In the case of a professor who’s sexually involved with a student whom he’s not supervising or teaching at the time, is the relationship nobody else’s business? A “yes” to that question would be neat and clean, but the actual answer isn’t that clear-cut. A college or university campus is a community, as well as, in some ways that vary from campus to campus, a relatively tight community. A relationship between a professor and a student, although perhaps private in the abstract, can have tangible effects on the academic community where it occurs. In this regard, it’s not entirely private.
No matter what precautions any couple takes to keep their relationship under wraps, the possibility that it will come to light is always there. Some professors may not wish to keep an involvement with a student secret, but may want to flaunt it—or at least reveal it—out of pride. Students who know about a professor’s relationship with one of their peers may react in any number of ways—with jealousy, with concern, with disapproval—that, by redirecting attention away from the learning process and onto social matters, threaten to disrupt the academic environment. Nor will that disruption necessarily remain confined to the classroom of the professor in question. Students who become preoccupied with the personal business of one of their own may well act out in other professors’ classes.
Here’s a concrete illustration. I was once teaching a class whose membership included a female student whose sexual involvement with a male colleague in my department was, somehow, widely known. When this student became the object of the other students’ resentment, I sensed that the cause was their envy. They coveted the teacher’s attention and felt the student was garnering more than her fair share. Whatever the reason, though, the other students would gang up on her in my class. She was bright and outgoing, accustomed to being able to express her opinions in class and being heard like anyone else. Now, her every comment was stomped on by her classmates. The negative results multiplied: she was sometimes nearly driven to tears in class; her peers had lost the objectivity that productive class discussion requires; and my control of the class was forfeit to the students’ overpowering urge to put their rival classmate in her place. Everybody lost.
That I can’t remember how this situation played out for the student and the professor is a statement in and of itself. What really mattered to me professionally wasn’t the private details of the relationship, but the side effects of the relationship brought about in my daily work. For most of us who teach college students, creating a secure space where liberal inquiry can flourish is a high priority. We surrender it unwillingly and sorrowfully, and we look to one another to protect it.