Drawing the line on relationships

A new consensual relationship policy for USF faculty has been in the works since July, and after six months of working and reworking the policy, it is finally taking shape and is almost ready for official consideration.

Work officially began on the policy a few weeks after an article in the St. Petersburg Times was published about James Inman, a former tenure-track faculty member in the English department at USF. His contract was not renewed this past August, seemingly because of complications arising from a relationship with a student. At the time the university would not comment on the situation.

The current policy allows professors to have relationships with their students, but it is not looked kindly upon and often leads to sexual harassment cases.

The policy deals directly with relationships where one partner has “direct authority” over another partner. It will affect everybody in the university from the top down, not just faculty and students.

A relationship between a Physical Plant manager and worker would be viewed just as a faculty member and student relationship would. The policy wouldn’t govern all relationships between faculty and students, just those involving direct authority.

“This is a large institution,” said Faculty Senate President Susan Greenbaum. “Logic comes into play; we wouldn’t want to govern over the love lives of everybody in the university.”

The policy also does not prohibit relationships where direct authority is involved; it essentially just frowns upon them. Any relationship where direct authority is involved is to be reported to a superior.

At a recent Faculty Senate Executive Committee meeting, some committee members expressed doubt that professors would really inform their superiors of relationships. This is of special concern because the ambiguous legalese of the policy makes it seem as though disciplinary action can be taken even if and when a superior is told.

If told, the superior would then decide what actions to take to remove the direct authority. This might include removing a student from a class or removing a professor from an advisory position over a student.

In a statement made by e-mail from Inman, he stated that the new policy would not have made a difference in his case, though his experience was a catalyst in forming the new policy.

“Before dating a graduate student in the department, I made sure the relationship was known and another member of the faculty was her teacher and supervisor of record, which should have protected us both,” Inman wrote. “We were two consenting adults with no conflicts of interest, and I could not have influenced or affected her career in any way, but still USF chose to act against me. The new policy wouldn’t have made any difference.”

Some professors feel there is no reason for relationships to occur between those with direct authority and those they have the authority over.

Biology chairman Sidney K. Pierce said in a Times article earlier this month that, “It’s never acceptable for a professor to date his students.”

Pierce’s view would be more in line with the stringent relationship policy at Stetson University’s College of Law in Tampa. Their policy clearly prohibits relationships involving direct authority and lists dismissal as a possible disciplinary action. Their policy also prohibits any consensual relationships between students and faculty members.

USF is not alone in its lenient consensual relationship policy. Universities all over the country have very similar policies, including Illinois State University, the University of Texas and Stanford University.