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Letter to the Editor: on Liberty and Amorous Relationships

The Miami University Senate is considering a policy to ban all amorous relationships between faculty and students and between graduate students and undergraduate students. Although well meaning, the proposal poses a threat to the liberty and associational rights of faculty, staff, and students; and it infantilizes students. 

Let’s be clear about what relationships the policy forbids. It doesn’t address power relationships, such as student/classroom instructor or graduate student/faculty advisor. Also, it is not about harassment or discrimination. Miami has policies covering these things. The proposed policy forbids consensual, non-supervisory relationships. 

I appreciate that public universities have a responsibility to protect students, faculty and staff. Our buildings must be safe from fire, shoddy construction, and violence, and our campuses free of harassment and abuse of power. Additionally, as a public university, Miami has an obligation to respect, even protect, the liberties of the members of its community. And when a public university chooses to encroach upon individual liberties, the U.S. Constitution demands that it have more than a good reason for its policy; it must have a compelling reason. In the words of my constitutional law professor, “a damn good reason.” It is easy to make a compelling case for forbidding, or managing, relationships between supervisors and subordinates. Favoritism or retaliation in evaluation and salary decisions, loss of productivity, office disharmony, and sex discrimination and harassment are very real concerns. Similar reasons warrant forbidding student/faculty relationships when the two are in the same department and when a student is taking a class from the professor. But Miami’s vague interests in “trust and mutual respect,” “inherent and intractable power differences,” and perceptions of exploitation in consensual, non-power relationships are too abstract to justify pushing aside the liberty interests of those involved. 

The proposed policy has a safety valve; a couple may ask for an exception. However, the policy offers no standards to determine what relationships are ok, and not. How will the General Counsel’s Office determine what is acceptable? I presume obvious exceptions will be granted. I am not concerned, for example, that the University won’t make exceptions for married couples. The challenge will be outside of marriage. What if a couple is engaged? What if one or both is married, but not to one another? Will length of the relationship be a factor and if so, how long must a couple be amorous before their relationship is legitimate? Will the ages of the parties be a factor, and if so, what age difference is too great? Will sexual reputation or history be a factor? Will abstract notions about harm to Miami’s reputation, a frequently cited concern of senior administrators, be considered?  

These questions lead me to imagining enforcement of the proposed policy, including investigating claims of violations (which could be made anonymously through EthicsPoint), adjudicating requests for exceptions, and disciplinary hearings. All of these processes will require probing into the sexual conduct of faculty, staff, and students. Remember, the proposed policy regulates consensual activity. Do we want to expose a student’s sex life or orientations against their wishes? Imagine the impact of outing a LGBTQ who is not emotionally ready or compelling an unfaithful spouse or lover to participate in the process. In the absence of standards, the values of the hearing officer, either consciously or unconsciously, can find their way into the process. Private colleges are free to engage in this type of moralism; as a public university, Miami is not. Regardless, detailing standards won’t fix the policy; adults shouldn’t have to ask their college for permission to be amorous. 

The punishment provision raises a familiar concern: termination of employment is possible without mandating that punishment be progressive and proportional. One of the lessons of our colleagues, Dr. Gladish, Dr. Cinnamon, and Mr. Grubb of the Hamilton Campus, is that zero to termination for a first offense, even if an employee has exemplary employment record, is possible. 

The policy presents yet another concern; it disrespects the autonomy of our students. In the 1960s, college students around the Nation fought to overcome the in loco parentis of earlier times. As they rightly argued, if they were old enough to die for their Nation at 18, they were old enough to take charge of their personal lives. Consequently, laws and norms changed. Today, young adults are empowered to make romantic, sexual, and reproductive decisions, free of the meddling of the state legislature, the police, and yes, their universities. 

More broadly, the road to protecting privacy has been long and bumpy. The right of couples to control their reproduction wasn’t recognized until 1965, the right to interracial marriage was not guaranteed until 1967, women didn’t fully control their reproductive health until 1973, and the right to same-sex marriage wasn’t won until 2015. The proposed policy may be well intentioned, but it is a step backward in civil rights and in the right of students to their own agency.

As a father of a daughter who will start college in the fall, I would be concerned if she chose to date a professor, particularly one who is many decades her senior. And there is no doubt that I would engage her about the wisdom of her choice. But, in the end, the decision would be hers, not mine. And, most definitely, it is not the university’s. 

Respectfully,  

Daniel E. Hall

hallslaw@yahoo.com

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