Steve Hunt was emotionally wrecked. It was 2005, and the 39-year-old professor was crying at the dinner table, sick of making frozen pizzas for his four young kids who’d recently lost their mother to cancer.
His then-5-year-old son suggested he just marry Bridget Carmody, the kids’ 21-year-old babysitter whom Steve met when she took his religion class at Gordon College, a small Christian school in Massachusetts. Steve acted mortified, at first refusing to admit his son was right. He had feelings for a student.
The two were married a year later, before Bridget, a Haddonfield native, became a senior. By the time of the wedding, they had weathered intense criticism on campus from friends, strangers, and colleagues. It didn’t matter.
They later had two children of their own, and this year celebrated their 13-year anniversary.
When they started dating, there wasn’t a rule prohibiting Steve from pursuing a relationship with Bridget, a student who was no longer in his class (although the school soon enacted a policy after the controversy). Until recently, many schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey did not have such rules as well.
But today, as universities grapple with student protests and greater scrutiny for their handling of sexual harassment and assault cases, local campuses are increasingly looking to police consensual professor-student relationships, citing a power differential that makes the interaction ripe for abuse or misinterpretation.
The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) is exploring a policy addressing such relationships that would apply to all its 14 member schools, and Pennsylvania State University, which has 20 campuses, is also reviewing its policy. A handful of other local schools, including the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Rowan University, have changed or revamped their policies since the Title IX reckonings and rule changes in 2014 and the #MeToo movement that began in late 2017.
Several local campuses have had recent cases of professor relationships that resulted in complaints, including Penn and Bloomsburg University, a part of the state system.
Steve Hunt, now 52, and Bridget, 34, said they understand the need for boundaries, but say consensual faculty-student relationships like theirs should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
“Life is more complex than just simple black-and-white rules,” Steve said, “and sometimes policies can’t take into account all the variables that go into a nuanced life.”
A range of policies at local colleges
Across the region, some schools ban relationships with undergraduates and graduate students. Others distinguish between relationships in which professors have an advisory or supervisory role over the student. The least restrictive discourage but don’t prohibit the relationships, regardless of professional contact.
Princeton University has one of the most strict policies. It has for years forbid all relationships between professors and undergraduates and relationships between professors and graduate students with whom the professor has an advisory, instructional, or supervisory role. In April, the school extended the ban to include all graduate students.
University officials declined to discuss the issue, nor comment on a New York Post report this spring that Princeton’s 2016 valedictorian had become engaged to a 70-something Princeton professor who taught her as an undergraduate. Neither could be reached for comment.
Penn discourages but doesn’t prohibit romantic relationships between professors and graduate students in which there is no supervisory role. Jennifer Pinto-Martin, professor of nursing and outgoing faculty senate chair, thinks that distinction is a good one, given that graduate students are often older and in a better position to make “informed choices.”
Undergraduate students are a different issue. Penn last year enacted a tougher policy, banning all romantic relationships between professors and undergraduate students.
“That’s just a no-brainer,” Pinto-Martin said. “The focus here is on education and not on finding your future mate.”
Penn’s policy change came the same year Penn psychology professor Robert Kurzban resigned after its student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, reported that he had had romantic relationships with multiple undergraduates whom he’d supervised.
Kurzban, 49, declined comment to The Inquirer; he told the student newspaper he “would never intentionally violate” university policy.
Until last fall, Rowan University in New Jersey had no policy. The school now “strongly discourages” relationships when there’s “an imbalance of power” and requires the faculty member “recuse themselves” from teaching that student.
Currently, Rutgers also “strongly discourages” faculty-student relationships, but officials are aiming to ban professor relationships with all undergraduates and graduate students under their supervision. The policy update, which will go through the school’s faculty governance and board of trustees, was recommended in April by a committee that studied sexual-harassment prevention at the New Jersey school.
Barbara Lee, the senior vice president of academic affairs who led the committee, said the current rule makes it hard for administrators to take action if a sexual relationship between a professor and a student exists.
