July
10th 2009
On prohibiting faculty-student sexual relationships

Posted under: Gender, GLBTQ, jobs, local news, students, unhappy endings

Here’s something to get your ick on first thing in the morning:  Vance Fulkerson, a theater professor at the University of Northern Colorado since 1990, has been arrested for secretly videotaping boys and young men who used his bathroom, apparently for many years.  Yesterday, the Denver Post reported that Fulkerson “engaged in unwelcome sexual conduct with male students for nearly two decades and that while school officials were aware of complaints, they did nothing,” and today’s front-page story says that “[a] long-standing culture of permissiveness at the University of Northern Colorado has allowed some students and faculty in the theater department to date, attend parties together and share alcohol, drugs and, in some cases, sex,” according to more former students and a former faculty member, voice professor Alex Ryer:

Ryer had no previous university teaching experience when she was hired as a full-time professor in 1999 to take Fulkerson’s place in the musical theater department while he took a year-long leave of absence. She remained on staff through 2004.

She said she soon discovered that physical relationships between students and teachers were “more common than not,” she said.

“I just assumed from my previous experience in the workplace, and from my own moral code, that those kinds of relationships were wrong,” she said. “But at UNC, you saw it everywhere you looked. It may have been male-male or male-female or female- female . . . it was every combination.”

UNC has a policy that “discourages” professor-student sexual relationships, citing concerns about fairness, the appearance of bias in evaluating students, and concerns about the university’s vulnerability to sexual harassment claims.  But, one university official said, “the university cannot legally prohibit relationships between any consenting people 18 or older.” 

But David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, said many schools prohibit faculty from dating students.

“It is never appropriate for college faculty members to engage in sexual activity with a student, even if the student is an adult and consents,” Longanecker said. “It doesn’t matter; this is just ethically and morally inappropriate.”

And they should, he said.

I’m with Longanecker.  We had a long conversation about this last month–many of you confessed to having relationships with professors when you were students, and then in a follow-up post we talked about the role that drinking may play in these relationships.  Why don’t we have a code like that of other professionals which acknowledges the power we have over our students and therefore prohibits dating them?  Doctors and therapists are forbidden to date their patients, lawyers their clients, ministers their congregants.  In fact, doctors and lawyers can lose their licences or be disbarred for violating this rule.  If faculty don’t take a stand against this behavior, we’re just giving cover to an ancient privilege assumed mostly by male faculty who got off on being at the center of attention for a clutch of young people. 

Fulkerson appears to be a creep and a criminal over and above his penchant for hitting on his students.  I’m glad the Denver Post is focusing attention on the context of the atmosphere of the theater department, which apparently encouraged all kinds of inappropriate intimacies between students and faculty.  As one former student quoted in today’s story said, “she was not uncomfortable having professors and grad students at her parties or smoking pot. She said she did not realize how inappropriate it was until she was much older.  ‘I think you are impressionable when you’re 18,’ she said. ‘But they were adults. They were grown men. They were our professors. They should have known better. And to take advantage of kids in that kind of situation just really makes me sick to my stomach.’”  Exactly

I thought it was flattering at 15 being hit on by the medical student in his mid-20s, or at 16 by the student teacher in his late 20s, or at 21 by the professor in his early 30s.  But when I got to the men’s ages myself, I thought, “what a creep,” and was embarrassed by my own naiveté.  At the time I had thought, “oh, I must be so mature to attract the interest of these older men,” when clearly, they knew exactly how old I actually was, and it was my youth that was the attraction.  Ick, indeed.

