In fiction, people seem to be totally OK with the idea of professor-student romance. It's a common enough trope that Ross dated one of his charges in an episode of Friends. Everyone cheers at the end of Never Been Kissed even though Michael Vartan was under the impression that Drew Barrymore was a high school senior when the two first hit it off. In real life, of course, if an 18-year-old undergrad started "dating" a professor everyone would be skeeved out, and both parties' friends would probably tell them to cut it out.
But since college students are legally adults it's sort of a legal and ethical gray area, and one that Harvard University just dealt with by officially banning professors from sleeping with undergrads. This is notable because the past, schools have taken a more nuanced approach to the issue. For instance, in 2003, California's university system said teachers couldn't sleep with students who they might end up grading—so basically, an aspiring engineer and a humanities professor could do pretty much whatever they wanted. Lately, though, there seems to be a pushback against any kind of teacher-kid hookup: Yale and the University of Connecticut introduced a rule against such liaisons just before Harvard did.
"Some schools have a tiny minority of professors who use their popularity and prestige to empower themselves," Billie Wright Dziech, who studies teacher-student relationships, told Bloomberg. "This is a very, very serious problem for higher education." (A spokeswoman for the American Association of University Professors told Bloomberg a blanket ban was inappropriate.)
What Dziech is talking about sounds like the sexual predation Naomi Wolf famously described in New York Magazine back in 2004. But what about when the perpetrator isn't a lecherous old man, or when a student is actively pursuing a young professor, as was the case in that Friends episode? And what about drunkenly going home with your TA?
To sort this out, I called an ethicist, or actually the Ethicist—Randy Cohen, who wrote that column for the New York Times Magazine from 1999 to 2011.
"The ethical problem is, 'What obligation does the university system have to protect its students?'" he told me. "Does a university have the right to create a system in which so many cases a professor is going to be sexually exploiting a student?"
While banning any acts between two consenting adults might be wrong in any other context, Cohen thinks the university is a special setting that's got a different set of rules. Thanks to the First Amendment, we allow most forms of hate speech in America, provided it doesn't go beyond some bad or offensive words. But on campuses, rules about that kind of speech can be helpful—and instructive—because they force students to construct arguments that don't rely on ad hominem attacks and therefore make the world a better place.
"Once you're an adult and you're out in the world, the culture is gonna offer you less protection, and you're in a better position—one hopes—to make better decisions about things that really do promote you're own happiness," Cohen says. "But for four years on campus, you're given a little extra protection, and you're encouraged to learn the idea of a real egalitarian relationship."
Ultimately, he told me, Harvard's decision is a matter of sacrificing a minor social good in exchange for a huge societal benefit. And it's one that every school should make, regardless of the fear that prospect seems to invoke in the American Association of University Professors.
"They're so wishy-washy and mush-mouthed. They say 'Oh yes, these relationships are fraught with danger, yet we don't want to forbid them.'" he says. "Well, what do you wanna do, boys?"
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