That was the case at Bloomsburg University, one of 14 state schools, which has one of the more lenient policies: Romantic relationships must be disclosed in cases where professors have a supervisory or evaluative role but are not prohibited, just discouraged.
So a 2017 decision to fire John Barrett, a 50-something developmental studies professor accused of having relationships with multiple undergraduates, backfired. A judge overturned the termination this spring, saying the university didn’t have a policy barring the relationships.
The university declined to comment on whether Barrett has returned to work. A spokesperson said the school is reviewing the court’s decision.
Barrett could not be reached for comment.
Are outright bans the answer?
While the American Association of University Professors hasn’t advocated for outright bans, it has warned that sexual relations between students and faculty who have an academic or professional relationship “are fraught with the potential for exploitation” and “make voluntary consent by the student suspect.”
Even when there is genuine consent, allegations of sexual harassment can arise later, given the power differential, the organization warned.
To some, the problem isn’t so clear. Samantha Harris jokes that sometimes she feels “retroactively illegal.” Her parents met in the ’70s at Penn — her father was a professor, and her mother was in his class. They have been married 44 years.
“On campus today, my parents would not have met and married,” she said, “and I would not exist.”
Now the vice president for procedural advocacy at the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Harris said blanket prohibitions are “infantilizing.”
Nonetheless, colleges have made their policies more prohibitive since the #MeToo movement and the Title IX reckonings in 2014, said Tara Richards, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. That year, Richards looked at policies on faculty-student relationships at 55 schools. The majority “strongly discouraged” or banned them when the professor instructed or supervised the student.
She’s now doubling back with those schools, finding more are now prohibiting the relationships entirely. Schools have also added language about the power differential between professors and students, as well as the impact the relationships have on other students.
“What about all the other students in the class?” Richards said. “You’re telling me it’s not going to impact their learning environment?”
Others say the relationships usually involve consenting adults and require a nuanced approach.
“It’s appropriate to have certainly some parameters around acceptable behaviors and some cautionary principles but not necessarily an outright ban,” said Patricia Hamill, a Philadelphia lawyer who has represented professors who have gotten into trouble with their schools for such relationships.
Even in cases where the undergraduate is in a professor’s class, there are questions of how large the class is — some lecture courses enroll hundreds — and whether a teaching assistant is actually doing the grading, Hamill said.
Title IX experts generally favor policies that require the relationships are reported to higher-ups, especially when there’s direct supervision, said Brett Sokolow, president of the Association of Title IX Administrators, based in Berwyn.
But Sokolow said “broad-stroke” prohibitions can drive relationships underground, making them harder to manage.
Attitudes on campus vary
Ben Weiss, 23, a recent Drexel University graduate, was adamant. The relationships should not occur, and universities should ban them. If students and professors are attracted to each other, “just wait until you graduate.”
Johanna Matt-Navarro, 23, a 2018 Penn graduate, also sees merit in prohibiting such relationships.
“When you’re somebody young and there’s a much older person with a lot of academic power and clout expressing interest in you, I think it can be sort of difficult to objectively assess the appropriateness,” she said.
But Jovils Cerepi, who graduated from Temple in May, said colleges cracking down on the relationships could violate students’ privacy rights.
“If the teacher doesn’t have the student in their class,” he said, “it’s perfectly fine.”
Even in the mid-2000s, though, Steve Hunt said “it was hell” for him and Bridget after news of their relationship spread, even though she never took another class from him. He had notified higher-ups when they began dating, but some friends and colleagues tried to get them to rethink the relationship. Others gossiped. One employee asked Bridget if she was being brainwashed.
Most of their friends eventually came around, and Steve and Bridget say the challenges were worth it for the life they have now. But had they met at Gordon or a similar school today, they know they might not have had their happy ending.
“A blanket prohibition would have ended our relationship,” Steve said.
“Or,” Bridget added, “you would have left and been jobless.”