Chris Gateley / Mustang News

When psychology senior Emma Sturm matched with him on Tinder, she knew their common passions and interests could lead to a fun relationship. There was one problem: he was a professor and she was a student.

Their relationship was natural and a date that was supposed to last a couple hours turned into an entire day.

“I think it was fun, beneficial and healthy for both of us,” Sturm said. “The conversation was great, we taught each other lots of
new things.”

According to an informal Mustang News poll on the Cal Poly Class of 2017 and 2018 Facebook pages, of more than 100 students who answered, two claimed to have had a relationship with a professor while at Cal Poly. While these relationships are between two consenting adults, the potential pitfalls of students dating professors are greater than in the average relationship between two college students and include legal, ethical and social impacts.

Sturm knew immediately there was a connection when the two started talking. They discovered they shared a love for academia and their specific academic field.

“I don’t think I even realized he was a professor at first, I just saw that he was a very academic person who had done research in a very specific field that I am also interested in,” Sturm said.

It was a 24-hour romance filled with conversation, understanding and fun. The two left with great memories and a promise not to keep in contact after he traveled back to Germany.

Official policy
Sturm’s experience is unique. Put in perspective, in a full class held in the Business Silo (building 3) there would be about four students who had been in a relationship with a professor.

It happens enough for there to be an official California State University (CSU) policy on the matter.

The CSU Campus Policy on Consensual Relationships boils down to this:

A CSU Employee shall not enter into a consensual relationship with a Student or Employee over whom s/he exercises or influences direct or otherwise significant academic, administrative, supervisory, evaluative, counseling, or extracurricular authority. In the event such a relationship already exists, each Campus shall develop a procedure to reassign such authority to avoid violations of this policy.”

The policy leaves room for interpretation in both the wording and the potential consequences of violation.

Graphic by Sara Portnoy

Ethical concerns
Besides the possible legal ramifications, there are ethical concerns of whether a professor should pursue a romantic relationship with a student.

“I think there is a big issue about any relationship between a professor and a student,” Bill Loving, a journalism professor who teaches ethics and law, said.

He called the situation “unconscionable,” and said it brings up issues of unequal power. Students do not come into the relationship as an equal, and the relationship starts on uneven ground, Loving said.

Loving’s advice to any professor contemplating, or currently in, a relationship with a student is to end it and minimize the harm done. He also said professors should stay away from any kind of relationships (even friendships) with students outside of the classroom.

Loving said that at a previous campus where he worked, an untenured professor was released from his position because of concerns about an inappropriate relationship.

Video by Audra Wright

A main fear associated with these relationships is the risk of it evolving into a situation that promotes dating violence, misconduct and coercion.

“Clearly [the CSU policy] exists because there is going to be some inherent difference in influence between the two parties,” Safer Coordinator Kara Samaniego said.

It’s important to recognize and combat this inequality, according to Samaniego.

Though she does not support relationships between students and professors because it can alter and detract from a student’s positive learning, educational and college experience, Samaniego said she wants anyone who does pursue this type of relationship to do so in a healthy way.

Samaniego suggested that students should communicate any concerns about the power differential. To ensure the relationship is consensual, both parties should be open to communication, be enthusiastic about the relationship, be conscious and sober and be safe and respectful.

“Pay attention to your gut and any red flags that are raised,” Samaniego said.

Societal concerns

Aside from policy, ethical considerations and possible power differentials, the student-professor duo also has to maneuver societal and campus pressures.

“In my mind, the whole evolution of ‘hookup culture’ and the sex trade and all of that has really important implications for faculty-student relationships and how faculty look at students,” sociology professor Teresa Downing said.

Society keeps a close watch on the morality of the relationship between a student and professor. Age differences and hierarchical statuses blur the line between ethical and unethical relationships.

Another societal issue brought to light by Downing was the anonymity of dating applications and online profiles.

“The internet provides a lot of venues or people to hook up and for faculty and students to end up in sexual relationships without knowing their faculty/student statuses,” Downing said.

Experiencing the reality

Though student-professor relationships are not commonplace, they do occur.

Sturm’s experience is an example of two people getting along who happen to be a student and a professor, but it was the topic they were learning and teaching that drew the two together.

“I think all this is evidence that in certain ways it just makes sense for students and professors to get along in ways that may naturally transition into a dating or intimate relationship,” Sturm said. “You’re familiar with the same subjects, institutions, theorists, probably analyze things in similar ways.”

For Sturm, a relationship with an age difference accompanied by open and healthy communication helped her grow as a student and person.

“Society generally views power and differences in power as inherently bad things, but like any other relationship conflict they can be dealt with in healthy and constructive ways if both parties are willing to communicate openly,” Sturm said.

Sturm said she thinks any societal shame or aversion to professor-student relationships is unwarranted.

“We shouldn’t shame someone for developing a relationship with a professor or vice versa,” she said. “[It’s] better to talk about it and let the people involved, who know their relationship best, decide the best way to move forward and what is most ethical for them.”

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