The undesirable side of academic affairs: Should tutors who have sex with students declare an interest, ask Harriet Martin and Jane Flanagan

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The Independent Online
A LECTURER at a British university tape-records conversations with students. He stores the tapes as insurance against charges of sexual harassment. No student has ever made such an accusation against him, but he does not want to take any chances. Sleeping with students is a risky affair.

This particular academic seduces many students and boasts about his success. He believes that the tapes may one day provide him with a defence of 'mutual consent' should a former student-lover expose his philandering. Love across the lecture theatre is as much a part of campus life as exams or alcohol.

Sexual relationships between staff and students have never been a priority for university disciplinary boards, so long as affairs are discreet. The Association of University Teachers last week discussed a policy statement, University Consensual Relationships, which calls for staff to 'declare their interest' and relinquish all responsibilities of marking and assessment of their student-lovers' work.

The paper also warns lecturers that they could face charges of sexual harassment if a student did not consent to the relationship.

But the unavoidable inequality of power often means that there is no clear line between mutual consent and possible sexual harassment. How easy is it for a student to reject a lecturer? Will a student's grades suffer if she or he says no?

University administrators oppose a hardline approach. A spokesman for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals said: 'A relationship would only be considered undesirable if it involved unprofessional or unethical behaviour. It's for staff, not employers, to regulate behaviour.'

But a student-staff affair often affects more people than the two involved. Lecturers lay themselves open to accusations of favouritism; student-lovers may face resentment from peers. They may be more toughly marked by tutor-lovers eager to head off accusations of bias.

Anne Richardson, regional tutor in clinical psychology based at University College, London, is researching guidelines similar to the AUT proposals for the British Psychological Society. 'There is a risk of adverse consequences from other students. They know one of their peers is having a relationship with a staff member, and think there is preferential treatment being given whether there is or not.'

Cedric Bell, principal lecturer in law at the University of Central Lancashire, met his wife when she was one of his final-year students. They both feared a bad reaction. 'We were able to keep our relationship very discreet so that colleagues and students were not aware of it until teaching concluded,' he said. 'When I realised that the relationship was going to be long-standing, I advised my manager and made alternative marking arrangements.'

The National Union of Students is concerned about lecturers who do not declare an amorous interest. 'Problems arise when students suffer prejudice in assessment of their work by lecturers they have relationships with,' said Louise Clark, of the NUS. 'It is the adverse effect on the professional relationship that we are concerned with.'

Sheffield Hallam University (then Sheffield Polytechnic), issued a booklet for staff in 1988. Hilary Cunliffe-Charlesworth, its sexual harassment officer, said it had been successful but wanted firmer advice given against staff taking up relationships with students. 'I also favour taking disciplinary action against members of the teaching profession who don't notify colleagues about their relationships. If the medical services have drawn up guidelines saying it is unethical to get involved with patients, then the teaching professions should also have them.'

But lecturers who are married or gay may find it difficult to declare their relationships with students. Bradford AUT called for disciplinary action against staff who fail to confide in colleagues, but this was felt to be unworkable at national level.

Patrick Phillips, AUT secretary at the University of Hull, believes students also have a right to advice and protection. 'Students also need advice when involved with members of staff. They need to know the dangers. They need to be reassured that their work cannot be influenced by prejudiced members of staff,' he said.

According to Ms Richardson, there appears to be a striking difference between the lecturer's view of relationships, which is positive and unchanging over time, and the way students look back on their affairs. 'The students enjoyed the relationships at the time, but afterwards feel that it was a mistake - that it was an unprofessional and unethical relationship - and they begin to regret it,' she said.

THE WOMANISER

FIONA knew her tutor had a reputation for womanising and sleeping with students, but when his attentions turned to her, she found herself succumbing to his flattery.

'From day one, I was definitely a bit of a 'teacher's pet' and suffered a lot of mickey-taking from other students. It was embarrassing, but I was flattered. Who wouldn't be? I didn't take Jonathan seriously at first, he had made a real name for himself for going out with lots of students, and I quite enjoyed giving him the brush-off.

'Then, one evening we all went out for another lecturer's 40th birthday party and I found myself sitting by Jonathan at the restaurant. He was all over me and didn't seem to care who saw. I was surprised at my reaction, but the attention made me feel really good and later he pulled me into his cab in front of everyone and we ended up in bed.

'We started seeing a lot of each other and soon everyone knew about us. I knew I was in the middle of a very long line of student girlfriends, but he made me feel special. He was mature and sophisticated compared to other men, well boys, I knew.

