Intimate relationships between teaching staff and students: Finding a way forward

"McGill’s administration is listening, particularly to students and particularly on sensitive and difficult questions," writes Angela Campbell

The Report of the ad hoc Senate Committee on Teaching Staff-Student Intimate Relationships was presented to McGill’s Senate on December 5, generating anger and disappointment among those who disagree with the Committee’s recommendations. For these community members, the recommendations miss the mark, and represent proof that they were unheard.

McGill’s administration is, however, listening, particularly to students and particularly on sensitive and difficult questions.

Prof. Angela Campbell, Associate Provost, Equity & Academic Policies

The Ad Hoc Senate Committee was charged with examining how McGill ought to address – from a policy perspective – intimate relationships between teaching staff and students. It recommended prohibiting such relationships within the same academic unit, or between instructors and students whom they teach, evaluate, or supervise. For many students, this did not go far enough: they would prefer a complete ban on teaching staff-student relationships.

While an outright ban may appear simple and unambiguous, multiple factors call into question whether it would be desirable, or even possible.

The extent to which a university can intervene in the private lives of staff and students is unclear. Quebec law grants each of us the right to respect for private life. A ban on intimacy between 40,000 students and 5,000 teachers, many of whom never cross paths at McGill, might limit that right unjustifiably. Concordia University’s Task Force on Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Violence may have had this point in mind when concluding that Concordia could not “legally forbid consensual sexual or intimate relationships between faculty and adult students.”

While U.S. institutions such as Harvard and Yale are sometimes referred to as models on these issues, neither has a total ban. Harvard bars relationships between teachers and undergraduates in its Faculty of Arts and Science. Yale similarly directs professors to avoid sexual relationships with undergraduates and with students whom they teach or supervise, or whom they reasonably expect to teach or supervise.

How much control an institution should exercise over individuals’ intimate lives is not a straightforward question. Total control in this case is framed as necessary to protect vulnerable people. Experience shows, however, that bans have a propensity to drive conduct underground and make it even harder to access support services, something we all want to avoid.

Community involvement, particularly that of students, has been crucial to advancing McGill’s efforts to address sexual violence. Our Policy against Sexual Violence responded to students’ call for a regulation denouncing sexual violence and communicating support for survivors. A Special Investigator (Sexual Violence) was also appointed this fall in response to student feedback stressing that survivors would be more willing to report incidents of sexual misconduct if these were investigated by an independent person trained in trauma-informed procedures.

A working group that includes many student representatives (from SACOMSS, SSMU, PGSS, MACES, MCSS, AGSEM, AMUSE, MCLIU) is currently reviewing the Policy. These students have made critical contributions to amending the Policy. Next term, the working group will examine the question of professor–student relationships. I encourage all students to share their insights and perspectives by contacting their representatives or getting in touch with me directly. Further campus-wide consultations – including some just for students – will take place early in 2019.

We have made significant strides to prevent and address sexual violence, substantially aided by student input, and we wish to continue to do so. Let’s keep this conversation going, and find a way forward on this complex but critical topic.

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Constantin Polychronakos
5 years ago

Did the advocates of a total ban explain who will be protected by such a drastic (and illegal) prohibition and how?