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No More Amour With UC Faculty?

Commentary

Litigation fears over love affairs with students are at heart of proposed ban.

June 18, 2003|Paul R. Abramson | Paul R. Abramson is a professor of psychology at UCLA and a co-author of "Sexual Rights in America: The Ninth Amendment and the Pursuit of Happiness" (New York University Press), to be published in August.

"Love conquers all things," noted Virgil in the 1st century BC, "let us too surrender to Love."

A fine and reasonable sentiment, no doubt, unless it is in reference to romance between a UCLA faculty member and his or her student. In that case, the following is more apropos: If you lose your heart, you could lose your job.

Why should love affairs between consenting adults be verboten on the UCLA campus? The back story, we are told, is that a prominent male professor, on a different UC campus, got drunk and sexual harassment allegedly ensued.

As a consequence, the University of California has moved to prohibit sex and romance between faculty and the students they teach or oversee. The presumption being that sex invites abuse. The policy, approved by the UC Academic Senate at the end of May, awaits approval by the Board of Regents, which next meets in July.

Imagine the following: A prominent professor, female this time, has $100 in her purse. She is robbed on campus. In response, the university proclaims "no more money (or purses) on campus," thereby equating the availability of money with precipitating the crime of robbery. That is much the same as equating the availability of sex with precipitating the crime of rape, say, or any other sex crime, including sexual harassment.

Surely there are more measured approaches to reducing robbery and sexual harassment than outlawing money and sex.

Does UC need a policy about prohibiting consenting adults to prevent abuses? Absolutely not.

California criminal statutes governing the absence of informed consent in sexual matters already apply equally to all members of the university community. The same point applies to concerns about sexual harassment. Workplace laws -- which allow for criminal and civil remedies relating to hostile environments -- already cover conduct on college campuses.

The real reason for the new policy is undoubtedly to reduce the university's liability in civil lawsuits. No sex, no negligence.

Although this goal is understandable in light of our litigious society, the tactic is draconian. The UC romance policy violates the constitutional rights of the faculty and the students.

All U.S. citizens have a fundamental right to make choices about affiliations, including friends, professional associations, political parties and sexual or romantic partners. Choosing a sexual partner, in particular, is a basic right, the kind I'd argue is covered by the 9th Amendment, a right "retained by the people," independent of state or government intervention.

Our constitutional history and the U.S. Supreme Court demand a compelling reason for any curtailment of our constitutional rights -- war, for example. Reducing negligence in civil lawsuits hardly fits the bill.

Moreover, any legitimate limitation on our constitutional rights must be implemented in the least restrictive manner possible. Prohibiting sexual and romantic relationships on the off chance that they might go awry and result in a civil lawsuit against the university amounts to "burning the house to roast the pig," a phrase borrowed from Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in 1957 in a different context.

Although this approach achieves the goal of limiting the university's liability, there are certainly less intrusive ways of accomplishing the same objective.

As an alternative, I suggest that the university require all the faculty and students to sign a release warning them about the potential problems with dating between faculty and students -- the inherent power differential, the appearance of favoritism, etc. By signing, UC faculty and students would be acknowledging that they understand the risks and that they promise to hold the university blameless if a romantic relationship develops and thereafter goes awry.

So warned, daters could proceed at their own risk. When romantic malfeasance did occur, the university would have a document (and a policy) in place to limit civil liability. The "romance release" would function much like the release that patients are required to sign before undergoing a major medical procedure.

Though Hollywood is fond of depicting love affairs between aging male professors and young female undergraduates, such fairy tales surely are the exception rather than the norm.

A much more plausible scenario imagines a thirtysomething professor and a twentysomething graduate student who work together and fall in love. Matrimony is a much more likely outcome than a civil lawsuit.

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