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Should UU forbid relationships between teachers and students? DUB panel is divided

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More and more people have been calling for Utrecht University to ban intimate relationships between teachers and students, looking to prevent sexual harassment. But what if there’s real love involved? DUB asked its panel what they think.

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“I once received a super like on Tinder from a guy who taught a work group I'd taken six months before then. It was an IT course and I was one of only a handful of female students. Even though he was a PhD candidate and therefore didn’t have a formal position as a teacher, I still had this unpleasant feeling about the attention I got from him during the work group. Choosing an elective where this person would be supervising the work groups? No way”.

Ingrid Weers, a former UU student who’s now pursuing a Master’s degree in Leiden, shared this story with us in her response to a question we asked the members of our DUB panel.


Should romantic relationships between teachers and students be prohibited?

It’s a question UU's Executive Board will soon have to answer, because a code of conduct concerning relationships at the university is currently in the works.

The task force advocating the implementation of such a code of conduct is calling for a clear ban of all romantic relationships between teachers and students. According to them, this would help prevent sexual harassment and other types of misconduct in the university as such relationships carry an inherent risk of power imbalance or codependency.

It remains to be seen if the University Council and the Executive Board will adopt the total ban. Although they both agree that problematic behaviour should be eliminated from UU, there's the question whether the university is in the position to intrude into people's private lives.

It’s the classic example of a forbidden love story on a mediocre porn site

Ingrid Weerts is, therefore, in favour of a total ban. “Someone making a move on a person over whom they’re in a position of power is the most classic example of a forbidden love story on a mediocre porn site”, she writes. “And there’s a reason for it: it's hard for them to say no. That’s the type of scum you allow by approving of relationships between students and teachers. After all, someone has to make the first move for it to happen.”

But the other members of our panel are divided: most of them lean towards a ‘no’.

If we forbid these relationships, we won’t be able to help at all in case of harassment

Fiona van ’t Hullenaar, director of Corporate Real Estate & Campus: No.
“This is a tough one. On the one hand, there’s this rather uncontrollable chemical process of falling in love, which is highly individual and can lead to great happiness. On the other hand, power imbalance can result in inappropriate behaviours that can lead to great unhappiness.

“It’s a choice between the freedom to choose one’s partner by trusting their moral deliberations, despite the fact that that doesn’t always go well, and protecting the vulnerable, which means making moral considerations for someone else. The latter carries the risk of restricting possibly harmonious relationships, or moving them underground.

“I hesitantly vote no. My fear is too great that if we say yes, we won’t be able to help when inappropriate behaviours take place. So no, but we should have a good network of counsellors and raise awareness about moral codes and acceptable behaviour by providing good information. We should adopt an active bystander behaviour if we see things that shouldn’t happen.”

Bart Mijland, internship coordinator at the faculty of Humanities: Yes
“It’s just something you shouldn’t want if you're a teacher. Of course there’s a chance you'll spontaneously fall head over heels in love, but there’s a number of steps before turning it into an actual relationship. Teachers need to actively stay away from those steps.

“As the Task force wrote, UU employees should learn to look at students, PhD candidates or subordinate employees as people who simply aren't potential romantic or sexual partners, period. As soon as you notice you have feelings for someone, you need to use your professionalism without harming that subordinate person.

“If one does take that step going from the initial attraction to actual sexual or romantic acts, that needs to be punished, for punishing it can prevent a lot of damage and disgrace.”

In most cases, students and employees are responsible adults’

Frank van Rijnsoever, innovation scientist: No
“A full ban doesn’t seem necessary to me. The university would be intruding into people’s private lives. Relationships with students probably happen regularly, especially among younger teachers. For instance, when one of two studying partners graduates and then starts working as a teacher.

“What we don't want is a skewed power balance between the partners, such as when they’re in a graduation track together or when the student is taking a course from the teacher they're in a relationship with. In that case, it’s the teacher’s duty to transfer the supervision and assessment to a colleague.

“I personally believe that, in most cases, students and teachers are responsible adults who can decide for themselves. But sometimes it does go wrong. That’s why it’s important to have access to a fair complaints procedure, with a fair hearing and a counsellor.”

Sterre van Wierst, student assessor at the Faculty of Medicine, recently graduated from the Bachelor’s in Biomedical Science: No
“UU shouldn’t prohibit it, but when a student is in a position of dependency or can find themselves in one, such as when they're taking an exam, it’s simply not responsible anymore. Having a second examiner can improve the situation somewhat, but there’s still a difference in hierarchy. A troubled relationship could cause issues when an examiner can influence the other from that position in the hierarchy.

“My advice would be to prevent students from ending up in situations like that. After all, you can offer all sorts of training sessions to make students more assertive, but if you’re in a position of dependency it’s hard to speak up.

“More transparency, like making it mandatory to report relationships, could help as well. That gives you a social handle on the situation and people are aware of the force field in case the relationship ends.”

Casper Hulshof, educational scientist: No
“This question has sort of already been discussed by the DUB panel two years ago. We already have a code of conduct (link in Dutch) which I think suffices. In my view, Leiden's code of conduct formulates it well: relationships are allowed, but in case of dependency, the teacher must transfer grading and supervision to another colleague and inform their manager".

Students don’t always dare to report inappropriate behaviour

Leonie Schiphorst, student in the Youth Studies Master's programme: Yes
“This is a tricky issue. In the case of a thesis supervisor who will assess your work, I’d say there’s a hierarchical relationship, one of dependency. But is the same power imbalance present if it’s a just the teacher of a regular course?

“Last year, a UU professor was forced to resign because he had a relationship with an employee who was a student at the time everything started. According to the person who submitted the complaint, this wasn’t a relationship but rather a case of sexual harassment, which makes me feel like a relationship between teacher and student is too risky.

“There’s a chance it’ll be wrongly labelled as a relationship, a term that suggests consent and equality of power, but that isn’t always the case. Moreover, employees and students don’t always dare to report inappropriate behaviour.

“That’s why I think UU should consider a ban similar to the one adopted by the Delft University of Technology in its code of conduct, no matter how tricky it is, because people can just fall in love.”

Do we want to map the love lives of students and employees?

Mies van Steenbergen, research analyst: No
“No ban. But the teacher’s manager and the student’s mentor should be aware of the situation and the teacher can never be involved in the assessment of the student’s work, regardless of their level. That’s how we keep things transparent.”

Stefan Rüdiger, chemist: No
“Would that mean a spouse would not be able to start a study programme at a later age if their partner works at the university? Does that make romantic relationships between a PhD candidate and a Master’s student illegal? Or only once someone’s obtained their teaching qualifications?

“The university should take appropriate action if there’s an abuse of power, but if that’s not the case, do we want UU to start mapping the love lives of students and employees?”

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