Staff-student relationships are a question of consent

It is naïve to accept inappropriate relationships

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Writing for The Pool in October, Oxford graduate Mel McGrath named the man who allegedly did “a Weinstein” on her during her university days. She described how David Robertson, an academic at Oxford, and her personal tutor made her feel uncomfortable when he would reportedly open the door to her tutorials half-dressed, and make comments on her appearance or personal life. She felt that those in charge ignored his alleged misconduct.

She’s not the only person who has opened up about being in uncomfortable situations with staff at universities in the UK. In a recent article for The Guardian, an anonymous academic shared her experience of being invited to coffee by a lecturer during her days as a student. She felt obliged to go because he would be marking her work.

The line between what is acceptable between teaching staff and students has long been debated, particularly in the light of #MeToo. Yet, many people remain reluctant to recognise that it’s a consent issue. Just like Weinstein’s victims, students’ career prospects could be gravely affected if they were to refuse the advances of academics. It is therefore hard to consider something as consent between two adults when there is a power dynamic that compromises the student’s freedom to resist.

Even if you are of the belief that a student and member of staff are two consenting adults, the point stands that this could offer unfair consequences.

Biases in grading work may disadvantage other students. It would be impossible to distinguish whether an impressive grade were down to a genuinely diligent, capable student, or due to generous marking from a member of staff who had a personal romantic relationship with them. I can’t help but feel that you would feel uncomfortable and suspicious if you knew your tutor was seeing another student and, despite your hard work, they got a particularly good mark.

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This doesn’t mean that we can’t have good relationships with those who teach us. After all, we share interests in specific academic areas with them and may even consider some of them colleagues in the future.The case stands that even if a member of staff weren’t actively teaching the student, or involved with marking their work, it still changes the dynamic of the entire college, or faculty. Do we really want the uncertainties of romantic relationships to seep into our academic environment, an environment that influences our futures and careers, and has capacity to be manipulated to the advantage or disadvantage of others?

Ultimately, accepting staff-student relationships only makes it harder for students to come forward if they feel uncomfortable or harassed for fear of the implications of rejecting someone responsible for their teaching or marks. If #MeToo has taught us anything, it’s that we need to be making sure that ambition can thrive without a fear of compromising our ability to consent in the process.