Pomona faculty initiate review process for policy on faculty-student relationships

Several students, staff, and community members walk and bike along Pomona College's campus outside of Bridges Auditorium.
The Pomona College Faculty Executive Council is examining its policy for consensual relationships between students and faculty or staff. (Chris Nardi • The Student Life)

Relationships between students and faculty/staff at Pomona College are currently permitted under certain conditions. But they may not be come 2020, as the school plans to review and possibly change the policy.

At a Nov. 6 meeting, Pomona faculty voted for the Faculty Executive Committee, a governing body with seven faculty members, to review the policy, which was implemented in 2012.

The policy currently states that Pomona faculty and staff are “prohibited from pursuing or engaging in any romantic and/or sexual relationships with students of the Claremont Colleges” unless the faculty or staff member discloses the relationship or potential relationship to the dean of the college and dean of students — in the case of faculty — or to the chief financial officer and dean of students — in the case of staff.

“President Starr and I agree that our current policy discourages consensual relationships, but does not prohibit them in every case … We believe our policy should go further in prohibiting romantic relationships between faculty or staff and students, considering the dynamics of power inherent in such relationships.” – Robert Gaines, Pomona Interim Dean of the College

The individual in question must also prove that they’re not presently teaching, advising, supervising, coaching or evaluating the student in any way and have never or will likely never have any sort of “professional responsibility” for the student, according to the faculty handbook

They must also demonstrate that the potential relationship presents no “reasonable likelihood, presently or in the future, of adversely affecting the educational environment for this or for any other student, or of creating an appearance of bias, conflict of interest, favoritism, unfair academic advantage or disadvantage or undue access to or restriction from opportunities at the College,” the handbook states.

Consensual relationships between students and faculty or staff members which have been disclosed to the college and fit these characteristics are permitted. 

“It’s very hard to imagine circumstances outside of a pre-existing relationship … It’s very hard for me to imagine a circumstance in which there would be no possibility of there being, having some sort of professional responsibility,” Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr said at the meeting. “… It just seems almost impossible there could be no conflict of interest, either actual or apparent.” 

Interim Dean of the College Robert Gaines, who took on the position in July, said he suggested the school review the policy. He’s been going over the faculty handbook since taking on his new role.

“President Starr and I agree that our current policy discourages consensual relationships, but does not prohibit them in every case,” Gaines said via email. “We believe our policy should go further in prohibiting romantic relationships between faculty or staff and students, considering the dynamics of power inherent in such relationships.”

Staff Council, a governing body for Pomona staff, also supported reviewing this policy, faculty executive committee chair Daniel O’Leary said. He’s also notified ASPC of this review process, and student input will be taken into account.

“I’m confident that the Faculty Executive Committee will work diligently to ensure that faculty, staff and students are included in the revision process,” ASPC President Miguel Delgado-Garcia PO ’20 said in an email.

Selena Lopez PO ’22 said she wasn’t previously aware of this policy, but was “a bit disturbed” by the fact that any relationships were allowed between faculty/staff and students.

“Even though there are some restrictions, I think it’d be best to change the policy and I’m glad faculty has motioned to change the policy,” Lopez said via message. “There should [be] a clear divide between students and staff, mostly because it is inappropriate, in my opinion, for these relationships to exist. I know there are a lot of different opinions, because, after all, we’re all adults, but something about it being allowed puts me in unease.”

Professors present at the faculty meeting also voiced support for a change in policy, or at least a review process.

“I think most of us are aware that it is very difficult for a faculty/student relationship to be truly consensual,” professor Eric Lindholm, who was on the executive committee in 2012, said via email.

The policy on consensual relationships prior to 2012 was established in 1994 and states: “As a matter of professional ethics, faculty members should avoid potential conflict between their professional responsibilities and personal interests in their relationships with students. Faculty members will refrain from having a sexual relationship with or making sexual overtures to students whom they teach, advise, evaluate or supervise in any way,” according to Janise Roselle, Pomona associate dean for academic affairs.

O’Leary said the written rationale for changing the policy in 2012 cited “upticks in problematic relationships.” 

However, the reason for the potential change this time isn’t in response to any cases of inappropriate relationships or harassment, Gaines said.

The review process will end by May 2020, and any change to the policy would have to be approved by the Board of Trustees, O’Leary said.

Scripps College, Claremont McKenna College, Pitzer College and Harvey Mudd College have similar policies, allowing for consensual student-faculty relationships only if the faculty member has no academic, employment, administrative or other form of responsibility for the student.

HMC’s policy also explicitly bans relationships between students and staff currently supervising them.

Scripps’ policy extends this prohibition in cases where the faculty has “exercised authority in the past, currently exercise authority or are likely to do so in the future.”

CMC’s policy likewise bans relationships in cases where individuals “should reasonably expect to have” a supervisory role over students and instructs faculty to disclose past or current relationships with students to the dean of faculty.

The other schools’ policies do not provide guidelines for faculty to report current relationships with students they do not supervise — only Pomona includes this provision.

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