34 Comments »

34 Responses to “On prohibiting faculty-student sexual relationships”

  1. anon on 10 Jul 2009 at 7:24 am #

    I completely agree with you, Historiann. I know some posters in the earlier conversation had successful and happy relationships with faculty or students (some ended in marriage), but I don’t think these examples should deter us from making policies prohibiting such relationships. I know this isn’t a very sophisticated way of arguing my position, but I just feel a gut-level ICK about the whole thing. Even if profs aren’t dating students and they’re just going to parties – it’s wrong, inappropriate, and absurd. While generally I feel like we shouldn’t overpolice the behavior of adults, professionally the ethical and moral obligations we have to our students should supersede our “right” to have sex with whomever we please. While I agree that the power dynamic imbalance is a big part of the problem, there are other ethical concerns about blurring the boundaries. What happens to the idea of objective analysis if profs have “friends” among undergrads, to whom they might possibly be giving extra help, better grades, inside info, etc etc. We simply aren’t friends with our students; that’s not our job, and to become friends (or sexual partners) compromises our ability to do our jobs, even if the student in question isn’t in one of our classes. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in mentorship – I felt very close to faculty at my small liberal arts college. I went to dinner at their houses (in conjunction with other students), occasionally met for coffee, etc. But these were not friendships. We were not doing jelloshots and exchanging stories about our love troubles. In addition, of course, when there isn’t a strict policy we leave the door open for all kinds of predation on the part of a few deeply unethical faculty members who consciously use their power to coerce or sexually harass students. We needs ways of getting rid of those faculty, even if they are few and far between.

  2. Brian Ulrich on 10 Jul 2009 at 7:44 am #

    Qutb definitely would have found fodder here =)

  3. Historiann on 10 Jul 2009 at 8:27 am #

    Thanks anon for your comment, and Brian: well, as a stopped clock is right twice a day, so even sweet, quiet Greeley has a criminal weirdo in its midst.

    I ran into a neighbor as I came back from my run this cloudy, oddly humid morning, and she told me that this Fulkerson guy lives right around the corner from us! Not surprising I guess, since I live about 1/2 a mile from UNC, and I know that a lot of other UNC faculty live in my neighborhood. She said she saw the local TV news vans setting up their cameras the other day…

  4. ej on 10 Jul 2009 at 8:32 am #

    I think your point about maturity levels is really important. While the studens involved think they are attracting the attention of a TA or Prof because they are more mature than their peers, it is usually just the opposite-the person making the advances is targeting someone younger deliberately. Perhaps they themselves lack a certain maturity, which makes them uncomfortable among their own peers, and leads them to seek friends/lovers among the student population instead.

    In any case, it is unfair to leave students vulnerable and unprotected. 18 may be a legal age of consent, but UNC needs to rethink its policy. Obviously, there will always be exceptions to the rule, or students who are the same age as their professors-these situations could be reviewed on a case by case basis.

  5. Historiann on 10 Jul 2009 at 8:41 am #

    ej–well, I think making exceptions is really dicey. I think it might well lead to some faculty getting preferential treatment, and others might be dealt with more harshly and/or have a flirtation with a student used as an excuse to get them fired.

    I don’t think it’s that difficult for people to refrain from romantic relationships at least while students are enrolled in our classes or are in other ways subject to our authority. In the case where a returning student in his 30s and a faculty member the same age meet when he’s her student and may want to date, they can wait until the class is over, and she can then take steps to ensure that (if he’s a major, for example) he never enrolls in her classes or is in any way subject to her judgment again. This just seems prudent for everyone concerned, no matter what the outcome of the dating relationship.

    I would be in favor of a more blanket ban on faculty-student relationships until after graduation, especially for traditional-age undergraduates. But that might be a distinction that’s difficult to enact as a policy.

  6. ADM on 10 Jul 2009 at 9:06 am #

    I don’t see that it’s a problem to enact such a policy for faculty (and here I include grad students in faculty roles) vis-a-vis undergrads, as long as the students are undergrads. I can see allowing grad student-undergrad relationships, as long as the grad student will not be in a position to grade or influence the grades of the undergrad, but there is no reason in my mind why a faculty member needs to be in a relationship with an undergrad. Non-traditional students are few enough that honestly, they should be able to wait.

    I’m of two minds for grad student-faculty relationships — sometimes they are predatory, sometimes they are not (and actually, having said that, I know of several cases where undergrads pursued faculty very successfully, and really were very much in control of much of the situation, and very aware of what they were doing. It happens — in these cases with varying results). I think that it’s still problematic, but honestly, academia is such a hard place for relationships, that I think a set of clear guidelines is better: the faculty may not be a supervisor or on the students’ committee, nor in a position to influence the student’s grades or funding. Period.

