Is It Ethical For Professors To Date Students?

teacher-student datingProfsBlog 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.


Pointer: Instapundit

Source: ProfsBlawg

48 thoughts on “Is It Ethical For Professors To Date Students?

  1. Among the inevitable consequences of moral relativism. I out-rank many of my professors in terms of age, life experience, and personal blood shed for this nation, but I show deference to them because of convention, and respect for the work it took to earn their position. It seems to me that I would be justified in withholding this deference from anyone who is, for all intents and purposes, preying on their charges, and really so would anyone else. Fraternization between officers and enlisted personnel is harshly punished for the same reasons, among which is the erosion of command structure. Also, yuck! Sometimes I feel a little pervy simply because I’m in class with children, without even being sexually attracted to them. I’m really surprised there’s not an epidemic of these molesters ending up in ICUs at the hands of angry dads.

    • In Rostker v. Goldberg, 4
      53 U.S. 57 (1981), the Supreme Court noted the “judicial deference… is at its apogee when legislative action under the congressional authority to raise and support armies and make rules and regulations for their governance is challenged.” Rostker, 453 U.S. at 70. Courts “[adhere] to [the] principle of deference in a variety of contexts [such as] where the constitutional rights of servicemen [are] implicated”” Weiss v. United States,510 U.S. 163 at 177 (1994) “Congress is permitted to legislate both with greater breadth and with greater flexibility when the statute governs military society.” Parker v. Levy, 417 U.S. 733 at 755 “[T]he tests and limitations [associated with constitutional challenges] may differ because of the military context.” Weiss v. United States, 510 U.S. 163 at 177 (1994)

      Thus, military policies have been upheld in situations where comparable civilian policies would be struck down. See e.g. Rostker, 453 U.S. 57 (sustaining male-only draft), Goldman v. Weinberger, 475 U.S. 503 (1986) (sustaining Air Force regulations prohibiting wearing yarmulkes while on duty)

      • That’s a fact.The people who are making the military a big social experiment in the name of “constitutional rights” need to understand this. I’m thinking most specifically about men and women on submarines, or talk of lowering standards in special operations training to accommodate women.

  2. I was with you every step of the way, Jack, until your last paragraph. I’ve served on the faculty of two large public universities for more than 30 years and worked with hundreds of faculty. Not once, ever, has one of my colleagues ever confided in me that he or she hates the fact that it’s wrong to hit on hot students. So I’m wondering where you secured that interesting piece of information.

    • Why Mike—the professors who hit on hot students, of course!

      I think you are reading too much into what I wrote. “Boy, that student is so gorgeous she makes my heart skip a beat. If only it wasn’t so wrong to do anything about it.” OK, “really hate” is hyperbole. The sentiment is that we have lots of impulses we wish weren’t so clearly wrong, and wish there was some exception that allowed—fun, passion, revenge, etc.

  3. At a dinner party recently, during a discussion of “things that ‘everybody’ knows are wrong but seem to be increasingly common practice,” a married couple who are both university English professors related the tale of a former colleague (at a different state college) who was known for his many dalliances with female students. It seems this school did not in fact have a rule against such things, and all of his paramours were of legal age, but after a number of complaints from parents and other faculty about him the school decided it was necessary to do something. Their solution was assigning him to teach only online classes, working from home, which presumably would curtail his student-dating habit. Yeah, I’m sure this will work. Perhaps they thought physically distancing his activities from the campus would be a sufficient remedy?

  4. As an ex-“professor” (adjunct faculty at a local on-base branch of a community college), I can tell you that I would have been instantly terminated if I had tried to date one of my WAC (today’s female Army) students. Plus, my wife would have handed me my head…literally. Patience and forgiveness are not among her strong suits.

    • And how about non-faculty college employees? Or the immediate family of faculty, whereby the faculty would be a potential in-law? Or the immediate family of an administration member? Non-faculty professionals who belong to another organization that is nevertheless working closely with the university as part of a project for the current semester? Genuinely curious, as I’ve witnessed all the above at least once or twice.

  5. Zoe’s question raises others. When is a professor not a professor? When she is no longer employed at the institution? And likewise, is the ex-student (graduated, changed schools, dropped out) still a “student.” How about a professor from one university dating a student from another? While i agree with the premise, it’s unethical (and in some cases illegal) for someone in a relationship where the “power” is not equal, so the terminology of professor and student are more beside the point. Both individuals may engage in an “ethical relationship” if there is no imbalance of power, whether employer employee, teacher student, captain sergeant, etc.

    • A professor dating a student at another school is not a conflict and is as ethical as if the person was not a student at all. Dating an ex-student comes close to or crosses the ethics line. Are you waiting for them to graduate to ask them out? if so, did you really grade them fairly and not give you potential significant other special treatment? Are you sure? Dating or the potential to date the students in your class affects the integrity of the education you are delivering, It isn’t just about the pressure the power imbalance can cause, it is also about treating the rest of the students fairly and the integrity of the classrooms and the evaluations.

      • I’m also looking at it as an issue of social stratification rather than just the potential for harm to institutional or command structure; the adherence to tradition and avoiding impropriety. As such, it seems improper to me for any current student to date any professor, regardless of proximity. Does this make sense?

