[C]onsensual relationships with adults don’t seem like a big deal. Sure, the conflict of interest of sleeping with someone in your class is deserving of discipline, but, really, in a state where you can marry your sister, is it a fireable offense to hookup with a twenty-something attorney-to-be? Obviously, if there were more serious allegations that would be another matter, but so far we’ve only learned of this more benign brand of misconduct.
—-Above the Law writer Joe Patrice, commenting, incompetently, on the firing of Virginia University College of Law Professor Arthur Rizer, for having sexual relations with multiple students.
This commentary, from a regular writer for a website that covers law schools, is so ethically obtuse and legally ignorant that he should be fired. “Not a big deal”? Sexual harassment at law firms is a very big deal as well as a very big problem, and a law professor who flagrantly violates an anti-harassment policy like the prohibition against professors treating the student body as their own personal dating bar is teaching that seeking sex with subordinates is culturally acceptable in the legal profession. It isn’t. It never has been.
The professor’s conflict of interest is the least of his self-created problems. First, there is no valid consent in such cases. The professor has real and perceived control over students’ academic success and legal career viability. This is classic inequality of power that gives a professor implied leverage over a student’s “consent” to sexual relations. Moreover, the knowledge that a professor is having sex with students constitutes third-party sexual harassment. Do other students assume that they are expected to have sex with the professor if he requests it? Is the professor looking at female students as mere sex objects? Are students that provide sexual access more likely to get high grades? What happens to students who say “no”? This creates a hostile environment for study and education.
If a law professor is suggesting by his own conduct that it is professionally acceptable or ethical for lawyers to have sex with employees, subordinates or clients, he is undermining the education of every student in the institution. The latter, sex with clients, is explicitly prohibited in most states (including West Virginia) and is a serious ethics violation. Sex with subordinates is unprofessional and often constitutes sexual harassment; I would say it is always sexual harassment. How could this possibly be “not a big deal”?
The only way a law school could send a sufficiently strong message to students and faculty, as well as potential employers of the law school’s grads, regarding the inappropriateness of such conduct is to fire the offending professor. This was mandatory. The fact that other faculty members defended the swinging prof, as Patrice reports, merely shows that the school’s harassing professor problem goes deeper than just Rizer, and that it has some work to do. I’m hardly surprised.
Finally, could there be a more intellectually bankrupt, foolish, ignorant argument for permitting sexual predator professors than “really, in a state where you can marry your sister”? Does Joe understand that professors have different ethical standards than, say, hillbillies? That lawyers have higher ethical standards than laypersons? That the proper analogy, in incest terms, for lawyers having sex with subordinates and teachers having sex with students isn’t cousins marrying, for cousins have equal status and power, but parents marrying their children, “consensually,” of course. Obviously Joe doesn’t understand this, or sexual harassment, or professionalism, or much of anything, based on this post.
Of course Professor Rizer should have been fired.
Patrice’s flippant article is incompetent, misleading, and a disgrace.