    And honestly, I think it makes a lot of sense to just get the message out to our female junior colleagues (and men, but it doesn’t work that way most of the time) that it’s a hell of a lot harder to build a reputation for oneself as a good scholar if you are involved with a senior person while before you get your first job. Appearances count.

  7. A on 10 Jul 2009 at 9:08 am #

    It has always seemed to me (a long-time student, on my way to finishing my PhD) that the obvious argument to make against student-faculty relationships is that any faculty member is able to threaten any student with the power inherent in their position. Regardless of whether a professor has a student in his/her class, access to administration, to the ear of the dean, and simply status as a (presumably) respected member of the college/university staff puts any student in a defensive position. On the other hand, accusations made by might have the power to ruin a career. In short – it makes no sense to me why either party would put themselves in such a dangerous position.

    That being said, I have known several members of staff, at several universities who slept with students (in their classes and otherwise) – and the response of the department (both students and other faculty) tended to be “oh, yeah, X is creepy, but it’s also kind of funny to see him go after these girls.” I don’t know if it would have been different had the staff member been female, but I was quite shocked at how accepting people seemed to be of this kind of behavior.

  8. Erica on 10 Jul 2009 at 9:47 am #

    I’m a (graduate) student who’s romantically involved with a prof… although we’re the same age, in different departments, and married. Unfortunately, couples like us can be the exception that would make a blanket policy difficult — despite my belief that there should be policies and that they be enforced ruthlessly. I would never consider being in the same department as my spouse (even if I liked his discipline), just because of the obvious “well, you know how SHE was admitted/graduated” implications. I can succeed on my own merits and it can be surprisingly hard to demonstrate that when there are other excuses.

    I also feel that academia has a much harder environment to report harassing behavior, making it harder for students who have to deal with inappropriate professors. The corporate world has hordes of HR staff, at least — I don’t think most students would know where to start complaining (I don’t, although I could probably figure it out if necessary). On top of that, a student’s goal is to impress teachers and get grades which will grant them qualifications to use the rest of their lives; compare that to regular jobs, in which you’re just doing work to get a paycheck. I feel much more uncertain about angering the power dynamic in the former situation, since the stakes are higher if the harasser starts pulling strings to get back at me for complaining.

    I’m also disgusted by how often academically strong female students are jokingly, light-heartedly accused of flirting or worse in order to improve their grade. We were at a student group (for which Buzz is the academic advisor) pizza party and movie night. A group of the students were complaining about a recent test he’d given, and one started laughing and asking the only female student in the class “exactly how DID you pass that”? I wasn’t particularly surprised to see her instantly go from enjoying the conversation to uncomfortable and wanting to get away. (I also found it particularly weird that the jackass who said it was standing five feet away from the professor’s wife and kids. I would have stepped in and made his life miserable, but I was not sure whether that would just make things worse for the student being teased.)

  9. Historiann on 10 Jul 2009 at 12:00 pm #

    Erica, I think it’s OK to become a grad student *after* marriage, but as you say, it’s for the best that you’re in different departments. (And you met Buzz in college when you were both undergrads, right?)

    I think you make a good point about women getting teased for being strong academically and/or working closely with a male mentor. I remember people occasionally implying that the reason a professor took me on as an advisee wasn’t because of my intelligence and promise as a scholar, and it really pissed me off. I don’t think people realize how demeaning it is to presume that a male mentor’s only interest in women students is sexual–it’s the double-whammy of 1) suggesting that you’re not really smart enough, and 2) you’re just a bum and a pair of b00bs–so don’t get above your station.

    In the case you cite in particular, I think you could have intervened productively–not as Buzz’s wife, but as a fellow woman STEM student yourself (in college, which wasn’t all that long ago for you, and now as a grad student.) You could say in a situation like that, “I know you’re just trying to be funny, but I was a smart young undergraduate woman like Brandy here, and I remember how hurt it made me feel when my peers suggested that something other than my brains were earning me my grades.” You take the focus off of her and even off of the offender, and (possibly) open up a discussion (or maybe a “learning moment”) about improving the atmosphere for women STEM students in general.

