The Power of the Professor

A University of Texas English professor and his sexual harassment of female graduate students got the Dan Solomon/Jessica Luther treatment on the Splinter News site. (Click and read here before you get much further down my piece; I’ll wait.)

That a male English professor would use his power over female students in that way is yet another chapter within a disturbing #MeToo time of reckoning. What makes this chapter even creepier is the perceived lack of enthusiasm displayed by those who supervised Coleman Hutchinson (many of them women) to discipline him.

The article details the reason why. There’s the defense of tenure stuff, yeah, and college faculty can circle the wagons as reflexively as any other profession.

But there is also a chilling thread that seeks to indulge the professor-student relationship, in particular at the graduate level. One essayist wondered if “erotic longings between professor and student” were “unavoidable.” Graduated to the community of advanced scholars, some speculate that sexual fireworks ignite intellectual curiosity–a needed component for graduate students.

And academics wonder why the rest of society thinks we’re crazy.

Call me stuffy and puritanical, but to me, any relationship that gives an inch to such a natural impulse is asking for a mile’s worth of problems. It would be comically clumsy if it didn’t leave so many exploited, damaged souls on the outskirts of a career they had dreamed of pursuing.

As a professor, whether dealing with graduate students or undergraduate students, I start from a basic assumption: I operate from a position of power and authority over them and they know it. Thus, I need to be careful not to exert that power in a way that unnecessarily hurts them, particularly to indulge myself.

That power might be emotional power, academic power, social power and, yes, even sexual power. But the instructor has no right to wield it in a way that hurts a student.

There are reasons for boundaries between the professional and personal. Of course we expect certain benefits from our romantic relationships. But when any professional seeks those benefits from a working relationship, it’s almost certain to turn out badly.

And when a professor projects any such expectations–romance or friendship–onto students, it’s can unfairly put them into an awkward situation within which they have little power.

A working relationship does provide personal benefits, and college students are awesome to work with, but those benefits are limited. The professor who flirts with students is as inappropriate as the professor who exults in the intended compliment, “You’re just like a fellow student.” (My response is, “Get thee behind me, Satan.”) By projecting peer benefit needs onto students to fulfill, the professor is putting unfair pressure on those students to be something to him/her that they are not intended to be. Friends and acquaintances, yes; peers, no.

In a balanced life, we draw benefit from a variety of sources — work, friendship, family and faith, for many. When life is unbalanced (and the academic life is the champion of unbalance), we look for friendship, acceptance and love in all the wrong places.

Policies that limit romantic relationships between faculty and students do not limit academic freedom and certainly do not endanger the academic process.

Those in a position of power also have a responsibility to protect those in a position of weakness, and that is our duty toward our students. Yes, the classroom is a place of great enjoyment and in so many ways, students bring joy to our task.

That’s a benefit, yes. But it’s not their responsibility, nor is it the students’ function.