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.