by Phoebe Roe
In the wake of an announcement at Harvard University banning sexual relationships between faculty and students, Kenyon is following suit and releasing a new, proposed policy officially prohibiting relationships between people on campus with unequal power.
Kenyon plans to officially release the new policy in the coming days and will seek feedback from students and staff. Kenyon’s original policy was approved in 1989 and states “sexual and dating relationships between Kenyon College faculty and … students are unacceptable and constitute personal and professional misconduct.”
However, there is a discrepancy between the policy and guidelines in the student handbook. The handbook cites
“inherent risks in any romantic or sexual relationship” between faculty and students. But rather than prohibited, they are just “generally discouraged.”
“I remember the conversations,” Professor of Anthropology David Suggs, who teaches a class on the anthropology of human sexuality, said of the faculty meetings to create the original policy. “We had the discussion and the conclusion was, look, the potential for exploitation is too great, so we have told all of our faculty, the rule says, you do not date students, you do not admit anyone to your classroom you have a relationship with. There’s a potential conflict of interest.”
“This is Kenyon,” Linda Smolak, Kenyon’s interim Title IX coordinator and an emerita professor of psychology, said. “How long will it take for people to start finding out that a professor and a student are having a relationship? So other people in the class who are being graded by the professor start to wonder whether that person is getting special treatment.”
Smolak added that “special treatment” could range from higher grades to easier grading of senior comps. With many classes graded on a curve, one student getting higher grades could affect the entire class.
While professors and administrators maintain that it wasn’t prompted by any particular event, some students have heard rumors that the discussion was in reaction to an event on campus.
“I was told that Kenyon has a policy against [relationships between professors and students] because a professor who was married was caught in a student’s room hiding in the closet because they were doing sexy things,” Meg Thornbury ’16 said.
Madi Thompson ’16 believes the confusion about the policy may involve bringing new professors to campus. “I was told by someone who works at Kenyon that student-teacher relationships aren’t prohibited because there was the idea that they wouldn’t be able to attract young professors if there was no dating pool, but they had to not be in their class,” she said.
Professor of Psychology Sarah Murnen noted it’s not unheard-of for professors and students to be in relationships at Kenyon. “I’ve heard of situations where people have been asked to leave as a result,” she said. “It is a policy that Kenyon takes seriously.”
Smolak could not recount a particular instance of this issue. “I did not know of anyone being dismissed, but that does not mean they weren’t,” she said. “Especially when I first got here, I knew of situations where faculty members were having affairs with students and it was creating buzz within the department.”
Suggs noted previous experience with relationships, some of which were healthy and consensual: “I watched faculty at the [University of] Florida date students routinely.” Suggs added that not all went well, and that “by the same standard, oh my God of mercy, I won’t name the faculty member whose actions were remarkably exploitative, and consistently so.”
The new policy completely prohibits any relationships between “members of the Kenyon community in which power differentials are inherent,” and clarifies that “initiating, attempting to initiate, participating in, or attempting to participate in such a relationship is a violation of this policy and may result in discipline, up to and including termination of employment.” Students and professors alike seem to agree the policy is necessary.
“I think it’s a good rule because I think you’re just playing with fire when you allow [relationships between professors and students],” Nate Epstein ’16 said. “There’s like 1,600 students on this campus; you can find someone who isn’t a professor.”
Thornbury agrees. “I just think the power dynamic is the issue and whenever there’s a differentiation in power in a relationship there’s always going to be the possibility of leverage,” she said.
However, some students think the line is not as clear. “I’ve always fantasized about the sexy teacher [who] pulls me into detention and acts like she’s mad to get me alone,” Michael Jeffers ’15 quipped. “Who hasn’t had that fantasy?”
Tyler Roldan ’17 said, “I think [hooking up with a professor] isn’t so much an issue but when the relationship gets past that — into dating — that’s getting kind of sketchy,”
Suggs, who met the woman who is now his wife when he was 14, admits he didn’t originally support the rule because he felt it was unfair to young professors. “If I was 25 and single, would it be outrageous for me to be interested in a 21-year-old or even a 19-year-old? And the answer to that question is … no,” he said. “The power differentials are real and the potential for abuse is real.”
Smolak said age is an issue, especially with Kenyon employees like assistant teachers — students who run AT — and assistant coaches. “Where it has gotten tricky over the years is sometimes you get a young faculty member and an older student and people say they have fallen in love and maybe they have,” she said. “Who am I to judge who loves who? But I am in a position to say, ‘You can’t do that.’”
As most assistant coaches are not yet 25 years old, they represent the “young staff” demographic. Emma Levant ’16, a track-and-field athlete, said, “I’ve had assistant coaches hit on me before. It’s really bizarre. Like, you shouldn’t be doing that — you’re two or three years older than me.”
As for how technology will impact policies, Smolak said, “We worry about it on Facebook but I haven’t seen it become more of an issue. … Are people more worried about it because of Title IX? Probably.”
Clarification: In an earlier version of this article, it was not made clear that Michael Jeffers’ quote was a joke. The current version has been edited to reflect the light-hearted nature of his comment.