CC’s new consensual relations policy arouses controversy
by Simone Phillips, staff writer; illustration by Julia DeWitt, staff artist
Gates Common Room was buzzing when I arrived to the third block faculty meeting—the appearance of the Consensual Relations policy on the agenda had brought the meeting to a halt. Before voting to pass the policy, faculty members insisted on exercising their rights to debate, a reflection of the controversy surrounding student/faculty relationships at CC.
The provisional policy states, “Colorado College prohibits all sexual or amorous relationships between members of the faculty and students,” and that “Colorado College does not allow any member of the College community who is involved in a sexual or amorous relationship with a person over whom he or she has supervisory or evaluative authority to continue to exercise such authority over the subordinate party.” Since the meeting, faculty have voted to pass the policy, but not without some reservations.
While in the past, CC’s administration has not condoned sexual relationships between students and faculty, the Consensual Relations policy enacts institutional protocol to respond to such relationships. According to history professor Tip Ragan, the Consensual Relations policy demonstrates an “institutional commitment” to sexual safety. It provides “recognition of what could have been taking place in the classroom that we previously had no [established] way of addressing.”
The policy was created in part to ensure that no sexual relationship between a faculty member and student would “detract from the main goals of the institution,” as the policy outlines. The dynamic of a professor-student relationship could create an uncomfortable atmosphere for other students in a class, and could influence a professor’s capacity for fair evaluation. Regardless of whether or not the faculty member supervises the student, the relationship is inevitably characterized by an unequal distribution of power. Feminist and gender studies professor Eileen Bresnahan confirms that, “One of the problems that the college has had is professors sleeping with undergraduate students where there is a big age difference.”
While the issues of evaluation and equity between parties are problematic, some faculty members insist that the policy should not prevent the possibility for close student-faculty relationships. The question arose as to where the line should be drawn between friendly and inappropriate relationships between students and faculty members. Faculty members displayed concern for this issue at the third block meeting as they became engrossed in a debate over the meaning of the word “amorous,” and eventually voted not to include this word in the policy. Along with several of his colleagues (both male and female), English professor George Butte rose to the microphone to argue against the use of the word amorous because of its possible implication of friendship. Other faculty members defended their freedom to distinguish students on the basis of academic merit and talent and, in some cases, to meet with them outside of class. Some professors wished to maintain the right to meet privately with students struggling with class work.
But the word “amorous” seems to suggest romantic attachment, something distinct from student-faculty friendship. Sociology professor C.J. Pascoe explains, “There was some back-and-forth among faculty members [as to whether the policy] should be just about sexual topics or sexual and romantic topics.” Pascoe says that a number of faculty members wanted the policy to prohibit romantic interactions. But by voting to remove the word “amorous” from the policy, the faculty chose to condemn only relationships in which students have physical relations with professors. The word “amorous” would have allowed the policy to address romantic relationships between students and faculty members whether or not evidence of sex was present. Ultimately, faculty voted to abolish this word from the policy. There are multiple reasons behind the decision, but, according to Pascoe, “There are some faculty who would prefer not to see emotional entanglements legislated.” By voting not to include the word “amorous” in the Consensual Relations policy, the faculty is consenting to romantic relationships as long as they are not sexual.
While other small liberal arts colleges passed policies regarding student-faculty relations years ago, CC faculty long struggled to accept such regulations. Ragan confirms that “we are the last of the top twenty-five liberal arts colleges” to pass such a policy regarding student-faculty relations. Williams and Carleton approved sexual conduct policies regarding faculty/student relationships in 1990 and 1992, respectively. Both schools have revised them since. When Pascoe arrived at CC a year and a half ago, she said that she was “horrified” to find that the college had no policy regarding faculty/student relationships. Bresnahan confirms that CC was not oblivious to the problem and has been working to engineer a policy since she joined the faculty eleven years ago. The policy simply has failed to pass until now.
There are several reasons behind the CC administration’s delay in acknowledging problems surrounding sexual relations between students and faculty. Ragan explains that the “liberal spirit of individualism at this school” may be partially responsible for the delay in formalizing a policy. This value may follow the Enlightenment belief that all adults are equal and should have the freedom to rationally pursue their interests. Following the block three meeting, one male faculty member complained to me that the administration should not police student/faculty relations because both parties are adults. This contention aligns with the attitude that CC students and faculty alike are mature adults. Accordingly, they should maintain the freedom to pursue relationships with whomever they choose.
Pascoe, who teaches the class “Sociology of Sexuality,” finds the assumption that professors and students stand on equal ground in pursuing and maintaining sexual relationships with one another to be flawed. She contends that, across the nation, “Historically, we have seen male professors abuse their power with female students.” This is not to say that the policy does not apply to female professors. But it exists primarily to confront a problem in a society in which, according to Pascoe, “men hold more power than women.”
Bresnahan provides an additional explanation as to why CC has hesitated to pass a consensual relations policy. She points to the fact that “a lot of faculty are married to people who used to be students.” According to Bresnahan, these relationships typically form between a male faculty member and a former female student. “The place is run by an old boys’ network,” she argues. “I think women have a hard time being heard here in terms of women’s concerns. If women speak the right language they can be included, but not if they speak as women.”
This suggests that there exists a larger problem regarding equality among faculty members at CC. Bresnahan says, “The fact that these documents have not been passed until now is indicative of the chilly climate towards women at CC. Women faculty are not empowered at CC. If they [speak as women], they are shot down, marginalized, and ostracized.”
It is clear that a variety of issues lie behind CC’s slow passage of the Consensual Relations policy. The issues of individual choice and gender inequality probably both played a role, and it is difficult to pinpoint just one event to which the college is reacting. The passage of this policy may be, in part, a response to the fear of litigation.
While CC passed this policy in the wake of other similar schools, it opted to completely prohibit sexual relationships between any enrolled student and faculty member—even if the student is not under the evaluative auspices of the faculty member. Williams passed a similar policy in 1990, but chose to only prohibit faculty from engaging in a sexual relationship with a student they had supervisory or evaluative authority over. Williams did not exclude the possibility for consensual relations between a student and faculty member. The Williams College Employee handbook from 2006 states, “Anyone in a position of institutional authority over other persons should be sensitive to the potential for coercion in sexual relationships that also involve professional relationships” [emphasis added]. Unlike CC’s policy, Williams’ specifies the need for sensitivity and good judgment on the part of the faculty, rather than mandating complete prohibition. This difference in approach raises the issue of whether or not CC is reacting too stringently to the pressure for a consensual relations policy.
The policy suggests that the College will not force the termination of a relationship, only that it demands the faculty member involved to report “the consensual relationship” and not to serve as a supervisor of that student. This clause reflects an inconsistency in CC’s Consensual Relations policy. While the policy claims to “prohibit” any sexual relationship between a student and a faculty member, it qualifies this claim by stating that the faculty member must report the relationship in order to avoid punishment.
By approving a consensual relations policy, CC remains consistent with standards of other liberal arts colleges. In passing this regulation, CC is demonstrating its commitment to an academic experience where neither faculty nor students are distracted by sexual dynamics. But as one female student who wishes to remain anonymous explains, “Putting a limit on the potential development of student-faculty relationships conflicts with the possibilities for intellectual exploration. Sexuality is not a barrier to the academic experience, but an expression of it.”