  10. John S. on 10 Jul 2009 at 12:46 pm #

    I would pick up on one part of Erica’s point: it’s not just students who can be baffled by Human Resources. It’s professors as well. I’d mentioned in a previous post my difficulty in having a workplace accommodation for an illness; my situation was exacerbated because professors wanted the Academic Senate to govern things and not be told what to do by Human Resources. Professors didn’t want “staff” to tell them what they could or could not do.

    I saw the same dynamic when we had a mandatory sexual harassment seminar in our department, led by an HR rep. I was astonished at my colleagues’ reaction. They were obsessed with the fear that that students would charge them for sexual harassment for showing sexually explicit materials in class (apparently one student had been offended by seeing a Mapplethorpe photo during a lecture on the culture wars in the 1980s and 1990s). They also wanted to know how to deal with grad students who tried to date students. (I had a different question, which only earned me the enmity of some of my senior fellows. We were told that it was our responsibility to report sexual harassment we observed. When I foolishly asked if junior faculty who reported possible malfeasance by tenured faculty could expect protection, I got no answer and dirty looks.)

    At no point did my fellow professors want to even acknowledge the possibility of any formal regulation of their romantic behavior, particularly by a non-academic branch of the University. If they implicitly acknowledged that there might be problems, they thought that serious violations should be addressed by the Dean or the Academic Senate. Some of this reflected personal circumstance. We have a few (older) professors who married grad students back in the day, and we have a couple of profs who–well, let’s just say that I don’t know if there’s fire, but there sure has been some smoke over the years. But I also believe that at the root of all this was a belief that faculty governance should extend to issues that the University believed were better governed by HR. I think that imperative runs very deep, and any thing that seems to undermine it threatens professors at a gut level. Just my two cents.

  11. Ignatz on 10 Jul 2009 at 1:31 pm #

    I wonder why dating “up” or “down” isn’t anathema in other fields. For example, I dated a supervisor during a nonacademic job when I was 23–no problem–and an administrative assistant when I was a staff writer elsewhere–again, no problem. Do the differences stem from the deep gulfs–for different reasons– between students and teachers and between teachers and administrators, as some posters suggest? Because of the power teachers hold over students? The frequent age differences? All of the above, of course.

    I admit I found one or two students attractive when I taught. I bet most teachers have. But ick. Yuck. Never.

  12. Historiann on 10 Jul 2009 at 1:45 pm #

    John S.–yes, good points. Although I would say that friends of mine who have experienced bullying at work have found HR to be not at all about protecting their interests, so senior faculty worried about HR messing with them can probably be put at ease. From what I’ve observed, HR is about protecting the institution and its hierarchies, so whomever is the more junior/replaceable person is going to get the short end of the stick. In some rare cases it could be senior faculty, but only if they’re sexually harassing a dean or somebody above them!

    I think your story is illustrative of the fact that this is still an overwhelmingly male profession, and that a large number of those men are very interested in protecting what they see as their traditional prerogatives. And yes, sexual access to a large number of women or men who are very much their inferiors in terms of age, status, educational attainment, etc. is probably one of the bennies they like best.

    Ignatz–good question. I think there’s more mobility in other lines of work for one. For another, I think our relationships with our students are not those of peers or workmates (even if there are differences of status involved), but rather more like the relationship of physicians to their patients, and of lawyers to their clients, or clergy to their congregations. We are guiding our students through a passage that may/should be very challenging intellectually and personally, just as physicians, lawyers, and clergy counsel people frequently in very vulnerable times in their life (illness/death, trauma, family/personal problems, divorce, etc.) So, different rules apply.

    My bet is that most corporations probably have clearer and stricter policies for dating at work–many companies require people to formally “register” their relationship, so that the company can ensure that a partner is reviewing hir partner, etc., and that there are fewer people who moan and complain about these policies, contra John S.’s experience in a university! (Nice question, by the way–I wonder why you got dirty looks?!?)