      • I would think, however, that Ick Factor (and yes it is mild Ick Factor at work) aside, there is a limit on the ban. No set time period, however, I would say that a Student and Professor dating would be acceptable, if the former-student has now entered the professional environment after education is complete and it can then be said that the student didn’t receive any special benefits from the professor. What if the former student doesn’t enter the profession for a while or at all? Then does a time period apply?

        I think Ick Factor has alot to do with this. If we distill out all other ethical conundrums that may be influencing this – is the Student angling for some post-graduation recommendation? That would make the pursuit unethical INDEPENDENT of whether or not it is ethical/unethical for an “innocent” relationship to develop.

        • The ick factor is definitely at work for me. It seems predatory. I guess that many of the teen-aged undergraduates and immature grad students immediately come to mind. These are minds in flux, and it just seems to me that professors are likely able to exert a great deal of emotional leverage against students due to the central, almost parental role they’re currently playing in students’ lives. I think I might object to it for the same reasons I object to them using their influence to push their politics.
          I almost made the same distinction between professions that usually include post-graduate work and those that don’t. I’m glad you did.

            • Well, the ick factor is still there for me, but I suppose it would be hard to defend the position that dating between them when one no longer has ties to their former status is unethical. Still, I was just thinking of it in light of yesterday’s post. Isn’t ignoring the ick factor one of the ways in which ethics creep occurs?

              • The ick factor also has to involve age. A forty-something teacher dating an 18 year-old high-school graduate or a 22 year-old college graduate just does not sit well with me. Screwing around (pun intended) with a younger still-being-formed mind in order to make yourself feel younger to me is ick personified.

            • I asked whether a ban would be lifted after, say, 5 years. Or whether ut was perpetual.

              For example, a 35 year old adjunct prof and a 20 year old student. Would it be OK for them to date after 40 years had passed, and they were 75 and 60 respectively?

              What about 5 years, at ages 40 and 25, assuming they’d neither seen nor thought about each other in the meantime?
              (Based on an actual case I know of, that one)

  6. At my high school. yes HIGH SCHOOL, two of the teachers (during my time there) married their students once they turned 18. One of those teachers had to get divorced to do it. Eck.

          • Be grounds for a gunfight in mine. But I graduated from a high-school with a 30-student graduating class. Hill-Country Texas.

            • You have to understand that schools have changed. The authoritarian model is no longer considered appropriate. Now, teachers are supposed to be friends with their students. So, you have new, 22 year old teachers who are encouraged to be friends with teenage students. Relationships between teachers and students are now rampant. It seems like sleeping with students is part of the job description for the high school coaches. Don’t think this is just predatory adults, the culture encourages the students to think of the coaches and teachers as appropriate sex partners. I have heard of students around here competing to see who can be the first to sleep with a new coach or teacher. Someone I know had an affair with one of their high school students. The parents of the student were fine with it until the teacher decided not to divorce their spouse and marry the student,

  7. I had completely forgotten about those silly romance comic books, Jack. Where did you did up that picture? It’s probably worth a lot today.

    You’re right on the ethics, of course. Sure- these things happen and likely always will. Lots of unethical, immoral and downright grim things happen with depressing regularity and have since before recorded history. That doesn’t make it right. A teacher holds authority and/or influence over a student who’s an adolescent or young adult. To legitimize liaisons between them is dead wrong.

  8. What if it’s your wife? What if you’re already dating? What if you are just having casual sex with someone before they become your student?
    Is it your responsibility to end the relationship?
    Is it the schools responsibility to not place them in your class?
    Or are the students morals under question for being in your class?

    • 1. Conflict of interest
      2. Conflict of interest
      3. Conflict of interest—and professors should be having any kind of sexual relationships with ANY students.
      4. It is both party’s responsibility, but it is the teacher’s obligation.
      5. No. It’s on the professor.
      6. The student is unethical.

  9. I agree with the statement that the culture is so much different now. And what about the fact that professors back in the day (40s, 50s, 60s, etc) used to date and marry students all the time! That was more than accepted; it was a very common practice. Many of my professors in college met, and often married, their wives while they were their students. They told me. So the original author here is just wrong to assert that professors dating students is wrong period, and always has been. It hasn’t always been that way.

  10. There is no good justification here for the claim that there is *no* relevant difference between a professor dating a student they are teaching and a professor dating a student they are not.

    One thing you say is that all professors at a university have authority over all students. This is questionable – it’s not obvious that a professor has any authority over a student on a different degree programme to their own. But supposing that they do have some authority, it is much less authority than they have over a student on the same degree programme. So there is a relevant difference between the two cases.

    Second, the fact that you have had to appeal in the latter case to the special and arcane danger of the student’s friends being on the professor’s course – and the professor knowing this, and consequently deciding to treat them differently – shows that the cases are substantively different.

    If you are really worried about the dangers described, you ought also to say that a professor should not be allowed the grade the paper of a friend’s son or daughter, and a professor’s son or daughter should not be allowed to study at the university. But then where do you draw the line? There infinite reasons for which we can ask “is this professor motivated to grade papers unfairly”. That’s why we just have to assume that professors are professionals who will be generally be motivated to do their jobs correctly; and note the role of external examiners who are there to make sure.

      • If you work for a corporation, I don’t believe it is generally forbidden to have a relationship with someone working at a more junior level in a different department. More pertinently, I don’t see any good ethical reason why it should be forbidden.

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