Last week The Chronicle reported that the Academic Council will be voting early next month on a new policy that will ban undergraduate-faculty relationships. The proposed ban, though consistently marketed as not being punitive in nature, is a step toward trying to limit the sexual misconduct that takes place at Duke as a result of such relationships. Duke’s current policy only bans relationships between students and those in direct positions of authority over them. Though the board agrees that this policy is an important step in acknowledging the uneven power dynamics at play within student-faculty sexual relationships, the policy seems somewhat questionable given its paternalistic attitude and ineffectiveness in addressing the root cultural causes of sexual misconduct.
First and foremost, by aiming to expand the current regulations regarding student faculty relationships beyond direct authoritative situations, the University is exercising its paternalism. By policing consensual sexual experiences, Duke is assuming that it holds a better understanding of our wellbeing than we do as adults capable of consenting to various forms of sexual activities. Particularly troubling regarding the policy are Professor Ananat’s claim that undergraduates “are not in a position developmentally necessarily to fully consent to a sexual relationship with someone who is a full adult.” Such a paternalistic perspective restricts the agency of students—many of whom are in their early twenties and possess the moral and emotional maturity to engage in physical intimacy and have the legal right to do so. By passing a policy with this sort of accompanying dialogue, Duke is continuing a longstanding tradition of infantilizing its undergraduates and refusing to acknowledge their autonomy. With a similar paternalistic administrative measure being announced recently—President Price’s new campus smoking ban—it is critical for Duke students to ask what the limits of Duke’s reach are: at one point do well intentioned policies becomes infringements upon our individual autonomy?
Additionally, while we acknowledge the good intentions of this policy, it does little to address the actual causes of sexual misconduct in consensual relationships. While the unequal power dynamic within a student teacher relationship seems quite clear, we need to reflect on the power dynamics present in all of our intimate relationships. These dynamics are at play outside the classroom, and include a whole host of other factors including age, gender, socioeconomic status, and race. For this reason, Duke needs to recognize that the policing of student-faculty relationships is a Band-Aid solution on a much larger problem of power abuse at the University. At a University where 40 percent of undergraduate women report being sexually assaulted, there are clearly bigger systemic issues that should be dealt with than the isolated issues of student-faculty relationships.
If Duke truly wants to make a meaningful impact on the troubling campus culture that breeds sexual misconduct, it needs a lot more than a simple policy change. It is going to take a complete reevaluation of the University’s systems that currently allow these injustices to go unchecked. We need to offer all members of our community a more holistic understanding of consent and positive sexual relationships. And, while we in no way advocate sleeping with one’s professor—in fact, it is probably a terrible idea—we do not think it is Duke’s place to police the consensual sexual activities of its students. The University possesses a multitude of avenues to make its disapproval known without resorting to such paternalism and we suggest administrators use them.
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