Monday, January 05, 2004

HOT FOR TEACHER?: POLICING SEX IN THE ACADEMY

Should professors and students be allowed to sleep together? - is this the "burning academic question of the day"? Northwestern's Laura Kipnis, who has become a bit of an intellectual celeb of late (and I mean that in a good way) because of her recent book Against Love: A Polemic, tackles the question in a recent Slate column. To be quite candid, I'm not sure if this is the burning academic question - out here in my parts of the academic world, the bigger questions include:

  • Will any of us find a job? Or at least a post-doc?
  • Given California's abysmal state budget (none helped by Gubnur Ahnuld), will there even be jobs?
  • Can someone please find a way to make Ward Connerly just go away? At least to another state?

    Appropriately though, what sparks Kipnis' interest in the topic is that my UC system has recently instituted a ban on consensual relationships between professors and students which is just the latest in a string of similar policy enactments that various schools (William and Mary for one) have been establishing over the last few years. These policies come amidst several high-profile media stories on the issue, no doubt fueled by obvious prurient appeal, the most infamous being Rolling Stone's "expose" on the sex lives of Wellesley students. (I could have sworn the mag then followed up with another story, specifically on professor-student sex, that appeared within a year of the Wellesley piece but I can't seem to find it again).

    Ok - so the gist of Kipnis' position is essentially a libertarian one: institutions should not govern people's private behavior. She writes specifically, "the problem in redressing romantic inequalities with institutional blunt instruments is that it just confers more power on the institutions themselves, vastly increasing their reach into people's lives." I'm actually quite sympathetic to this point of view in general theory except that Kipnis doesn't really extend on it through the remainder of her column, except to share a long yarn about a silly sexual harassment workshop she attended at Northwestern. Again, I'm wholly sympathetic to her take on that - one of my least favorite activities as someone who worked at UC Berkeley (besides my 11.5+ years of matriculation) were "diversity sensitivity" workshops that were perfect examples of how well-intentioned policies can result in the most insipid of realities. (Hint: anti-racism takes more than performing a skit about ethnic stereotypes). My point though is that Kipnis more or less lays out this idea that "regulation = bad" but fails to elaborate in a convincing fashion as to why it's bad in this case. Her attitude - and this is firmly in line with what she publishes in Against Love - is that sex is already regulated enough in our society so why extend it further into the academy?

    As someone firmly entrenched in academia (for better or for worse), this is an issue I've spent some time thinking about. For the record, I've never slept with any of my students, nor even entertained the thought (for some strange reason, some of my friends, female at that, think it's crazy that I've never tried to hook up with a student...they made it sound like the most obvious thing in the world to do and I could only stare back at them, incredulous at what they were suggesting). I do know, however, quite a few students who have slept with professors and vice versa and in general, it ALWAYS ENDS BADLY. Now - this is all anecdotal and not based on data I've collected or anything but then again, Kipnis is making her argument largely through posture, conjecture and theory too. I'm sure she - or anyone else - can provide examples of functional, productive and nurturing relationships between professors and students but exceptions don't prove the rule. After all, there are probably some people out there who think Strom Thurmond might have really been in love with the 16 year old black housekeeper he impregnated back in his 20s but for most of the rest of us, we're thinking "rape" given the obvious power dynamics at work in such a racially charged environment.

    So yes, throughout the world everywhere, there are many examples of positive sexual relationships based in unequal power relations: military officers sleeping with underlings, bosses and their workers, etc. However, the underlying issue here is one of exploitation and the need to ward against it. The reason why we formulate sexual harassment policies in general is because it's clear and apparent that those in power are usually not capable of regulating their own behavior (from the President on down, I might add) and that, given the opportunity to take sexual advantage, they will. Before anyone brings it up - yes, this can operate in reverse too - it's not as if "underlings" don't prey on their higher-ups - but once again, exceptions don't prove the rule. And moreover, sexual harassment legislation exists to protect both sides.

    Moreover, I do not think, as Kipnis suggests, that trying to formalize a ban on prof/student relationships is disrespectful to the agency of students to make intelligent, adult decisions. Though protectionism is part of the rationale behind such policies, it's not just about protecting the students but also, ideally the environment that this takes place in.

    Just to be blunt: professors f*cking students (and vice versa) does not contribute to a progressive, positive academic environment. I do not think one needs to legislate the promotion of a progressive, positive academic environment (i.e. you can't create a policy that compels people to be nice and nurturing to one another...if so, no academic would hold their job for too long, especially around tenure review). But I do think it's appropriate to create policy that hinders activity which is a malignant force between and among faculty and students. This is both at the ethical and legal level - no doubt, part of a university's impetus to institute policies such as these is to avoid ugly lawsuits that could arise down the line.

    The UC's approach has been to disprove of relationships between faculty and students that they might potential work with in a professional capacity (i.e. people they may teach or mentor at the graduate level) and this follows from the most sensible logic. Other schools have acted to ban ALL relationships of this kind - god forbid this happen at an isolated campus like Cornell where such a policy would probably destroy the entire sex lives of faculty trapped in Ithaca - and I'm probably more sympathetic with Kipnis on this...at some point, consenting adults should be given more leeway to make their own bad choices. That said though, I still think the idea and implementation of these prohibitions come out of the best possible places in terms of concern and long-ranging vision.

    One thing I heartily agree with Kipnis on is this: a university sponsored workshop on "10 Signs That Your Professor Is Sleeping With You To Assuage Mid-Life Depression and Will Dump You Shortly Afterward." Of course, based on the anecdotes I know, I suspect most students would spectacularly fail this course. But to quote Jay-Z, "I ain't no fool/I'll make it up in summer school."