Conflicts addressed in relationship policy

The University Senate policy on consensual relationships is slated for revision at Thursday’s Senate meeting. At present, the existing policy warns against “the possible costs of an apparently consenting relationship” between a faculty member and a student or a supervisor and an employee. At issue in the proposed revision is the prohibition of sexual or romantic relationships in which one person is involved in the evaluation, supervision or hiring of the other person in the relationship. This revision of policy would fortify the University’s commitment to professional responsibility and provide clear guidelines for those contemplating a workplace romance.Consensual relationships do exist and flourish on campus, and critics may question the paternalistic character of a policy that interferes in the personal lives of adults. But the Sexual Harassment Board’s recommendation is not meant to meddle in the lives of University students and employees. Rather, the proposal seeks to guard against conflicts of interest that exist in relationships between people who may be called upon to make employment or academic decisions affecting each other. The existing policy defines the professor-student relationship as that of professional and client. It is in this spirit that the revised policy is set up to work.The recognition of conflict of interest in professional-client relationships was the impetus for guidelines on consensual relationships in the counseling and legal professions. The nepotism policy at the University already states that people in committed relationships such as marriage may not make employment decisions about each other. Such conflicts of interest could result in problems of objectivity and may exploit the power disparity inherent in supervisor-supervisee or faculty-student relationships. Students and employees deserve the opportunity to fulfill their roles at the University unfettered by decisions about their progress that may be skewed by personal relationships.
Students and employees, however, also deserve privacy and autonomy when it comes to decisions about their personal lives. The intent of the new policy, according to Kris Lockhart, associate to director in the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, is not to quash relationships. Rather, the goal is to remove any conflict of interest in relationships so the potential for unfair working conditions is eliminated. Lockhart said the policy would not put any undue pressure on administrators or supervisors to seek out or expose relationships. If a problem were to arise, however, the supervisor would clearly have the authority to eliminate any conflict of interest. This could be achieved, for example, by shifting the decision-making power to another supervisor on the staff.
Policy should never govern the private lives of students or employees. Through consultation with many key groups on campus, the Sexual Harassment Board formulated a policy that neither ignores the potential for conflict of interest nor ignores the individual rights of people in determining their personal choices. This is an acceptable compromise that should be supported by the University Senate.