What is the Role of Post-Secondary Institutions in Addressing Student-Instructor Relationships?

Written by : Laxana Paskaran

Over the past few years, student advocates have been asking PSIs to address the problem of personal sexual or romantic relationships between instructors and students (“student-instructor relationships”). However, outside of some high-profile cases, PSIs have largely remained neutral on their role in addressing such relationships; and while many do not address this issue directly, those that have either categorized this issue as a conflict of interest or have implemented a full ban. This lack of clarity creates ambiguity and raises some important questions about consent, power, and the role of PSIs in addressing student-instructor relationships.

Currently, there is no consensus on the question of what role PSIs play in addressing student-instructor relationships. The first point of contention is whether there can be consent in such relationships where one individual holds power over the academic progress of the other. The second is the debate over the PSI’s role in monitoring the personal relationships of its employees. Even where there is no consensus on these issues, it’s important for PSIs to explore these debates and take a stand on their role in student-instructor relationships for two reasons:

  1. They undermine the integrity of the teaching relationship; and

  2. They may be conducive to sexual harassment and violence as a result of a real or perceived abuse of power.

Recognizing the multifaceted nature of this issue, Courage to Act’s Reporting, Investigations, and Adjudication team brought together an expert panel – including a student, frontline worker, educator, campus gender-based violence investigator, faculty member, and faculty association representative – with a range of perspectives on the issue to share their knowledge, lived and professional experiences. Together, we explored key questions and uncovered areas of agreement that framed our discussion – a discussion that we hope will be a foundation for ongoing conversations and action, recognizing that there may not be one answer to this question.

After a busy summer of diving into these issues, I’m excited to share the results of our discussions with the release of What is the Role of Post-Secondary Institutions in Addressing  Student-Instructor Relationships?, the latest in the Courage to Act Unsettled Questions Series (See Section 4 of the Comprehensive Guide to Campus Gender-Based Violence Complaints for previous Unsettled Questions). This white paper explores the perspectives of PSIs, instructors, and students, offering four recommendations for PSIs to respond to this issue:

  1. Develop a clear standalone statement of expectations regarding student-instructor relationships, the primacy of the teaching relationship, and protocols to be followed where an instructor’s conduct amounts to a real or perceived abuse of power and/or undermines the integrity of the teaching relationship;

  2. Provide education and training for instructors that explicitly highlights the connection between the integrity of the teaching relationship and sexual violence, and places the onus on instructors to maintain a learning environment and teaching relationships free from sexual harassment or violence;

  3. Empower students and staff to set clear boundaries and make available trauma-informed resources, supports and reporting options through educational initiatives and multiple communication channels; and

  4. Use adjustments, corrective or protective measures or, where appropriate, consequences for the instructor, not the student, to follow through when made aware of an abuse of power, sexual violence/harassment, and relationships that undermine the integrity of the teaching relationship, including reprisals for reporting.

Equipped with the knowledge and recommendations provided by our expert panel, we hope PSIs will address the concerns outlined in this white paper. Finally, we look forward to the collaborative processes through which the recommendations will be actioned by PSIs across Canada.


Suggested Reference : Paskaran, Laxana. (2022, September). What is the Role of Post-Secondary Institutions in Addressing Student-Instructor Relationships? Courage to Act.

Laxana Paskaran (she/her)

Laxana 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, the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre at U of T, the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research.

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