The Ethical Professor

Thinking well and doing good in academia.

Social and Sexual Scenarios With Students: What Would You Do?

Professors Dating Students: Sensitive, Stupid, or Sleazy?

I sometimes like to put my readers to work with a "do-it-yourself" dilemma or ethical policy.  We've considered such issues as confidentiality, classroom attendance policies, mistakes in the graduate admissions process, and giving timely feedback on student papers.  Today, let's explore an issue that always generates lively discussion in ethics courses:  Can college instructors date their students?  Consider this basic case outline:

Chris is teaching a college psychology course.  One of the students, Pat, is very attractive to Chris.  Can Chris ask Pat out?  Can Chris wait until after the semester and then ask Pat out?  If Pat initiates and expresses social or romantic interest in Chris during the semester can Chris reciprocate the expression of interest?  Can Chris reciprocate (or initiate) the feelings of romantic interest and then explain to Pat that they can't date until after the semester is over, but then it's OK?  If Pat asks Chris out, either during or after the semester, can Chris accept the invitation?

Before reading on, consider how you would answer these questions.  (Of course, your other option at this point is to go back to Facebook.)  Try to view the situation from the points of view of the instructor, the student, other students, and other faculty.  What ethical and practical issues do you need to consider?  Give it some thought, and then read on. 

Ethical Stances

I'll list some arguments that I've heard over the years; see what you think, and which include some of your thoughts as you read the case.  This is not a comprehensive list of ethical stances or justifications—just enough to get you started.  We start with a couple extreme arguments and work towards some middle ground. 

1.      Chris should never, ever, pursue or agree to any kind of social or sexual relationship with Pat, because (a) it may be harmful, (b) it isn't fair (that is, it's not consistent with the ethical principle of justice, because other students don't have the same opportunity), (c) it could be perceived by other students and others as exploitative, and (d) it casts doubt on Chris's ability to evaluate and grade Pat fairly.  Even if they date after the semester ends, the claim could be made that Chris was influenced in grading by the potential of the relationship.  This "never" option is consistent with the virtue of prudence.

2.      Chris and Pat are both adults, and as adults their opportunity to engage in a consensual relationship of any kind should not be constrained simply because they find themselves in the same classroom.  There's no harm in going out for a cup of coffee or something; that's not going to influence grading.  Teachers and students always have non-classroom contact, and the research says that such interactions can be very beneficial to students.  This "always" option is consistent with the virtue of respectfulness in that Chris and Pat are respecting each other's feelings and their ability to make mature judgments about their own lives.

3.      Social relationships, like coffee or a lunch here and there, are acceptable because the risk of harm is pretty low.

4.      It's not such a good idea to pursue even a social relationship, because even if it starts innocently, it may turn into a sexual relationship, which is not ethically justifiable.  It may also create the appearance of a conflict of interest.  Maybe after the semester, under some circumstances (see below), it'd be OK.

5.      During the course is not a good time to pursue a relationship, because it could be perceived by other students (and Chris's colleagues) as unfair or unjust to other students.  There's a conflict of interest between Chris's personal needs and the obligation to evaluate students objectively.  Of course, meetings on campus for educational reasons, or acknowledged social functions with groups of students, are alright.

6.      It would be acceptable to share affectionate feelings with a student during the semester, including the desire to date in the future, as long as actual dating didn't occur until afterwards.  This stance could be justified by the virtues of honesty and respectfulness.  It's honest to express feelings, and it's respectful of the ability of teachers and students to make adult decisions.  Certainly Chris wouldn't provide any benefits to Pat, like lenient grading.  So, as long as there's no benefit, there is no harmful conflict of interest.

One Type of Class!
7.      It's not acceptable to share feelings during the semester, because it contaminates the learning environment—which is tough enough as it is!  If such a practice were (more) common, students and faculty might routinely enter courses thinking of their romantic prospects, perhaps to the detriment of their educational objectives.

A Little Lifeline - The APA Code of Ethics

The American Psychological Association (APA) offers some guidance.  The APA Ethics Code says, in Standard 7.07:  "Psychologists do not engage in sexual relationships with students or supervisees who are in their department, agency, or training center or over whom psychologists have or are likely to have evaluative authority."  This seems to preclude dating during the semester, and perhaps afterwards if there is a likelihood of an ongoing interaction.  For example, what if Pat needs a letter of recommendation for a job and would like Chris to write it?  Although the code is silent regarding social relationships and sharing feelings, we have a little bit of help.  Another source of guidance might be institutional guidelines; some colleges and universities have rules about professors dating students.   But let's say your institution doesn't have such rules, or they are vague, and you want to create a policy.

Relevant (?) Dimensions That Could Alter Your Stance

Let's play some "Testing the Limits" and see what facts of the case would have to change for your ethical stance to change.  Here are some candidates:  

1.      Gender and sexual preference:  What genders did you picture in the case?  Was Chris a man and Pat a woman?  If the genders were different than you imagined, would it make a difference?   

2.      Culture/Ethnicity:  What did you picture?  What combinations might make a difference?

3.      Type of relationship desired:  What if they pursued a business venture?  Went to lunch with four other students?  What types of invitations would be more (or less) acceptable than dating?

4.      Level of the course:  What if the case described a graduate class, or a freshman seminar?

5.      Type of grading:  What if grades were based solely on multiple-choice tests?

6.      Number of students in the class

7.      Rank of instructor:  Would it matter if Chris was an instructor, first-year professor, or full professor?  What if Chris was a graduate teaching assistant?

8.      Ages:  What if both parties were 35?  What if Pat was 30 and Chris was 25?

9.      School:  State university vs. small private school?  Co-ed vs. single-sex?

10.  Time:  What if "after the semester" was 10 years after?  Six months?  Ten minutes? 

11.  Authority:  What if the class was a 500-student section of intro psych, Pat was not a psychology major, Chris was leaving the teaching profession to become a ski instructor, and there was no possibility of Chris ever having to write a letter of recommendation for Pat?

Thoughts?

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Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

Copyright © 2011.  All rights reserved.

 

Mitchell M. Handelsman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and a Colorado University President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver.

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