CHAMPAIGN — A new report recommends that the University of Illinois ban professors from having any consensual relationships with undergraduates and proposes new restrictions on faculty relationships with graduate students.
The report, to be released to the campus today, was drafted by a task force asked to examine the issue last spring amid revelations about sexual harassment of undergraduates and law students by several UI professors or academic employees.
The report attempts to balance individuals’ right to make decisions about relationships with the university’s responsibility to protect safety on campus, said law Professor Jamelle Sharpe, who chaired the Campus Task Force on Consensual Relationship Policy.
“We’re dealing with a community of adults. They are free to choose the people with whom they associate, the people with whom they have relationships of various kinds, including intimate relationships,” Sharpe said.
The task force wanted to make sure that any recommendations regulating that ability “was necessary to protect the broader institutional mission of the university,” he said.
The proposals would prohibit all relationships between faculty members and undergraduates and between graduate or professional students and professors who are in the same academic unit.
That prohibition would cover any professor or instructor who has direct or indirect “institutional responsibilities” over the student, or had that role in the past or might have it in the future. “Institutional responsibilities” includes teaching, mentoring, academic advising and evaluating students.
The policy would cover any sexual, intimate, amorous, romantic or dating relationship. It would create a process for granting narrow, case-by-case exceptions based on strict criteria.
Faculty members would have to report their relationships or policy violations to UI administrators, which would be subject to discipline up to and including dismissal. The facts would have to be “fairly egregious” to warrant dismissal, Sharpe said, but the panel wanted to be clear that all disciplinary options would be on the table.
The proposals would replace a vague policy in the Student Code that is essentially targeted at conflicts of interest. It allows faculty members to engage in consensual sexual relationships with students as long as they have no direct decision-making responsibility over the student.
That provision doesn’t account for the power imbalance between students and faculty or address the harm that even dating relationships can cause to the professional and educational climate, particularly if it’s within a department, the report said.
A growing number of schools are adopting new restrictions on consensual relationships in light of the #MeToo movement and new understanding of how sexual harassment can affect students’ learning environments, the report said.
Over the past two years, many of the UI’s peers have developed similar bans, including Michigan, Michigan State, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT.
The UI group consulted with administrators at those schools but developed this policy because it fit best with the UI’s culture, Sharpe said
“For us, this wasn’t crisis-driven,” added Sharpe, who had researched the issue for the campus.
The panel surveyed thousands of UI students, professors and administrators and had numerous conversations with those groups and others, including the Academic Senate. Their primary concerns involved the power imbalance and “making sure the students feel valued and protected,” he said.
Sharpe said the panel considered banning all faculty relationships with graduate and professional students but saw a distinction between them and undergraduates. It’s easier to pinpoint the relevant academic unit for graduate students, who do much of their work within a specific program, he said.
Undergraduates have interactions with professors in many different departments and colleges, so trying to pin down the academic unit where a relationship could have harmful effects was “exceedingly difficult,” Sharpe said.
“That basically meant we had to look at the entire campus,” he said.
Sharpe said the panel recognized early on that even the best policies need a process to handle exceptions.
Given that the UI is large public university with students from many different backgrounds, it’s conceivable that a professor might be recruited to campus with a spouse who is studying in that same field, he said. That professor could apply for an exception, and the department would have to put together a management plan that would be actively monitored to ensure the climate for fairness in that unit is maintained, he said.
The policy makes clear that those exceptions should be rare and granted only in cases where it’s in the student’s best interest and expectations for academic integrity can be maintained.
“The perception of unfairness can in many ways be as harmful as the actual unfairness,” Sharpe said.
The new report also strongly recommends that the campus consider similar policies for other UI employees who have supervisory relationships with students, such as athletes and coaches or trainers, or employees who deliver services to students, such as Student Affairs or Admissions.
Campus officials praised the report and said they would move to implement it soon, possibly by next spring, after consulting with appropriate groups — especially students.
Provost Andreas Cangellaris said the rules under the old policy “were not necessarily clear” and training will be a key part of the effort.
The report puts the UI in line with its peers and “does a really good job of establishing a bright line of what sort of behavior we would like from our students and faculty in this area,” said Bill Bernhard, vice provost for academic affairs.