Skip to main content

Students walk on campus at the University of British Columbia.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Faculty at the University of British Columbia are "absolutely" willing to consider a ban on consensual romantic relationships between professors and students after the university's president raised the subject in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

Mark Mac Lean, president of the UBC Faculty Association, said he would be willing to canvas his members on Martha Piper's idea if the administration forwards a formal proposal for faculty feedback.

But the association representing faculty across Canada on Monday said Dr. Piper's proposal is unworkable and existing conflict-of-interest policies are sufficient.

Prof. Mac Lean said the matter has not loomed large at UBC, but the conversation is worth having.

"It's an issue I am not surprised has come up in the context where we're talking about, for example, consent on campus – a conversation focused so far primarily around students thinking about consent with each other," he said.

"When we explore things at a university, we tend to go to all the limits of the issue, so this would certainly get captured in that."

At Dr. Piper's request, UBC has created a committee to develop a protocol for handling sex-assault complaints after several graduate students and alumni complained in November that the school took months to act on multiple allegations against a PhD candidate. Campuses across North America have experienced a wave of criticism about the way sexual-assault complaints from students have been addressed.

But the umbrella organization representing faculty across Canada rejected the idea.

"Our view is that as long as the individuals involved are not in a direct professional relationship, there's no conflict of interest," David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said in an e-mail.

Many Canadian universities, including UBC, have conflict-of-interest policies barring faculty from relationships with students with whom they have professional links.

"If a conflict-of-interest policy bans all intimate relationships between faculty and students, even when a direct professional relationship does not exist, then we believe that the [proposed] policy goes too far," Mr. Robinson said.

Prof. Mac Lean said such relationships are extremely rare because it's an "unwritten rule" for faculty not to date students.

"I can't imagine my colleagues teaching a class and deciding that it's their dating pool. The situation would, extraordinarily, be an outlier."

However, he said he expected Dr. Piper's remarks would fuel discussion in the Canadian university community given her clout as a leader in postsecondary education.

"Someone like Dr. Piper has a lot of stature both within the institution and nationally. She has certainly put this on the radar for people to think about. I would imagine other universities will pick up the question," Prof. Mac Lean said.

Dr. Piper was UBC president for nine years ending in 2006 before being called back for an interim-leadership post after Arvind Gupta resigned last year. She completes her term at the end of June.

In a meeting with the B.C. bureau of The Globe last week, Dr. Piper said she had directed school officials to examine whether professors should be barred from having romantic relationships with their students, saying an inevitable power imbalance in such liaisons raises questions about consent.

Dr. Piper, who said she is not aware of such a ban at any Canadian university, noted the subject is difficult, but she is troubled by such relationships.

"It's just like a physician and patient. Is it okay if it's consensual between a physician and a patient? No. In a power situation where somebody has power over your career, your advancement, your grades, you may say you consent because of the power situation."

"People will argue that these are adults and they actually want a relationship with this person, and there are many examples of people who married and lived very happy lives and have chosen to do that because they got to know each other in these relationships."

The president of the UBC Alma Mater Society, which represents students, declined comment on the issue.