University solicits feedback on draft of new personal relationships policy

By EMILY MCDONALD and KATY WILNER | December 18, 2018

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Provost Sunil Kumar informed the Hopkins community in an email sent on Friday, Dec. 14 that the University is drafting a policy regarding personal relationships, particularly between students and professors. The Draft Personal Relationships Policy defines personal relationships as dating, romantic and sexual relationships. The University is currently soliciting feedback on the draft.

In the past two weeks, students have protested the Office of Institutional Equity’s (OIE) mishandling of sexual violence cases as well as a sexual assault allegation against a current professor, Juan Obarrio. It also came to light that OIE’s website had mistakenly blocked 18 reports of alleged sexual misconduct over the past three years. In his email, Kumar explained that OIE staff members are currently working to address the cases that were not investigated and have expressed their sincere regret to the individuals involved in these reports.

Kumar emphasized that the administration does not condone sexual misconduct and stated that the a new policy will help to create an environment where all members of the community can thrive.

“We have been working to develop a university wide policy regarding sexual and romantic relationships between faculty and students, supervisors and supervisees, or other situations where there may be an academic or professional power differential between individuals,” he wrote.

In an interview with The News-Letter, Kumar and Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Susan Courtney-Faruqee explained that the University began working to create a revised policy on personal relationships long before the incident of alleged sexual misconduct and OIE’s error. Instead, Courtney-Faruqee explained that the idea to create a new policy originated in 2017 as a result of the #MeToo movement.

“Last year, with increasing attention focused on sexual harassment and professional power dynamics, there was a sense that we needed to revisit our own policies and make sure that we’re being consistent and proactive,” Courtney-Faruqee said.

Kumar encouraged recipients of the email to make suggestions to improve the policy via the University’s Policy website. Additionally, the University will host a series of forums and listening sessions to gather responses from the Hopkins community.

Kumar noted that the University will not enforce the new proposed policies until there is sufficient support and community input.

“This is not yet a policy because it still lays open a variety of options for consideration. Based on the feedback we hope to get, we will then refine an active policy that will go into effect next academic year,” he said.

In an email to The News-Letter, seniors Mayuri Viswanathan and Bella Radant, co-directors of the Sexual Assault Resource Unit (SARU), explained that they are looking forward to reviewing the draft policy.

“We are very excited to see this issue getting the attention it deserves and look forward to reviewing the new policy closely and staying in conversation with JHU administration on the process and impact of the new policy,” they wrote.  

Currently, this draft states that personal relationships between students (both graduate and undergraduate) and anyone who can have “influence over their academic progress and/or funding” are prohibited by the University.

“Because student-teacher relationships form the heart of our institutional identity, this Policy pays particular attention to such situations. Romantic and/or sexual relationships are viewed as inimical to the student-teacher relationship,” the document reads. “Our mission depends on having a climate of mutual respect in which academic, professional and scholarly achievements are unambiguously seen as the only criteria for success.”

The draft policy provides four potential options for prohibited graduate student and faculty relationships. These include: prohibiting relationships where a faculty or staff member has direct influence over a graduate student’s academics; prohibiting relationships where a faculty or staff member and a graduate student are in the same department; prohibiting relationships where a faculty or staff member and a graduate student could potentially have an academic relationship; and prohibiting any form of personal relationship between graduate students and faculty or staff members in their same institution.

These options are clearly labeled as up for debate after taking into consideration community input. In an email to The News-Letter, Isadora Schaller, who leads bystander intervention training, expressed that the proposed prohibition of relationships between graduate students and faculty or staff members at the same institution should be enforced because it will protect students.

“The power dynamic between a student and any faculty or staff with the authority to potentially dictate the success of a student’s academic and professional career cannot be underestimated. Power and control dynamics are antithetical to healthy and successful relationships, and the University should be doing its best to protect all undergraduate and graduate students from situations where they are inherently incapable of giving consent,” she wrote.

Schaller added that although she appreciated University officials for taking the initiative in setting up specific policies for personal relationships, she noted that the current climate in which the draft was released indicates how they have previously neglected to address these issues.

The draft policy also indicates that preexisting relationships that violate these rules are still prohibited. However, the document also notes that exceptions can be made in cases where the relationship is disclosed, the person in a position of power is removed from having authority over the other individual, the impact on the Hopkins community is minimal and a management plan for the relationship is written.

In case of a former relationship between a faculty or staff member and a student, the faculty or staff member will be removed from a position of authority over the student.

The drafted policy further outlines regulations for relationships between two students. Option 1 prohibits relationships between a graduate student and an undergraduate student where the graduate student is in a teaching or supervisory role over the undergraduate student. Option 2 would prohibit relationship where one student is in a supervisory or teaching position over another, regardless of whether they are both graduate or undergraduate students.

This draft also prohibits relationships between two employees where one is a direct supervisor of or has professional influence over the other. Preexisting relationships must be disclosed.

Additionally, family members or members of the same household are not allowed to hold positions of authority over one another.

The Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) will investigate any violations, including non-consensual relationships, which may result in termination or revocation of tenure. Provost Sunil Kumar explained that this draft of the policy intends to set up guidelines for what is a consensual relationship when placed in the context of power imbalances, i.e. a relationship between a student and their advisor.

“This policy is intended, in part, to prevent relationships that have huge power differentials. Should a non-consensual relationship be identified by either a person in the relationship or someone else, then our normal mechanisms for investigating this, which is through OIE, will kick in,” he said.

He also acknowledged some of the issues students have expressed with OIE, stating that the University has consulted an external firm to conduct a review of the Office.

Sophomore Elana Rubin shared her thoughts on the proposed policy in an email to The News-Letter.

“At first, it seems like a good idea to enforce policies like this to prevent unequal power dynamics. However, I feel like these are limited cases where these rules actually apply. The University seems to be circumventing the actual problem, which is sexual violence and misconduct, which can often occur and does occur without a relationship,” she wrote.

She added that she would like to see University officials take measures to prevent sexual assault and misconduct on campus.

“It’s hard for a university to make policies to try to fix this problem in society, but the most effective way would be making it clear that these behaviors will be met with severe punishments,” she wrote.

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