by Sarah Hubbs - The Real College Guide

Already have a fave instructor? Feelin’ like a teacher’s pet?

It’s great to have a tight relationship with your professors … but how close is too close?

Students are often told that getting to know teachers on a more personal level can add up to more academic insight, better grades and stellar reference letters. But there’s such a thing as crossing a line.

Here, we map out the warning signs that you -- or an instructor -- may be entering dangerous territory, emotionally and academically.

Professor Relations Are Priceless?

A recent grad (name and university withheld at graduate’s request) was candid with us about her romantic involvement with a professor: “The affair was certainly exhilarating at first, but I regret all of it. The dynamic of the whole situation just wasn’t normal or right. He was old enough to be my father, and I think I was looking for a protector of sorts, since I was new to the school. For him, I’m sure it was ego-inflating to be with a young girl. But I got my heart crushed in the end when I found out he’d been married to the same woman for over 20 years and also that he was sleeping with another student. Did I get an A? Yep. Was it worth it? No. It ultimately cost me my dignity and self-respect.”

When one person is in a position of authority over another, as with a professor and student, ethical issues are involved if a sexual relationship develops. This can be likened to inappropriate liaisons between a supervisor and employee, a doctor and patient, or a high-ranking officer and military personnel of a lower rank. Essentially, there is a power imbalance.

And in This Corner ….

Of course, there are outspoken opponents to bans on professor-student relationships, one of the most notable being Barry M. Dank, an emeritus professor of sociology at California State University. He openly admits to 35-plus years of dating students and is currently married to a former student. In his blog "Dankprofessor’s Weblog," he quotes a 2001 Harper’s Magazine article by Cristina Nehring titled “The Higher Yearning: Bringing Eros Back to Academe." Writes Dank: “The crackdown on power differentials in student-professor relationships presupposes a power balance in non-pedagogic relationships that is completely fictitious …. Were we honest about our disdain for power imbalance, we would have to legislate as emphatically against discrepancies in cultural, economic and racial clout (to give a few examples), as against those in professional clout.” Concordia University lecturer Mark Bourrie frequently dukes it out verbally with professor Dank and recently posted on his "Ottawa Watch" blog: “The idea of, say, a 40-year-old prof and an 18-year-old student having a ‘relationship’ just boggles the mind. I have a 14-year-old daughter. In four years, she could be ‘dating’ some prof at Concordia, one who may be deciding her marks, sitting on committees deciding whether she gets scholarships, internships or admission to grad school, and who may be asked to write the letters of recommendation that are the grease of the wheels of academics.”

School Rules, Fools!

Many schools have policies in place that address romantic relationships between faculty and students, and Concordia’s Office of Rights and Responsibilities puts forth the following:

"Concordia does not forbid intimate relationships between faculty and students that are consensual. However, such relationships are fraught with danger, and the recommendation from the Advisor is that it is better to avoid them. There are several reasons for this recommendation, not the least of which is the observation that when such relationships sour -- and they often do -- it is the student who usually loses, not the faculty member. Offices that provide services to students often hear these tales and know that, more often than not, the student drops out of a course, a program or even the university. Professionally speaking, faculty should be encouraging students to learn, not taking risks with their academic futures."

When doing an extensive search of schools across the board, we find that there is no commonly definitive rule. Some colleges “strongly discourage” such relations, and others full-on prohibit it to the extent that a professor can be terminated from his or her position. There certainly are instances in which professor-student romances result in lawsuits against universities. Things can get trickier (criminal even) when a faculty member has sex with a student who is a minor. You can poke around on your school’s Web site to find out the administration’s position on this matter or contact the Office of the Provost for information. But even if you aren’t romantically involved, it’s possible for a platonic relationship with a prof to enter the land of inappropriateness -- so be leery and read on .…

Have a Drink on Me

“As far as I'm concerned, the main specific no-no, for a lot of reasons, would be consuming alcohol,” says English professor Ben Yagoda of the University of Delaware. Again, this is particularly a concern if the teacher is promoting underage drinking. But even if all involved are of legal age, throwing back vodka shots with your Latin instructor is way off course.

That said, it’s not unusual for a professor to invite students to his or her home. But our advice is to never go alone, and if you feel at all uncomfortable with the situation, suggest meeting somewhere else. UD senior Allison Ruppino says, “I think it's very kind of a professor to open up their house to students, but at the same time, I feel it blurs the boundary line of a public/private relationship. There are plenty of places to meet up on campus; meeting at someone's house isn't necessary.”

An Apple a Day Gives the Student an A?

Friendly or flirty, your relationship with a professor  should not have any effect on your GPA. You ma think it’s a good idea to suck up to the teacher for a little nudge in your test score, but you could end up with some unwelcome sexual advances. This kind of game playing may even backfire in such a way that the teacher resents your attempts at manipulation and actually lowers your grade.

On the flip side, it’s unfortunate but a fact of life that some teachers lack ethics and may try to use the lure of a good grade to get a student into the sack. Professor Yagoda points out, “There's nothing wrong with friendship -- the problem is that you, as faculty, have power over the student in terms of grades. If you are a friend as well as teacher, there may be conflict of interest or -- what is just as bad -- appearance of conflict of interest.”

’Round and ’Round the Rumor Mill

When other students in the class are making comments to you or to each other regarding your unusual relationship with a professor, perhaps your ears should perk up. Rather than brushing it off as meaningless gossip, take into consideration that perhaps they’re seeing something you can’t because you’re too wrapped up in the situation. Take a step back and examine whether their chitchat has some merit.

If you ascertain that your relationship with a professor indeed has gone a tad too far, slow down the amount of communication with him or her. Limit your interactions to those necessary to your studies and avoid casual encounters. The prof is persistent and requests meetings that don’t have a purpose? Be assertive in setting healthy boundaries. If you feel a professor’s behavior is unprofessional in any way, report it to school authorities.

Just as sexual harassment laws apply in the workplace, same goes for campus. You have the right to attend classes without being pursued by a tongue-wagging perv. And if you’re the one who’s feeling the puppy love? Down!


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Academic Affair: Beware! - Going to College