A new policy banning all sexual relations between undergraduate students and faculty members at Penn went into effect on March 28. This restriction — which applies to academic advisors and program advisors as well — marks a shift from the previous rule that prohibited faculty-student sexual relations “during the period of the faculty-student relationship.”
For graduate students, however, this new policy does not apply, and sexual relations with faculty members is still only banned during the period of instruction.
The announcement is not unprecedented in the world of higher education. In fact, among other Ivy League institutions, Penn is relatively late to introduce this new policy shift.
Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Yale University, Brown University, Princeton University, and Stanford University all have blanket prohibitions on undergraduate-faculty relationships for undergraduates, similar to the one Penn just implemented.
Columbia University and Cornell University prohibit student-faculty relationships only where the faculty member has academic or professional responsibility or authority over the student — including teaching, advising, and grading the student — similar to Penn's policy before the March 28 change.
Cornell's current policy, approved in 1996, has been "a topic of concern" for the last two years, and the university has created a Consensual Relationships Policy Committee, according to the university's website.
Yale's policy states that undergraduates 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." Dartmouth's policy cites the "heightened risk" of a power imbalance in undergraduate-faculty relationships.
The policy change also comes in the context of a wider trend in academia. A recent public survey detailed accounts of sexual harassment in academia, including five entries from students alleging sexual harassment by Penn faculty members. The five entries were made by graduate students, who a 2015 survey by the American Association of Universities says are more likely to be harassed by faculty than undergraduates.
Katie Pak, a GET-UP member in her third year at GSE, said that she did not know enough about the policy update to comment, but that she thought it was "interesting" that the change included "nothing about graduate students," despite the ongoing campaign for improved sexual harassment policies at GSE.
College junior Raisa Shah, who is political chair for the Penn Association for Gender Equity, said that while the ban may be a controversial topic, "some amount of institutional guidance" may be beneficial to students.
"I think it's good that the ban is referring to undergrads specifically because these relationships particularly can lead to a lot of abuse and maltreatment due to the vast difference in age and power dynamics," Shah said. "Not that this doesn't happen at the graduate level […] but I think this is a step in the right direction."
Just this month, professors at Harvard, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design have retired or left after allegations of sexual harassment from students. Colorado College revoked the honorary degree of a former president after documents detailing his sexual abuses were released.
This wider context may point to Penn’s decision to further restrict the ban on sexual relations between students and faculty, according to Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis, author of "Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus."
“In theory, I think students over the age of consent should be able to have relationships with whomever they wish, but practically speaking professors and students dating is a terrible idea at the moment,” Kipnis wrote in an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian. “The climate of accusation is so intense and the concept of consent is so porous that even in cases where no code prohibits it, professors are losing their jobs for dating even former students."
“I can’t speak to the student side of the equation, but any professor who gets involved with a student at the moment is putting his or her career on the line," Kipnis added.
University of Cincinnati professor Billie Dziech, who has been studying sexual harassment and higher education issues for thirty years, said that institutions like Penn have a “responsibility” to protect students from sexual harassment, including from the abuses of power that can arise out of consensual student-faculty relationships.
Dziech said she hopes more schools will enforce stricter bans on student-faculty sexual relations.
“Some of the more famous schools are now doing it, and they’re doing it because they’ve been in trouble,” Dziech said. “There’s almost not a week that comes along that we don’t hear of some collegiate administrator or faculty member engaging in behavior that’s not only inappropriate — it’s unethical, it’s unprofessional, it’s immoral.”
Dziech said that in her lengthy career studying sexual harassment and abuse, she has seen many students become “targets” for “serial harassers.”
“I would be proud if I went to an institution that judged that ‘we’re going to ban this,' and was very clear to professors that if you do it you are gone, not a slap on the wrist, but if you do it you are gone,” Dziech said.
The ban comes two weeks after a March 13 school-wide email from Provost Wendell Pritchett calling for suggestions to improve procedures around sexual harassment. Pritchett’s email came during the ongoing campaign for clearer sexual harassment reporting policies in the Graduate School of Education, organized by students in the graduate student union Graduate Employees Together — University of Pennsylvania.