  13. John S. on 10 Jul 2009 at 3:01 pm #

    Historiann–in my (limited) experience, HR is interested in protecting the institution. But it is often interested in protecting the institution from the faculty themselves. I mean, I have heard faculty bringing up things about prospective job candidates that they shouldn’t. I can’t go into detail, but I can say that it’s not always ill-intentioned–it’s happened when people are trying to give a “leg up” to applicants who aren’t straight white men. But the stuff some profs say is also illegal. I have been remarkably surprised at just how ignorant many profs (here and elsewhere) are about discrimination. So sometimes HR covers the institution’s a$$ by trying to stop professors from putting their ignorance into action.

    And as to why the dirty looks–I think there were some individuals concerned with whether or not they might ever be ratted out. (As I said, I am not sure if I have seen fire, but some people seem to be smoking. And before it makes it seem like I am trashing my own department, I would just say that I think this is probably true in a lot of workplaces.) And I think that there were some individuals who weren’t worried about the whistle being blown on them, but who just didn’t want to deal with whistleblowers. Nobody likes that pain in the butt who raises questions about students in the office with the door closed, one-on-one dinners between students and profs, and the like. So let’s not talk about it, and the problems will surely go away.

  14. Mary on 10 Jul 2009 at 4:01 pm #

    Like nearly everyone who has posted, I also feel that it is impossible to ignore the very real imbalance of power that exists in these relationships and the lack of concern of the part of many administrations.

    Recently, a good friend from my undergrad days confided in me that while at a conference last February her older, married advisor confessed he was in love with her. Flattered but unwilling to become his mistress, she engaged in a semester long emotional affair with her advisor and has suffered a lot of emotional distress. When she went to her campus’ counseling office to discuss the situation and seek advice, the counselor esentially told her that her situation sucked but provided no other help.

    To make matters worse, she is in the sciences and can’t easily switch advisors. Switching advisors would force her to essentially forfeit all the research she has completed up to this point. Thus, she feels that to expose this man’s behavior would be putting his career at jeopardy—something she is unwilling to do. Now, I haven’t agreed with all the decisions she has made and personally feel that this man is a real creep but I can’t help but empathize with her. This man—the person who is suppose to guide her academically—has totally abused his position and made her feel partially responible for this mess and his doomed marriage.

  15. Historiann on 10 Jul 2009 at 4:47 pm #

    Mary–that’s terrible. Your friend’s story demonstrates yet again how “services” like counseling and HR frequently do no good for people in the organization, because they’re there to serve the organization. There may be some counseling offices at some universities that work, but I have to say I’m not surprised that your friend didn’t get much help there. She should run, not walk, to an independent therapist who can give her some ideas and skills to help her make some decisions and move on from here. Unfortunately, university services are too invested in damage control to really help her out.

    Your friend is in a real jam, but it may be for the best to walk away from her research sooner rather than later, so that she can find another lab and another advisor who can get her through the degree expeditiously. If this guy thinks really cares for her, he should knock it off and work to salvage her career. (But then again, as a married person, he should never have dragged her into his midlife crisis in the first place.)

  16. Mamie on 10 Jul 2009 at 4:55 pm #

    Speaking of university HR offices, anyone else see this?

    http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5iGjuDxq_IkJLMuB6Wy7nvry998cQD99B8LPG3

  17. Dr. Righteous on 10 Jul 2009 at 5:26 pm #

    One advantage students in psych, be they grad or under, have is that they can go outside the institution and lodge an ethics complaint with the American Psychological Association. I assume law students and medical students have similar options with the ABA and AMA. Because, as you say, the institution is often invested in protecting itself.

    My school was tiny, and when the problem arose there, the problem was compounded because faculty and administration were essentially one good ol’ boy’s club. That prevented anything from happening from within to stop a faculty member from having serial affairs with students and sexually harassing the ones he couldn’t sleep with. Unfortunately, we students did not then understand that we could go to the APA: As an instructor I have made this point loudly and repeatedly to my undergrad ethics classes so that they do know.

  18. Mary on 10 Jul 2009 at 5:31 pm #

    Well, I’ve encouraged her to switch but she hasn’t because her advisor has promised to stop. He’s promised before but it hasn’t worked.

