and younger women continuously rub together, so to speak.

Academic feminists, naturally, resent that, he says. And they’re willing to force bureaucratic controls on younger women to keep them in line, he adds.


Chinchilla, increasingly cast as Dank’s nemesis at Long Beach, doesn’t buy his analysis.

“I think that’s an incredible fantasy on his part,” she says. “It makes these middle-aged men seem so incredibly attractive. The reason they’re dating their 18- and 19-year-old students is because women their own age are on to them.”

But that’s not really the issue, Chinchilla says: “If the classroom becomes sexualized, if the boundaries become blurred in ways that hint at intimacy, I think the learning environment becomes contaminated.”


Joan Blythe, an associate professor of English at the University of Kentucky, took a different tack during an exchange on the subject in Harper’s Magazine last year.

“Those pushing for a ban,” she said, “are people who fear real life, especially the protean power of lust. College for them is about isolation from the real world, not introduction to it.”

The Harper’s exchange drew a blistering response from readers, including many academics. Blythe (“I’m the most retiring person around”) was stunned and offended.

In retrospect, she is more circumspect. Sex is complicated, she says. Cruelty of any sort, on the other hand, is rather simple.

“People must learn to be personally responsible,” she says. “That’s the problem with our young people--they need to learn to be more responsible for their lives and for their bodies.”

But that’s only part of the problem: “I’m very sympathetic with women who are beset by arrogant, mean, self-serving professors. Apparently there are a lot of them out there. I’m glad I don’t know them. It’s a tragedy.”


The antidote to naive irresponsibility and cunning selfishness may be conveniently close at hand, she says.

“Rather than having a ban on faculty-student sex, we should have a requirement that everyone read Milton and Shakespeare. I think when we neglect the older authors we lose the great lessons about being loving and responsible. We forget the values of strong community. . . .

“In the classics, there’s a great celebration of the joy of being alive, of the amazing gift of life and the world and the responsibility you have toward it.”

If professors and students were better grounded in those values, she says, their passion for each other might, at least occasionally, give way to a passion for knowledge.