Colleges Rewrite Rules on Teacher-Student Romance


He was a hip, 26-year-old English teacher with a trendy red beard. She was a wide-eyed college freshman who swooned in class when he discussed "The Harrad Experiment," the 1960s' cult classic on casual sexual mores.

Sparks in the classroom led to sparks in the bedroom — and a brief, but disappointing, love affair.

Enough about this reporter. Flash forward 40 years.

Today, student-teacher romances still flower on college campuses, but fear of sexual harassment suits are forcing administrators to refine their policies.

A string of student-teacher affairs have led to legal action at the University of California, William & Mary in Virginia and Ohio Wesleyan University.

"The student-teacher relationship is inherently an uneven one and fraught with peril," Boston education lawyer Paul Lannon told

"But they don't always go awry and get lawyers involved," he said. "A lot pass under the radar and work out well."

This month, faculty at Vermont's Middlebury College will vote on new language for its handbook — one that discourages, but does not actually ban, relationships between students and their professors.

"We are realistic that from time to time, these will occur," associate Spanish professor Miguel Fernández told "But the expectation is that it will be avoided."

Open for Love

In fact, the new policy proposal still leaves room for romance.

If a professor falls in love with a student, he or she is expected to report the relationship to the dean, so arrangements can be made for the student to be graded by someone else or to change sections, according to Fernández, who serves on the committee to update the handbook.

"We realized they are consenting adults," said Fernández, who said an outright ban might encourage couples to cover up their affairs.

The key to whether the relationship is problematic is who is in the position of power, according to Lannon, who handles sexual harassment cases at big-name universities and private schools.

"The teacher obviously has authority over the student, and the student is vulnerable to undue influence," he said. "There is always going to be that pressure."

Sexual harassment — defined legally as repeated unwanted advances — is largely seen in the workplace, but college campuses are not immune. Federal laws hold universities accountable when they do not respond to complaints by victims, said Lannon.

For this reason, many schools, like the University of Vermont, ban these romances when a faculty member has "authority" over a student. The policy includes not only a teacher, but an adviser, coach or counselor.

In cases of sexual harassment, it is difficult to prove who the victim is. A law school dean at the University of California resigned in 2002 after an affair he called consensual and the student called harassment, according to an Associated Press report.

Obamas in Love

But not all such love affairs end in disaster. In 1989, Chicago lawyer Michelle Robinson was assigned the role of adviser to a summer associate from Harvard University — her future husband and Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

According to an interview in the Illinois Journal Gazette and Times-Courier, she took the high road and refused to go out with Obama for a month.

Lannon has his own share of heart-rending stories. A family friend, who was a professor at a New York City university, fell in love and married his student. It lasted 40 years.

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...