Harvard Explained: Getting Cozy in the Classroom

Gregory B. Johnston

That college down in New Haven really is in a different world. Up until this school year, Yale undergraduates were permitted to engage in sexual relations with all faculty members but their own professors. Sadly, and after more than 25 years of debate, all special relationships between Yalies and faculty members are now prohibited, according to the April edition of the Yale Alumni Magazine.

So what’s the policy at Harvard?

According to the Sexual Harassment Guidelines for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, even when there is consent from both parties at the outset, “officers and other members of the teaching staff should be aware that any romantic involvement with their students makes them liable for formal action against them.”

Dean of Freshman Thomas A. Dingman ’67 that said he is not absolutely certain what these consequences are. “But I do feel certain that it would not be left alone,” he said.

The reasoning is simple, according to Dingman. “There is a power imbalance,” he said. “It isn’t necessarily clear whether a student is in this voluntarily.”

Harvard’s stance that “relationships between officers and students are always fundamentally asymmetric in nature” means that the rules apply to teachers and students “outside the instructional context.” The guidelines note that a faculty member could unexpectedly be put in a position of responsibility for a student, including writing a letter of recommendation or serving on a selection committee for a student.

Dingman said that in his experience as Dean of Freshmen and Resident Dean of Leverett and Dudley Houses, he didn’t have to confront the issue of professor-student relationships.

“That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened,” he added.

Dingman noted that when he was Resident Dean, students mentioned occasionally that a peer was in a relationship with a teaching fellow. It has also come up that an undergraduate was involved with a Resident Tutor. So what did Harvard do?

“That person was asked to give up being a tutor,” he said.