'At first he seemed to want everyone to know about us, but when he started to show me up in class, it was as if he was ashamed of me. He would pick me up on the smallest contributions I made in seminars and bullied and patronised me. In private he was sweet, but in public he just showed off. He was on some sort of power trip. I couldn't do anything about it, I was mad about him and just bit my tongue. My assessed work really suffered and I often got one of the lowest marks in the year, no matter how much work I'd put in.

'He actually made me cry in one class, in front of everyone and that was the final straw. I told him it was all off and that I didn't want to see him again. He didn't believe I meant it, but I did. The humiliation was too much and my friends said I was being used, that I was mad for letting him get away with it. In the end I went to see the head of my department and asked for my work to be marked by someone else. He agreed and didn't ask why; he didn't need to.

'It took a lot for me to finally break up with Jonathan, but I couldn't stand the humiliation any more. I was flattered that a member of staff was interested in me, but he really abused his power. Friends who are still there say he's still at it. It's pathetic really.'

THE PERSISTENT NUISANCE

CHARLOTTE believes that if you're old enough to go to university, you're old enough for an affair with a tutor. She was pursued by a tutor for three years. He never gave up. 'The first time it happened was after a Literary Society dinner. I was on my way to the loo and James followed me, pinned me against the wall and tried to kiss me. I said 'No' and pushed him away.' That was the first term in the first year. Charlotte was 19.

'I didn't think anything of it. It's one of those things - it happens all the time. It was a really friendly, young department. I suppose James became a bit of a nuisance, because I decided not to take his course in the second year. I still saw him socially and one evening I fell asleep by his feet at a friend's house. I woke to find him staring at me and he tried to pull my clothes off. I managed to get away. I was quite hostile after that and he got the message. He couldn't apologise enough. He got married in my final year, but I don't think it changed him much. We occasionally exchange postcards and phone calls.'

THE KIND LISTENER

WHILE SARAH, a single mother was in her second year of studying anthropology at a Midlands university, her mother died from cancer. The tutor who offered comfort was in his mid-forties, divorced, with two teenage children. 'It was soon after mum died. I was devastated and felt really alone. My tutor said to me: 'If you need to talk to someone, I've been through it.' I'd always felt that there had been a mutual attraction between us. But I didn't take him up on his offer.

'Later I was feeling really low and I phoned him. He was kind and a good listener. A few weeks later he asked me over to his house with some other students. I was feeling happy, confident and quite flirtatious. He asked me out to dinner and that's when it started. He came round to my house two or three times a week. We would have nice meals, champagne and go to bed. It was idyllic. He stopped marking my work as soon as the affair took off. We never discussed work and I didn't ask for help. I didn't want to benefit from the relationship in that way. It lasted 15 months. I would have married him like a shot, but the situation was unrealistic. He had a social life totally separate from me. In some ways it was the best relationship I've ever had.'

THE HONOURABLE CHAP

MAX's partner is one of his former final-year building studies students; they have been together for five years.

'Sally Ann was sitting at the front of the class with spiky hair and feathered boots, looking very Gothic and I thought 'Hmmm] I've never been out with a Goth before.'

'I asked her if she fancied a drink and we went to the pub and got talking. She told me all about her boyfriend, so being an honourable chap I thought, 'Oh well, that's that.'

'A while later we went on a trip to survey a building, and afterwards I took all my students to the pub.

We had a few drinks, and Sally Ann told me she had split up with her boyfriend and was unhappy. I asked her if she'd like to come back with me that afternoon - with no seductive intentions.

'I'd been on my own for a year and Sally Ann was having quite a rough time so we both just wanted someone to talk to. So we bought a couple of bottles of plonk, went back to my house, went to a party that evening and we've never looked back.

'I moved in with her about four months later and we're still together after five years.

'My feeling was that what I did with my spare time was my own business. We did try to keep separate in front of the other students, but they did know about us and most of them were fine.

'It was a small class, we were all friends, and in fact I think they enjoyed the joke. One guy did cut up rough and thought I was marking unfairly - he came to me after class and asked why he had failed an essay.

'I told him it wasn't good enough and he said 'I bet other students don't get failed.'

'He approached the principal and accused me of unfair marking, but the principal, who knew about us, supported me.

'We 'came out' properly at the end of the year, after the results were out, on a field trip - the principal caught us kissing in a seventeenth-century Dutch barn.

'I took up teaching because, as an architect, I thought it was important to put something back into my profession.

'I was on my own at the time and I admit I did think that if there were girls in the classes that would be a bonus. But I certainly didn't expect to straight away meet the person I would spend the rest of my life with.'

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