By Nathaniel DePaul
Though sexual relationships between professors and students are taboo, there were never any official UAlbany policies prohibiting them, until now.
A recent directive from the SUNY Board of Trustees instructs university Human Resource departments to ban nonprofessional relationships between students and staff, as well as between professional staff and other college personnel.
The Board of Trustees’s decision stems from a desire to ensure that policy is consistent across all SUNY campuses and take a more stringent stance on sexual harassment.
The directive creates a “centralized model policy” within the SUNY administration, with each institution responsible for the implementation of said policy, according to UAlbany spokesperson Mike Nolan.
Nolan emphasized that although Albany already has strong statements prohibiting sexual harassment, the decision by SUNY reflects the need to address issues with learning and employee environments on all of their campuses.
“UAlbany is currently reviewing SUNY’s centralized policy and we will share with campus once approved; it should be within the next month,” said Nolan.
On top of the prevention of abuses of power and sexual harassment, another issue is at the heart of the decision: nepotism.
The policy would explicitly eliminate relationships when there is a line of direct supervision, instruction, or evaluation between the individuals, i.e. a professor and student, or department head and subordinate.
The SUNY policy detail expounds on the idea that the “power imbalance” between these kinds of individuals is what might coerce the hypothetical student to start or remain in an unhealthy relationship with a faculty member.
By preventing these imbalanced relationships, the SUNY system believes it is taking steps to prevent sexual harassment, as well as potential nepotism.
However, it’s important to ask just how prevalent of an issue student-faculty relationships really are.
Longtime UAlbany Business Professor Joseph Sheehan remarked that he had never personally seen or heard of a relationship between a student and faculty member in his many years at this college.
Sheehan did however acknowledge that these SUNY officials are most likely responding to the “changing times” we live in.
“Recent years have seen much more open public discussion of issues that have long been very real, but were rarely volunteered for public view and discussion. Sexual harassment issues certainly fit that description,” said Sheehan.
According to Sheehan, a judge with 25 years of experience, one of the issues with consent when it comes to student-faculty relationships is that there is an assumption that “professors are of a certain maturity level that college students have not yet reached.”
However, Sheehan points out that this different maturity level does not likely apply to a relationship between two professionals.
“And while other concerns might be real, policymakers can address these issues without creating rules and regulations which could place unreasonable restrictions on good people doing good work together,” Sheehan said.
There are some allowances for pre-existing relationships and marriages, but only if the relationship is reported to the appropriate body, whether that is the office of Human Resources or the Title IX Coordinator, and alternative supervisory conditions are made.
This policy is not the first of its kind, even within the SUNY system; Binghamton University has had a similar policy in place since 1993, according to their director of media and public relations Ryan Yarosh.
You can find the policy at: https://www.suny.edu/sunypp/documents.cfm?doc_id=877