Montana State University has taken the final step in approving new rules barring romantic or sexual relationships between professors and undergraduate students.

The University Council voted unanimously Wednesday to adopt the new policy on relationships with students, which affects tenured and non-tenured faculty as well as staff, graduate students and even undergraduates who supervise, teach, tutor or mentor other students.

The new policy brings MSU in line with restrictions adopted in recent years at other universities, including Harvard and Yale. It marks a substantial change from MSU’s old policy, which allowed faculty-student relationships so long as professors disclosed the conflict of interest to their bosses.

Even when relationships appear consensual, the policy states, any time there’s a big power difference between the parties there’s potential for bad outcomes. That can mean negative effects on students, colleagues and the university itself, “particularly when a relationship that appeared consensual comes to an end.”

The University Council members, including three-dozen deans, vice presidents and other campus leaders, voted without comment, but there had been widespread discussion of the proposal across campus in the past year, said Kellie Peterson, MSU legal counsel.

Reactions on campus ranged from professors who assumed everyone already knew it was wrong to have intimate relationships with undergraduates to some who felt students are consenting adults and relationships are nobody’s business.

An advisory board of parents was “overwhelmingly in support” of the new policy, said Matt Caires, dean of students.

“I’m very grateful about the way our faculty, staff, students, alumni and parents worked diligently for a good number of months so we could have a policy that reflects the values of the university,” President Waded Cruzado said after the vote.

Cruzado was asked whether such a policy might have prevented the difficulties the university faced in recent years, as when its most famous scientist, then in his 60s, made news by dating and marrying a 19-year-old undergraduate.

“As an institution of higher learning, every experience teaches us some valuable lessons,” she said. “It is our hope the policy will help us in the future.”

Cruzado pointed out that policies alone don’t change behavior.

“Policies without a culture that reinforces our institutional values will always have limited effectiveness,” Cruzado said. Conversations held over the past several months would help create, she said, “a healthy environment at Montana State University.”

MSU agreed in 2018 to pay $175,000 to a former undergraduate student to settle her 6-year lawsuit alleging the university was negligent in hiring and supervising a music professor who sexually harassed and raped her.

Under the new policy, the responsibility for keeping appropriate boundaries falls on the person with greater power. Violations could result in written warnings, losing merit raises, losing tenure and even being fired.

Professors have the power to give students grades, references, professional travel and other academic opportunities, to hire and set salaries.

The policy covers relationships that are “romantic, sexual, amorous, dating or intimate,” whether they last for months or a single encounter. Texting or other intimate relationships that take place online instead of face-to-face are banned.

The policy also affects other employees whose jobs give them authority over students, including counselors, advisers, coaches, trainers, disciplinary staff, job supervisors, dormitory staff, and staffs in deans’ and academic offices.

The policy sets two waiting periods that aim to separate the time when two people have a supervisor-student relationship from the time when the relationship could be considered consensual.

It requires a 12-month wait after someone has been a student’s academic instructor of record — the person giving grades on a student’s permanent record. It requires a six-month wait after someone has been a tutor or given other learning support.

Graduate students would be off-limits to faculty members who are supervising them, have supervised them in the past year or can reasonably expect to supervise them in the future. Grad students would also be off-limits for faculty members who teach in the same department or academic program.

Grad students who are the instructor of record are prohibited from having relationships with any grad student or undergraduate they supervise, have supervised in the previous 12 months, or can reasonably expect to supervise.

The full policy can be found on MSU’s website (http://www.montana.edu/legalcounsel/proposed/index.html)

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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