Faculty Policy on Consensual Relationships Within the Context of Supervision and Evaluation

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This policy was passed by the faculty on May 9, 1997.

I. Description

For the purposes of this document, the only consensual (romantic or sexual) relationships under consideration are those that occur when one of the participants is in an evaluative or supervisory position over the other. Such relationships can present serious ethical concerns about issues such as the validity of consent, conflicts of interest between personal and professional concerns, and unfair treatment of others. Power imbalances between individuals holding different positions at the College complicate such relationships. These relationships have the potential for negative reverberations that affect not only the individual participants, but also third parties and the climate of the community as a whole, and thus can undermine the trust and integrity that are essential to teaching, learning, and working at the College. The primary objective of Swarthmore College in addressing the topic of consensual relations is to maintain the integrity of the academic process and to maintain a positive work environment.

Although consensual relationships per se do not necessarily constitute sexual harassment, such relationships may give rise to claims of sexual harassment when:

  1. a consensual relationship creates a hostile and intimidating work or learning environment,
  2. a consensual relationship ends, and one of the parties continues behavior which the other party has made clear is now unwelcome.

Claims that a relationship has been consensual are unlikely to protect individuals from charges of sexual harassment, nor will they guarantee a successful defense if charges are made. Faculty and supervisors should keep in mind that a student or subordinate's initial consent does not preclude a charge of sexual harassment in the future. When power differentials exist, charges of sexual harassment will be difficult to refute on the grounds of mutual consent.

A. Student-Faculty Relationships

Consensual relationships between faculty members and students are particularly susceptible to exploitation. The respect and trust essential to a meaningful intellectual relationship, as well as the power exercised by the professor in giving praise or blame, grades, recommendations for further study or employment, make voluntary consent by the student suspect, given the fundamentally asymmetric nature of the relationship. Such a relationship may place the student in a vulnerable position and may endanger the impartiality of the professor, thus creating a problematic learning environment for other students. Even when both parties have consented to the development of such a relationship, it is generally the case that the faculty member, by virtue of his or her position, will usually be held responsible for unprofessional behavior in the event of allegations of inappropriate behavior by either party directly involved in the relationship, as well as by third parties who are indirectly involved and may be adversely affected.

Given these general concerns about consensual relationships between faculty members and students, the College prohibits a faculty member's involvement in a consensual relationship with a student in his or her class or under his or her supervision as a College employee. Further, faculty members who are in positions requiring them to evaluate students outside the classroom (such as faculty who are members of the Fellowships and Prizes Committee), or who are involved in activities that may reward or punish a student (such as the College Judiciary Committee), must recuse themselves if they are or have been involved in a consensual relationship with the student being evaluated. A faculty member's failure to adhere to these standards constitutes unprofessional conduct.

B. Other Consensual Relationships

Faculty members who are involved in consensual relationships are expected to remove themselves from any activity or evaluation that may reward or punish the other individual. There may be occasions when comment from one of the parties involved in a consensual relationship is deemed necessary. In that case, either party should consult the appropriate senior staff member to determine a procedure that will best maintain the integrity of the evaluative or supervisory process. Faculty members should be aware that even if they are not currently in an evaluative or supervisory position over a particular individual, they may be in such a position at a future date. A faculty member's failure to respect these standards may constitute unprofessional conduct.

II. Options for resolution

Complaints related to a situation involving a consensual relationship may be handled according to either informal or formal procedures. Individuals are encouraged to pursue informal resolution methods before filing a formal complaint.

Assistance and information are available from the offices listed below.

  • Provost's Office: Connie Hungerford, Provost, Parrish 229, ext. 8319
  • Dean of the College's Office:
    • Dean's Main Office, Parrish 140, ext. 8365;
    • Karen Henry, Gender Education Advisor, Parrish 130, ext. 8169;or
    • SMART (Sexual Misconduct Advisors and Resource Team): see Student Handbook, pp. 54-55
  • Human Resources Office: Lee Robinson, Employee Relations Manager, Pearson 10, ext. 8398
  • Equal Opportunity Office: Sharmaine LaMar, Equal Opportunity Officer, Parrish 373 North, ext. 5675

Formal complaints alleging inappropriate behavior in a case involving consensual relations may be initiated by either party in the consensual relationship, or by a third party who is directly adversely affected. If a complaint is filed, there will be no presumption that the relationship was welcome to the student or subordinate employee. In cases in which grievants and alleged offenders are from different parts of the community (students, staff, or faculty), complaints should normally be directed to the Equal Opportunity Officer, or to the responsible office according to the identity of the alleged offender: Human Resources for staff, Dean's Office for students, and Provost's Office for faculty. The formal grievance procedures applying to:

Staff can be found in the Staff Handbook,
Students can be found in the Sections on Student Judicial Procedure and Equal Opportunity in the Student Handbook, and
Faculty can be found in Section II-C.1 of the Faculty Handbook.

It is important to note that discussing concerns with or seeking clarification or support from the Equal Opportunity Officer, Gender Education Advisor, or other individuals does not obligate a person to initiate either formal legal procedures or judicial procedures at the college, nor do such discussions preclude a person from doing so. The individual to whom a complaint is made (e.g. the Equal Opportunity Officer) will register each request for assistance in resolving a case, whether formal or informal; these records will be kept confidential to the extent permitted by law.

The College has policies for related issues such as equal opportunity. For students, the statements of college policy governing equal opportunity and sexual misconduct, and the related grievance procedure, can be found in Chapter 3 of the Student Handbook. The equal opportunity and sexual harassment college policy statements governing staff and the related grievance procedure can be found in the Staff Handbook in Section 1 and in Appendices A, B, and C. The equal opportunity and sexual harassment college policy statements governing faculty and the related grievance procedure can be found in the Faculty Handbook, in Sections II-A and II-C. Brochures entitled Equal Opportunity at Swarthmore, Sexual Harassment, Swarthmore College Standards of Conduct, and Swarthmore College Administrative Communication Procedure may be helpful for individuals with questions and can be obtained from the Human Resources Office.