ProfsBlog asks the question regarding law professors and law students, but the question doesn’t change by narrowing the definition. The question is really, and only, “Is it ethical for teachers to have romantic relationships with students?” The answer is, has been, and forever shall be, “No.”
The answer to an ethics question sometimes becomes obvious when it is apparent that every argument on one side is either a logical fallacy, an unethical rationalization, or the application of an invalid ethics principle. Such is the case here, and thus I somewhat question the motives of the author of the post, Kelly Anders. Wishful thinking, perhaps? Asking the question creates the illusion that there is a real controversy. In this case, there isn’t.
I addressed this question a long time ago, in an early post here barely seen at the time but among the most frequently visited since. I wrote:
[P]rofessors [are] obligated to maintain a position of authority, objectivity and judgment as mentors and teachers of the whole student body, and [have] a duty to their schools not to allow their trustworthiness to be undermined by having intimate relationships among the same group that they [are] supposed to be supervising and advising. Dating a student is a professional breach of trust, and one that adversely effects the integrity of the entire educational institution…. The appearance created when a supervisor/manager/leader indulges in intimate relations with someone over whom they have authority, status and power—and every professor has authority over every student, in class or out— undermines the institution and the profession, by sending the false message that such relationships are standard, approved, and implicitly desirable in the culture where they occur…A professor has a potential teacher-student relationship with all students at a university, not just those in his or her classes.
Dating a student who happens not to be in one of those classes is what lawyers call “a distinction without a difference.” Many students and professors will reasonably assume that the pairing arose out of the student-teacher relationship, and in some ways it almost certainly did. A teacher always has superior power over any student by virtue of his or her position of authority, and it is an abuse of that power to use it to entice students into dates or bed…
[It] is naive to ignore the extended conflicts such relationships create. Might the professor’s best friends on the faculty be more generous when grading their friend’s significant other if he or she is one of their students? Will the professor consciously or subconsciously be easier on the friends of his student lover if they are in his class? The fact that the question can be asked shows that the situation should not occur where it can be asked.
Students, all students, must be off-limits as romantic partners for professors and administrators in universities, regardless of what rules are in place.Professors who date students risk their jobs because a student body is not their sexual smorgasbord, and it is a breach of trust and duty to treat it like one.
I wouldn’t change a word, except that typo I just noticed, and just fixed in the original. Nor is anything I wrote then revolutionary or new. These are the realities of authority, professionalism, leadership and power. It’s just that sometimes people really, really wish they were not.
The few replies to the ProfsBlawg post that attempt to justify or excuse this form of academic incest are typical: like all attempts to shrug off this conduct, most fall into one of the categories I laid out in the 2010 post:
- Consenting Adult Tunnel Vision: “They are consenting adults, so what’s the problem?” The problem is that consent may make a relationship legal as far as the individuals are concerned, but there are other stakeholders involved, including other students, the faculty, the university, and even the profession of teaching itself. They all haven’t consented….and it would still be wrong, even if they did.
- Consequentialism: The fact that unethical conduct worked out for one couple (or fifty) proves nothing about its ethical nature, unless we accept a consequentialist analysis.
- Ethics? What’s that? A possible record for ethics blindness comes from one commenter, who writes this stunner:
1.) Who cares about who dates whom? 2.) How often does this occur (i.e. epidemic or happenstance)? 3.) What actual harm comes from this activity? (I know all the potential harms: grades, recommendations, etc., but do these happen often enough to make it worth another regulation?)
Anytime someone tries to regulate human instinct (in this case, the most powerful instinct), the regulation is just ignored, so why bother?
It’s like violence in hockey: it happens and could easily be ended, but nobody really wants to do it. (Example: fight on the ice, get banned for life; screw a student, lose your tenure. To paraphrase Mark Twain: ain’t neither gonna happen, ever.)
Let’s see: 1) Is a both absurd (Answer: Depending on the situation, lots of people care, and with good reason) and intellectually dishonest: the issues include the integrity of the educational experience, the institution involves, the vulnerability of a student to superior power, and the appearance of impropriety. 2) Unethical conduct is unethical, whether it occurs once or a million times. (I’m adding this to the Rationalizations List as a sub-rationalization to “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff.” Unethical people have their uses: they are a font of rationalizations, for example.) 3) What’s “actual” harm? Distorting the educational relationship is actual harm. Creating a situation that calls into question the professor’s objectivity is actual harm. Teachers using their classes like dating bars is actual harm. Then the commenter stops numbering, but keep pulling out rationalizations and over-generalizations. Is this gut a law student or professor? If so, that’s scary, since he seems to be disputing the principle of law, which is all about regulating human instincts. Mainly he endorses Rationalization #23, Woody’s Excuse: “The heart wants what the heart wants.” Then he comes up with yet another rationalization that I realize needs to be added to the list: “If you can’t stop it, then it’s OK.” This may have been the most valuable unethical comment ever!
- The Compliance Delusion: “In my school, there’s no rule against this, so it’s not unethical.” Rules. however, don’t make unethical conduct ethical. They just make it easier.
Yes, it’s true that teachers really hate the fact that its wrong to hit on that hot student, and students really would like the chance to try to seduce that cute teacher. Sorry: it’s wrong, and nobody has come up with a valid argument to the contrary. That means that “Is it ethical for professors to date students?” isn’t a responsible question. The correct phrasing is..
It is unethical for professors to date students.