    Really, in her situation, part of the problem is that he’s really good at making her feel responsible for his decisions. She says things like she could never ask him to leave his wife—forgetting that his marriage or divorce shouldn’t have anything to do with her. I think this connects back to your earlier post about how women are told that they need to ensure everyone else’s happiness. Throughout this whole process, she has felt like it is her responsibility to make sure he doesn’t get hurt. That’s another reason why I think it is so harmful when people in positions of power take advantage of other’s good will and naviete.

  19. LadyProf on 10 Jul 2009 at 5:39 pm #

    Historiann, I agree 100% with your post and everyone’s comments … but disagree with your advice for Mary’s friend. An “independent therapist” would probably focus on the psychological state of a young single woman in an affair with a semi-unavailable, authority-figure older married man. That’s a valuable perspective, but Mary’s friend needs practical advice, from people who know her field, about how to continue her research and get away from this guy while keeping her reputation and goals intact.

    If I were Mary’s friend, I’d look around for blogs like the ones on your roll, and review the archives to see if there is any community wisdom on point. Or try to air the query anew, as a call for help.

  20. LadyProf on 10 Jul 2009 at 5:46 pm #

    @Dr. Righteous, alas, the ABA and AMA do not receive complaints about this lapse by instructional faculty. People who teach in law schools and medical schools are often not even members of those organizations. I think the APA may be unique in that it takes an official, occupational interest in psychological injury–including injury inflicted by its own members.

  21. Vellum on 10 Jul 2009 at 8:11 pm #

    I think it has to do with something the criminal code in Canada calls exploiting a position of trust. Although the age of consent is actually quite low in Canada (14 I think), it’s still an offense to engage in a relationship with someone up to the age of 18 if you’re in a position of trust. I think the position could (and perhaps should) be applied to undergrads as well, because it seems to me that the majority of these cases are just that, an exploitation of a position of trust. Perhaps the exception could be if the relationship predates the entering into a professional relationship? Just a thought.

  22. Bavardess on 10 Jul 2009 at 8:16 pm #

    Historiann, I think you are absolutely right about the need to simply and clearly forbid these relationships, esp. between professors and undergrads. People coming to university at 17 or 18 years old may think they are all grown up (I’m sure I did) but in general they really don’t have the maturity to handle relationships with such a big power dynamic.

    I was talking to a friend recently who works in the office at the university where they process all the student evaluations, and she says she regularly sees evals where students have written messages to the professor like ‘you’re so hot’ and ‘I love you’. I don’t know whether the profs in question ever get to see these comments (I expect not as evals are supposed to be anonymous) but it is easy to see how the unscrupulous or just clueless prof could take advantage of such students without strict rules and clear barriers in place to stop them (or at least make them stop and think very hard about what they’re doing and the risks involved before they jump in).

  23. JJO on 10 Jul 2009 at 8:40 pm #

    On the usefulness of campus administrative offices — the (now former, for reasons that will become obvious) head of our university equity office (the person who met with search committees to tell them what’s legal and what’s not, and who ran our sexual harassment training seminars) was arrested for coercing teenage boys into sex in his office, videotaping it, and then using the videos to blackmail the young men into further sex and/or monetary payments. I have to say, he was clearly an expert on sexual harassment.

  24. Susan on 11 Jul 2009 at 5:25 am #

    JJO: my shock level is high but really? This is amazing.

    The very minimum is a bar on relationships when someone is in your class.

    When I was in a situation somewhat similar to Mary’s friend at one point I said “You need to make a decision about your marriage without reference to whether I’m in your life or not. Until you have done that, we will only talk about my dissertation. When you have decided what will happen with your marriage, we can act like friends again.” But then, my advisor/now husband was as committed as I was to maintaining good boundaries, and it doesn’t sound as if Mary’s friend’s advisor is.

  25. Digger on 11 Jul 2009 at 7:00 am #

    I think consensual, adult relationships between faculty and students should not be allowed, because of the power differential present. But that’s not what Fulkerson has been charged with; his was *unwelcome* sexual attention. The first article doesn’t call it rape, but that’s what coercing people to have sex with you is.

