The University of Utah's faculty senate rankled a few professors a few days ago by approving a policy that, among other things, forbids romances between teachers and their students.
To some, this is an unwelcomed intrusion into the private lives of consensual adults. After all, university students are, for the most part, legally responsible for their own behavior.But the university is prudent to recognize and begin grappling with a phenomenon that, if left unchecked, could make the school and its faculty vulnerable to a variety of charges.
Judging by the number of cases generating media attention, the subject of harassment in classroom settings is becoming increasingly serious.
Just how serious is indicated by a report issued last June by the American Association of University Women. The report concluded that sexual harassment is widespread in the public schools and may lead to abusive behavior later in life. The survey found that, in most cases, students harassed other students. But 25 percent of the girls and 10 percent of the boys said they had been harassed by a school employee, such as a teacher, coach, bus driver, security guard or coun-sel-or.
Regardless of whether the administration at the U. formally adopts the policy from the faculty senate, instructors at all levels should be aware of the risks.
The younger generation already is. Some elementary and high school students are becoming sophisticated at manipulating teachers into compromising situations or at falsely accusing them of abuses. Others who actually are being abused no longer endure silently.
Years ago, accusations of sexual abuse were handled discreetly and, at worst, led to the teacher being transferred. Today, schools understand the legal liabilities they face if an accused teacher is transferred elsewhere and commits another indiscretion. Accusations are much more public, and the accused suffer career-threatening damage even if they later are found not guilty. Some experts say most charges against teachers are false, but any teacher who regularly shows affection or touches students, or who speaks to them in a suggestive manner, no matter how benignly, has difficulty disproving the claims.
Perhaps that is why a Virginia teacher apparently committed suicide recently after being suspended pending an investigation into remarks he made to female students. It certainly is why a substitute teacher in Chicago still is trying to recover from sexual abuse charges leveled by a fourth-grader who later admitted to fabricating the story and paying other students $1 apiece to corroborate it.
If 9-year-olds are that streetwise, some university students struggling with grades certainly won't hesitate to use the art of flirtation to help their cause. Professors who involve themselves with their students are, at the very least, making themselves vulnerable to charges of favoritism. At the worst they could be accused of requiring sex in return for grades.
The fact that both parties are adults would have little relevance - no more than it does when employees level similar charges against their bosses.
The trend toward openness about sexual harassment is good. No one should have to suffer such indignities. But the complexities that surround that openness are many and varied, and the U. is wise to begin confronting them.