As fiduciaries, they have a duty to avoid conflict of interest and to exercise their powers over students only in the students’ interests, and not in their own interests.
Many Canadian universities now have conflict-of-interest policies that expressly prohibit close relationships – including friendships and familial relations, as well as sexual ones – between faculty and those whose work they supervise.
(I am using “she” because most cases involve complaints of female students against male professors, but there have also been cases of male students making complaints against female professors as well as same-sex complaints.) In fact, there have been just four reported legal cases of sexual harassment regarding faculty members and students in Canada, three of them in British Columbia and one in Newfoundland. There are at least two issues that make sexual relationships between faculty and students problematic: the issue of consent and the issue of conflict of interest.
Sexual relationships between students and faculty are fraught with peril.
Although all of us have personal examples of a faculty member who married a student and lived happily ever after, many, if not most, of these relationships have a very short shelf life.
Whether or not the student is taking any courses from the professor, if the relationship turns sour and the student makes a complaint of sexual harassment, then faculty members should know that they will bear most of the risks. To minimize its own liability, the university needs to take all reasonable steps to prevent harassment and discrimination from occurring in the first place, and if harassment does occur, to deal with it promptly and effectively to bring it to an end. Typically, the student first makes a complaint under the university’s sexual harassment policy.
If the student isn’t satisfied with the outcome or wants to take other avenues, she can make a complaint under the Human Rights Code. Human Rights Council, and two were dealt with by arbitrators when the faculty member grieved against disciplinary action taken by the institution.
But her vulnerability and her desire to please make the relationship always exploitative.
There is some statistical as well as anecdotal support for the view that students know that these relationships are exploitative.Because the professor’s powers affect the student’s life in a significant way, say these observers, the student cannot say no to the relationship, so her consent is actually coerced compliance.A female student may enter willingly into a sexual relationship with a male professor, “willingly” in the sense that there is no promise of reward or threat of punishment.The recent decision of the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal in the case of Fariba Mahmoodi, a student who accused her professor of sexual harassment, has once again focussed attention on a controversial issue. Mahmoodi complained to the tribunal that Donald Dutton, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, and UBC as his employer, had sexually harassed her.The tribunal agreed, awarding her a total of ,000 including ,000 for injury to her dignity, feelings and self-respect, and ,200 for counseling expenses.People holding this opinion argue that “life occurs under conditions of inequality” and university students are capable of meaningful choice and of giving valid and effective consent.