Is it time for Canadian universities to ban student-professor relationships?

Steven Galloway has been suspended from his job as chairman of the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia. File photo

The former student who accused author Steven Galloway of sexual assault is calling on the University of British Columbia to outright ban student-teacher relationships.

In an open letter to UBC’s president, the woman — identified only as the MC or main complainant — says via her lawyer that the university’s policies don’t go far enough to address the issue.

Her request is the latest development in the case. Galloway was fired from UBC in June 2016 after a months-long investigation into his conduct. Earlier this summer an arbitrator awarded him $167,000 as a result of “substantial procedural violations” by the university’s administration.

A tug of war over the unredacted report from that initial investigation is ongoing. Galloway has it and has reportedly shared it with friends, although MC has yet to receive a copy. In the letter, MC’s lawyer calls on the university to release an unredacted version of the report to MC, and to put a stop to faculty-student relationships.

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“Students should not be put in the position of proving this obvious imbalance of power in sexual relations with professors on a case by case basis,” she wrote.

“Classrooms and graduate programs must not be ‘dating’ pools for faculty.”

Canadian post-secondary institutions have resisted such prohibitions, but as students head back to school this week, is it time for them to get on board?

“Learning is an intensely romantic endeavour,” explains Judith Taylor, an associate professor in the sociology, and women and gender studies departments at the University of Toronto.

“There isn’t a part of you, when you’re really into it, that isn’t really alive … there’s a vulnerability and an excitement.”

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It can be easy for a student to mistakenly conflate how they feel about what they’re learning with who’s teaching them, Taylor says, so, “culturally, what if we asked professors not to take advantage of that? I would be for that.”

While Anne Boucher doesn’t want to blanket declare all faculty-student relationships as “OK,” the president of the University of Toronto Students’ Union doesn’t favour a ban.

“It’s a little bit of a grey area,” she says.

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It would need to be really clear that the student wasn’t being advantaged or disadvantaged in any way, she says, and it should be mandatory that the department is notified (U of T does require department chairs be notified of any conflict of interests).

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“If there is a relationship that were to develop I would be more inclined to say it was OK if the professor wasn’t directly teaching them,” Boucher says. But, she notes, “students are adults.”

Boucher’s comment echoes some of the critics of a ban, who argue it’s infantilizing to students, women in particular.

It’s not about adulthood, explains Jennifer Freyd, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon.

“When you have powerful people working with subordinates, it’s almost always a bad idea to have sexuality acted on,” she says. “People may be legally adults but their ability to freely say no can be constrained by the power dynamics.”

As Martine Delvaux, a professor in literature and women’s studies at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), puts it:

“The student who has a romantic relationship with a professor never wins. She never wins. There are very few good outcomes to these relationships.”

Delvaux was on the UQAM committee tasked with recommending a policy around student-teacher relationships. The committee, which included professors, contract instructors, students and other university professionals, laboured over the task before ultimately recommending a ban. Their recommendation still has to be approved.

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“It was very hard to come to that conclusion,” she says, “to forbid is very difficult.”

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Although Delvaux personally supports a ban, she doesn’t think the majority of her colleagues who disagree with her are doing so because they “want to abuse power or take advantage of students for sexual pleasure.”

It’s more out of concern over freedom, she says.

“It’s not about them wanting the freedom to go and sleep with whoever they want, it’s a greater worry about working in an environment where they will be watched,” Delvaux says.

“They do not want to be in that kind of environment that can lead to lack of academic freedom.”

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In the end, Delvaux says the committee weighed the options and made its choice.

“Instead of defending the one case in how many where they live happily ever after, we chose to forbid it to prevent all the other situations that we have encountered.”

Kurt Heinrich, a spokesman for UBC, says the university is aware of the open letter, but privacy law is “clear and prohibits the university from sharing the reasons for the decision to terminate [Galloway] or the details of the investigation.”

Heinrich did not say whether the university was considering any policy changes. As it stands, faculty members are required to “avoid or declare all conflicts of interest, including those that involve consensual relationships with their students.”

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