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Unsettled Questions: Personal Relationships Between Faculty and Students

Written by: Laxana Paskaran for Courage to Act’s RIA Working Group

Introduction 

Over the past few years, there has been an unprecedented conversation on the issue of personal relationships between faculty and students and how post-secondary institutions (PSIs) should – or should not – respond. At present, while there are PSIs that don’t address this issue directly, the PSIs that do have either categorized these relationships as a conflict of interest or implemented an outright ban. This inconsistency creates ambiguity and raises some important questions about consent, power, and the role of PSIs in addressing or regulating relationships between students and faculty members. In Courage to Act’s Comprehensive Guide to Campus GBV Complaints, this issue is identified as one in a series of “unsettled questions” requiring a national conversation that considers the intersections of power dynamics, consent, and conflicts of interest to provide a consensus on the issue across Canadian universities and colleges.

Why is this an unsettled question? 

This issue is a particularly difficult one due to the multifaceted nature of the power dynamics involved in consensual intimate and personal relationships between faculty and students and the limits of a PSI’s reach. Faculty members maintain a significant amount of power over their students through grading of assignments and tests, as well as providing further learning, work experiences, and references. This not only raises nuanced issues concerning consent, it also raises questions about conflicts of interest and academic integrity. PSIs’ responses to personal relationships between faculty and students have varied from strongly discouraging these relationships, like the University of Manitoba; or, in the case of the University of Laval, banning them completely. Other PSIs, such as the University of Alberta, make the clear distinction between relationships and conflicts of interests, focusing on the issue of conflicts of interest rather than a relationship on its own. However, there is a third factor that further complicates this issue: the control over intimate and personal relationships of staff, faculty, students and other campus community members transcends established limits for PSIs.

How are we going to try and answer this? 

 In the Comprehensive Guide, other “unsettled questions” were explored using an expert panel on GBV complaints from across Canada. With a particular focus on sexual violence prevention and support work within the PSI context, the panel brought years of knowledge and experience in adjudication; providing legal guidance, research, and support for survivors as well as for those who have caused harm. Having worked closely with students, faculty and staff at PSIs, the expert panel shared knowledge, lived and professional experiences, and produced recommendations and guidance on difficult, contentious questions.

Our approach to addressing this unsettled question will use this same methodology, convening an expert panel for a roundtable discussion. This discussion will be the foundation for a white paper that will provide guidance, make recommendations, and outline promising practices for PSIs around the issue of consensual relationships between students and staff or faculty. In addition, it will contribute to a national conversation on the intersections of power, consent, and conflict of interest, one that could equally apply to workplace relationships involving power imbalances.

The Unsettled Questions Roundtable on Personal Relationships will be held May 25, 2022, followed by the white paper release in late summer 2022. Stay tuned!

References: 

Eerkes, D., De Costa, B. & Jafry, Z. (2020). A Comprehensive Guide to Campus Gender- Based Violence Complaints: Strategies for Procedurally Fair, Trauma-Informed Processes to Reduce Harm. Courage to Act: Addressing and Preventing Gender-Based Violence at Post- Secondary Institutions in Canada.

Page, J. (2018, October 12). Université Laval staff, students reach consensus on policy to counter sexual violence. CBC News. www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/universite-laval-policycountering-sexual-violence-1.4860822

University of Alberta. (2020, December 11). Consensual personal relationships [Information document]. policiesonline.ualberta.ca/PoliciesProcedures/InfoDocs/@academic/documents/infodoc/Consensual%20Personal%20Relationships%20Info%20Doc.pdf

University of Manitoba. (n.d.). Relationships between university employees and students: A guide for university employees who teach or support students [Information document]. umanitoba.ca/student/media/Relationships-Between-Employees-and-Students.pdf

The Reporting, Investigation and Adjudication (RIA) Working Group focuses on formal campus gender-based violence complaints processes, with an aim to infuse trauma-informed practice into procedurally fair processes and reduce the harm to complainants, respondents, witnesses, and all staff and faculty involved in the process, from disclosure through to appeal. The RIA Working Group is one of three Working Groups with the Courage to Act project. Each Working Group is composed of experts in their respective fields from across Canada. The RIA Working Group’s membership includes Deborah Eerkes and Britney De Costa, with contributions from Zanab Jafry.

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Suggested Citation: Paskaran, Laxana. (2022, April). Unsettled Questions: Personal Relationships Between Faculty and Students. Courage to Act. www.couragetoact.ca/blog/unsettled-questions

Laxana Paskaran

Laxana Paskaran, Courage to Act’s Experiential Learning Project Research Assistant, is a Master of Education candidate in Social Justice Education with a collaborative graduate specialization in Ethnic, Immigration and Pluralism Studies at the University of Toronto (U of T). Laxana also holds an Honours Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science and English from U of T. She has over 5 years of experience in research, policy analysis, and program management. Laxana has driven several human rights and social justice action-oriented projects through her previous roles at The Leacock Foundation, U of T’s Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre, and the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research.

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