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Earlier this month, Harvard explicitly banned sexual relationships between students and professors.

Credit: unknown , Courtesy of Joseph Williams/Creative Commons

While half of the Ivy League, with Harvard most recently joining the ranks, rely on strictly defined policies to enforce sexual misconduct regulations, Penn’s 20-year-old policy lets social norms do the work.

On Feb. 2, the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which includes Harvard College, reaffirmed a previously existing ban on all sexual relationships between faculty and undergraduates. The policy change marked a departure from the previous rules, which did not explicitly ban sexual relationships between faculty and students to whom they did not have teaching or advising responsibilities.

Contrarily, Penn’s policy, last updated in 1995, reads, “ ... although this policy prohibits consensual sexual relations only between a teacher-supervisor and that individual’s student, the University strongly discourages any sexual relations between members of the faculty (or administration) and undergraduates.”

Columbia and Princeton also currently hold policies similar to Penn’s.

In enacting the policy change, Harvard joined Yale, Dartmouth and Cornell, all of which do not permit sexual relationships of any kind between undergraduates and faculty members.

Harvard professor and Chair of Faculty of Arts and Sciences Committee on Sexual Misconduct Policy and Procedures Alison Frank Johnson said rather than being spurred by any single event, the policy change came as part of a larger process of reviewing sexual misconduct policies.

Frank Johnson said the policy was “absolutely non-controversial” at Harvard because it only reaffirmed existing behavioral norms. “Since we all think it’s a bad idea, why not just write that down?” she said.

Although Frank Johnson acknowledged the ban does limit people’s private lives, she said the new measure is “well worth the benefit of affirming that we are here as teachers, prioritizing the pedagogical relationship between faculty and undergraduates.”

Currently, Penn’s policy on student-faculty relationships has two main components: prohibiting sexual relationships between students — both graduate and undergraduate — and faculty that have any kind of academic, advising or mentoring role, as well as banning faculty from evaluating students with whom they have been romantically involved.

Penn’s Vice Provost for Faculty Anita Allen said that Penn’s current policy is a “very strong way to deal with inappropriate sex between teachers and students.”

“I can see the argument that a more categorical ban on relationships between undergraduates and faculty would make some sense,” Allen said, adding that the large presence of Liberal and Professional Studies undergraduates at Penn, who are older than traditional undergraduates, would make it more difficult to justify and enforce such a policy.

However, although Allen believes that Penn’s sexual misconduct policy already effectively protects its students, she remains open to future change.

“My own views about this are somewhat unfixed at this point — I think that I am still open to hearing arguments both ways,” she said.

Harvard’s policy change was influenced by the complexity of relationships. Power dynamics can play into relationships in very subtle ways, so individuals must apply common sense and personal ethics, Frank Johnson said.

“[Faculty should] recognize that you can appear to be powerful to other people even when you don’t feel powerful yourself and that we hold the senior party in a relationship responsible when anything goes awry,” she said.

Correction: A previous version of this article indicated the faculty-undergraduate relationship ban was introduced in February, when it was in fact reapproved in February. The DP regrets the error.

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