My brother, in what I assume is a blatant attempt to be mentioned in this blog (Hi Steve!!!), sent me a link to the following article about a new rule (or, as the article describes it, "A Sad Day") at Yale, banning professors from having sex with undergraduates in all circumstances (not just students that, say, are in their classes). More details at for example the Yale Alumni Magazine.
I was all ready to start looking down my nose at the competition for being slow to adopt what are in my mind obvious rules to have, but decided to check Harvard's policy first. (Always a good idea.) Harvard's policy, arguably, isn't even as strong as Yale's old policy. (Harry Lewis will, I imagine, correct me if I am mistaken in my interpretations or usage of documents.) The relevant information seems to be here. The policy description includes the following, under the heading UNPROFESSIONAL CONDUCT IN RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN INDIVIDUALS OF DIFFERENT UNIVERSITY STATUS:
"Officers and other members of the teaching staff should be aware that any romantic involvement with their students makes them liable for formal action against them."
This seems to suggest that faculty can't have "romantic involvement" with their students, but some old letter to the Crimson suggests that the wording is much weaker than that (the article is here, the letter is here). Strictly speaking (according to the letter), the wording seems to suggest that faculty members involved with students face the risk of a the student filing a sexual harassment/unprofessional conduct complaint; but if the relationship is brought to light by a third party, there's no (apparent) cause for disciplinary action. IANAL, but this seems like a possible interpretation; I'm not sure what the current interpretation is here at Harvard.
Indeed, later on the policy states:
"Amorous relationships between members of the Faculty and students that occur outside the instructional context can also lead to difficulties."
The rest of the paragraph suggests potential problems if Faculty engage in "romantic involvement" with students who they are not directly teaching, but seems to make clear (by my reading) it's not forbidden in any sense.
I've certainly heard arguments in the past that such rules shouldn't exist. I can even see that there are potentially complicated lines -- should a professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences not be allowed to date a Harvard Law student? (Extra credit: why or why not?) But given the potential for abuse (both intentional and unintentional) of the power relationship, I'm unapologetically on the "no faculty - undergraduate romance" side. Or, as it says in the Yale Alumni Magazine:
'An imbalance of power forms the rationale for treating Yale College students differently from their older counterparts. Undergrads, the revised handbook says, “are particularly vulnerable to the unequal institutional power inherent in the teacher-student relationship and the potential for coercion, because of their age and relative lack of maturity.” '
Duh. Good for Yale.