Why Harvard Officially Banned Professor-Student Relationships

Harvard University officially instituted a ban on sexual relationships between professors and undergraduate students this week. The decision followed Harvard’s review of its policy against sexual and gender-based harassment, as universities all over the country face investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for Title IX violations.

Harvard professor Alison Johnson, who led the panel that wrote the updated policy, explained that the ban is a formalization of an existing culture, which frowns upon student-professor relationships. Still, having that culture codified is crucial, she told HuffPost Live on Thursday.

“There's an argument that the presence or absence of the policy isn’t an indication of the presence or absence of a culture, where this kind of behavior is not acceptable," Johnson said. "I believe that it's good for us to have the policy. I believe that that general expectation, the reliance on ethical behavior, is good, but having a policy, for us I believe, even better."

The unequal status between professors and students can complicate relationships, insisted Mic staff writer Marcie Bianco.

“What we're not also addressing is that in sexual relationships, power is very much at play," Bianco said. "In fact, power is almost a critical element in any relationship dynamic."

The Harvard policy is less sweeping with regards to relationships between graduate students and undergraduates or graduate students and faculty, only prohibiting them in situations where one supervises or evaluates another.

Harvard should offer more specificity about its stance on those relationships as well, Bianco suggested.

“Another aspect of this is the relationship between the graduate student and the professor, because that’s where professionalism in one's career really can be damaged," she said.

Bianco also added that inappropriate professor-student relations can impede the "creative intelligence" of other students in the classroom.

“I know plenty of graduate students who have been in relationships with their professors or who have been in classrooms or in seminars or with a student who has been in a relationship with the professor, and it changed the entire classroom dynamic,” Bianco said. "And it has really affected a lot of careers."

Watch the full HuffPost Live conversation about Harvard’s ban on student-professor relationships here.

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