MSU Wild

Students walk between classes through a steady snow in front of Montana Hall in this 2019 Chronicle file photo.

A #MeToo-era proposal to ban professors having romances or sex with undergraduates at Montana State University would impose similar limits on anyone with power over students.

The proposed “relationships with students” policy received favorable comments Wednesday when campus attorney Kellie Peterson explained it to about 30 campus leaders on MSU’s University Council.

Peterson said some people have criticized the idea, saying the university has no business regulating people’s private affairs. Others have argued the proposal doesn’t go far enough.

“Yes, most students are legally adults,” Peterson said, “but their ability to enter into relationships is compromised by the power differential.”

A nine-member MSU committee worked on the policy for more than a year and talked to people at Yale and other universities around the nation, she said. “This is the direction things are moving.”

The University Council will receive comments over the next month and likely vote at the next meeting in February, said Provost Bob Mokwa. He and others thanked Peterson and committee members for their hard work.

Though most attention has focused on the proposed outright ban on professors romancing undergraduates, the policy would affect most MSU employees, Peterson said.

That includes coaches, trainers, counselors, financial aid advisors, residence hall staff, the registrar’s staff – anyone whose job can directly affect students and their grades, finances, graduations and futures.

About the only people she could think of who wouldn’t be affected were food service and custodial staffs.

“This is a pretty broad net,” Peterson said.

There would be new restrictions, though not an outright ban, on relationships between professors and graduate students. And there would be new restrictions for graduate and undergraduates who teach or tutor other students.

Mokwa asked where people should go if they’re not sure the policy applies to them or if they want to report a violation. Peterson listed the Office of Research Compliance, MSU legal counsel’s office and Office of Institutional Equity.

In the past if someone at an academic conference spotted a professor coming out of an elevator holding hands with a student, Peterson said, the legal counsel’s office would discuss the matter only with the faculty member. Now, she said, they would respectfully talk with both the professor and the student.

One unique aspect of MSU’s policy calls for restoring reputations if false allegations are made, she said. It’s parallel to an existing policy for restoring reputations if professors are wrongly accused of plagiarism or research violations.

Abbie Richards, former Faculty Senate chair, now chemical and biological engineering department head, served on the committee that drafted the policy. She said they listened to staff and students, worked on multiple drafts and got “a great deal of input from the community.”

“I respect people’s privacy, but the power differential is so great as employees of the university,” Richards said. “We need to be respectful of that.”

Though some past MSU relationships ended in long-term marriages, MSU has experience with bad outcomes. In 2018 the university settled a six-year civil lawsuit brought by a former student, agreeing to pay her $175,000 after she alleged her music professor forced her into a romantic and sexual relationship and assaulted her.

The proposed policy states: “Any relationship involving a power differential, even those appearing to be fully consensual, has the potential for adverse outcomes.” That can lead to negative impacts on colleagues, on other students and on MSU itself, “particularly when a relationship that appeared consensual comes to an end.”

The burden for keeping appropriate boundaries would fall on the person with greater power.

The policy would cover relationships that are “romantic, sexual, amorous, dating or physically intimate,” whether they lasted for months or a single encounter. Electronic relationships such as texting and other communication that takes place online rather than face-to-face would also be banned.

People who violate the policy could face discipline ranging from written warnings to losing tenure, losing merit raises and being fired.

When people are upfront and cooperative with the university about a relationship, MSU could take remedial measures, such as changing an employee’s work or academic environment, or having the student retake a course.

Graduate students would be off-limits to faculty members who are supervising them, have supervised them in the past 12 months 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.

Graduate students who are teaching classes or working as teaching assistants or tutoring undergraduates or other grad students would be barred from having relationships with people they supervise, have supervised in the past 12 months, or can expect to supervise in the future.

Grad students who are mentoring undergrads in labs, tutoring them or working with them in the Writing Center — but don’t have an assigned class role as a supervisor — would be barred from relationships if they’re working together, did so in the past six months or could reasonably be expected to do so in the future.

The proposed policy can be found on MSU’s website (www.montana.edu/legalcounsel/proposed/index.html). Comments can be sent to kellie.peterson@montana.edu.

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

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