    The second article that goes into the permissiveness of relationships between students and faculty in the department seems a bit of a red herring to me. They’re conflating rape (criminal) with unprofessional (unethical) behavior. I guess it sells papers. Then again, if this quote from the second article is correct, the school may be in much deeper sh!t then they even realize: “”But when you looked around, everyone was behaving the same way he was,” said Alex Ryer, a voice teacher at UNC from 1999 to 2004.” An institutional culture of rape and exploitation.

  26. JJO on 11 Jul 2009 at 8:34 am #

    Susan — it’s true. Here’s a link (if I can remember how to format it): from the Arlington Connection.

    I was wrong about one thing — the initial sexual encounters were apparently consensual rather than coerced. It’s actually a lot like a case that Tenured Radical discussed earlier this year (her take on which provoked some controversy among her regular commenters).

  27. Historiann on 11 Jul 2009 at 8:55 am #

    JJO, well done on the formatting! Kudos. I still have to cheat on that, so I’m impressed.

    Digger, I wouldn’t call the sexual encounter with the student reported in one of the Post’s stories rape–although I think it was clearly coerced sex. But it’s that larger context of no clear and appropriate boundaries between professors and students that provides the critical context for understanding how students get into these coercive relationships (which may also include rape.) But when you’ve been drinking and drugging and otherwise partying and looking like you’re having a great time with your professors and fellow students–well, how do you say “no” convincingly to other activities? It’s the lack of boundaries that was apparently tolerated in that department that gave faculty the tools they need to manufacture consent (or assent) to sexual relationships with their students.

    And, on the question of finding an internal versus an external counselor that LadyProf and others raised: it sounds to me that a focus on the “psychological state of a young single woman in an affair with a semi-unavailable, authority-figure older married man” is exactly what this woman needs. As Mary suggests, she needs to be prompted by someone to think about what she wants, what she needs, and what she’s going to do to get it, rather than being sucked into being this creepy, abusive, manipulative guy’s emotional crutch. If she can find that at university counseling, that’s great, but I don’t think that a therapist needs to understand all of the ins and outs of the student’s school/work environment to be helpful. (Besides–haven’t most therapists/counselors been to college and grad school? They at least may have insight from their own school days.)

    I think Susan’s advice is excellent, BTW. The dude needs to get his house in order, or make plans to leave his house, before he starts bothering young women with his *feelings.* This situation reminds me of a great line from Nora Ephron’s book Heartburn (at least I think it was), in which the protagonist describes her ex-husband Mark (modeled on Ephron’s RL ex-husband Carl Bernstein) thusly: “I thought it was so great that Mark was so in touch with feelings and emotions. Then I learned that the only feelings he was in touch with were his own.”

  28. Digger on 11 Jul 2009 at 10:11 am #

    In the first story, the former student states, “I pretty much pretended I was passed out so it would end.” If this is true, then imo it goes beyond coerced sex (what is the line between coercion and sexual assualt?). If someone cannot give consent freely, then it also cannot be coerced. I’m no lawyer, so I don’t know all the fineries of whether actual consciousness vs. feigned on the part of the student is relevant, or only what Fulkerson believed to be true. Still rings of date rape to me.

    Fulkerson’s also been charged with sexual exploitation of children, and had photos of naked children. I agree that there is a bigger picture about boundaries between faculty and students. If what the papers are printing about Fulkerson are true, then the lack of boundaries in the department/at the school provided him a safe place of employment, cover (everyone else is doing it!), and a pool of people to prey on.

  29. LadyProf on 11 Jul 2009 at 11:20 am #

    You’re right about what Mary’s friend needs, Historiann: I think you understood Mary’s comment better than I did. I was trying for both/and. If your advisor is claiming to be in love with you and musing about maybe upending his marriage and you don’t want to be involved with him yet feel attached and trapped, you’ve got a psychological issue AND a professional one. I worried about the professional side. But Mary makes it clear that the psychology part is more central to her friend, and a therapist could help with it.

