Safeguarding the University Community

April 12, 2012 | CUNY Matters

Updated language would increase protection.

At the request of John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Faculty Senate, the University is moving towards toughening its sexual harassment rules to prohibit — rather than “strongly discourage” as at present — consensual intimate relationships between faculty or staff and students over whom they have professional responsibility.

The consideration of changes in University policy began when professor Karen Kaplowitz, president of the Faculty Senate at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, wrote to the Chancellor in late November and shared the Senate’s resolution. He immediately asked Frederick Schaffer, the University’s general counsel and senior vice chancellor for legal affairs, to coordinate a policy review in consultation with the Office of Human Resources Management.

The Chancellor asked students, faculty and staff to comment on the proposals via their governance organizations or unions by May 1, in order to allow for consideration by the Board at its June meeting.

Kaplowitz wrote, in part: “The main rationale for our recommendation that there be a prohibition on these relationships is the inherent institutional power imbalance between students and those with pedagogical and/or supervisory responsibilities over them, a power imbalance that precludes any truly consensual relationship.

“In addition,” she wrote, “such relationships, if known to others in the college community, may lead to an inhospitable learning environment which may damage the integrity of the learning process through conflicts of interest and other entanglements. Such relationships may also generate the perception that students in sexual relationships with employees of the college who have a power relationship over them have an unfair advantage over other students in grading and other discretionary matters.”

Chancellor Goldstein wrote as he sent the proposals to the University community in early March: “At The City University of New York, we are deeply committed to maintaining learning and work environments in which members of the University community may pursue their goals and objectives in an atmosphere of respect, sensitivity and tolerance.”

The University’s proposal follows the spirit of John Jay’s Faculty Senate. CUNY’s proposal states that “amorous, dating or sexual relationships” between faculty members or employees and students, “even when apparently consensual … necessarily involve issues of student vulnerability and have the potential for coercion. In addition, conflicts of interest or perceived conflicts of interest may arise when a faculty member or employee is required to evaluate the work or make personnel or academic decisions with respect to a student with whom he or she is having an intimate relationship. Finally, if the relationship ends in a way that is not amicable, the relationship may lead to charges of and possible liability for sexual harassment.”

CUNY’s proposal is in line with a national trend in strengthening sexual harassment policies to protect students, faculty and employees. Other universities that have toughened language governing consensual relationships between students, faculty and staff include Yale University; the Universities of California, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, Southern Mississippi, Iowa and Michigan; the College of William and Mary; and Pace University. Scandal prompted some of those institutions to tighten the rules, as at William and Mary and Pittsburgh.

Professor Karen Kaplowitz, president of John Jay College's Faculty Senate, initiated recommendations.

Yale’s changes came amid an investigation last year by the U.S. Department of Civil Rights into student-to-student sexual harassment, but by then the university had already centralized authority for handling sexual misconduct cases and launched its own probe. In February 2012, Yale reported that 52 sexual harassment complaints of all types were lodged in the last half of 2011 (some dating from two years earlier); among them were eight allegations where students complained about faculty and three where students complained about staff.

Statistics like Yale’s belie the severity of the problem of sexual harassment and sexual violence, which on campuses occurs primarily among students. According to the U.S. Justice Department, 20 percent of female college students will be victims of a sexual assault, as will 6 percent of men. Yet less than 5 percent of those assaults will be reported.

There aren’t good statistics available on consensual relationships involving students and faculty or staff, but one tragedy stands out. Last year, at the University of Idaho campus in Moscow, graduate student Kathryn Benoit was shot and killed by her former lover, Ernesto Bustamante, whom the university had just forced to resign as an assistant professor. Bustamante – who had a reputation for dating students as well as for displaying guns – then killed himself. Not long before, Benoit had filed a three-page complaint against him with the university, charging sexual harassment and detailing three threats of violence against her. The last time he put a gun to her head, her complaint says.

In the wake of the murder and a unanimous vote by Idaho’s Faculty Senate, the university adopted a stricter policy that bans consensual relationships at its 70 locations statewide. Previously, as at CUNY, consensual relationships were strongly discouraged. The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that Idaho’s new policy “is similar to those on many other campuses and to the recommendations of the American Association of University Professors.”

In a related change involving staff, the University would continue to strongly discourage intimate relationships between supervisors and non-student employees. But it would impose a new requirement that supervisors disclose any intimate relationship to their superiors in order to avoid or mitigate conflicts of interest over the supervision and evaluation of employees.

Anyone violating these rules could face disciplinary action, including the possibilities of suspension or firing. There also might be corrective action, such as transferring a student or employee. However, the proposal envisions that in most cases, students would not be disciplined.

Further Details

The full text of the proposal for stricter language on consensual relationships can be found by visiting search.cuny.edu and entering “proposed harassment policy.”