  30. Historiann on 11 Jul 2009 at 4:21 pm #

    Digger–the young man indicates that he was not interested in sex but assented to it. That’s coerced sex–but there are a number of reasons why he may have reasonably believed he was not free to leap up and run out of the room.

    Sharon Block’s book Rape and Sexual Power in Early America has a nice description of the slippery (and very short) slope between coerced sex and rape. This informs my understanding of the Fulkerson case. IMHO there is no moral difference between coerced sex and rape, but there is a legal one. Fulkerson didn’t have a gun or a knife. The young man may not have feared for his life, but he may have (reasonably) feared personal and professional consequences for not acquiescing to sex. He seems to have decided that acquiescence was the easiest way out. That’s OK–women make these decisions all of the time. But I don’t think that’s legally rape.

  31. Digger on 12 Jul 2009 at 5:03 am #

    Thanks for the reference, Historiann. I need to go do some more reading (complicated by the fact that sexual assault rules vary state by state).

  32. cgeye on 14 Jul 2009 at 2:41 pm #

    Y’know, I could go into how the history of the Seven Sisters colleges was linked with the perceived eugenics desire to breed intelligent women capable of marrying college graduates and bear capable children — and how the whole ‘tradition’ of male professors macking on nubile coeds who became their nurses, cooks and secretaries is still all too convenient… but I won’t. It’s a sunny day, and flicking foamy spittle out of the corners of my mouth does not become me.

    It *is* sexual harassment, and it is a collegiate way of life, like combo floorwax and dessert topping. The gay dimension of this enhances the misogyny; the only boys who suffered through this were not manly, so who cares?

    If this crap were so harmless, why did no one successfully complain about it for almost 20 years? If a brave kid could push his complaint as far as he could without endangering his career, why didn’t one kid speak out *and* be heard? Because every victim knew that’s how business was done in the Theatre Dept.

    Colorado has damned few places for a theatre kid to transfer to, to get a degree in his field that will be respected by casting and talent agencies. UNC really doesn’t have any competition across several states, so where would a victim go? Also, parents tend to be marvellously understanding when a kid just coming out has a problem with a coercive lover — I’m sure the words “asking for it” never leaves their mouths….

    And don’t think I’m neglecting the women damaged by all this misuse of power, I’m just emphasizing that there’s also a tacit homophobia along with the misogynistic belief that their students are toys to play with drugs and sex. That allowed this crap to perpetuate with each sleazy newhire and each class turnover.

    And, of course this takes heat off the more traditionally-masculine departments’ traditions of harassment, for which the Athletic Dept. must be very grateful.

  33. PZ on 14 Jul 2009 at 2:58 pm #

    John S. – I’ve concluded that the guys who are so worried about being policed in any way aren’t necessarily up to anything (now, anyway), but are so used to not being looked at and to getting away with anything that they’re not sure they’ll have the self awareness and discipline necessary to fully understand or follow any kind of restrictive policy!!!

  34. Librariann on 12 Aug 2009 at 5:23 pm #

    Oh, how the student/mentor relationship can go so far awry! I am on the library staff at a major public university where I also have the perk to take academic classes. I was attempting to re-start my PhD with a faculty mentor in another department. We were the same age (pushing 50) with eerily similar BA and MA experiences. The mentoring relationship became friendship and then more. When things got weird I broke it off.

    I’m not a kid by any means, but I may have been naive about this mentoring relationship. There are some factors in play that aren’t a typical part of the student-mentor formula. I’m classified staff he’s not-yet-tenured faculty (coming later in life to academia) at our university; we share several colleagues and friends in the broader field; we now know waaaay too much about one another to comfortably go back to student-teacher relationship, let alone back to the mentoring relationship. I also started to feel that this guy may be a liability to his department as he was coming off a bit predatory in some of his interactions with other young ladies in the department.

    I sought out anonymous confidential advice from the university’s employee services. Because my PhD plans had now fallen through I wanted to get my own career perspective in line and felt I did not want to make trouble for anyone else. I can only say that this has been a lesson learned. I only now have to redirect my academic efforts. I didn’t lose a job or a fellowship.

    But you can be assured I will be more prudent in the future…

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