The president of the University of British Columbia has directed school officials to examine whether professors should be barred from having romantic relationships with their students, saying there's an inevitable power imbalance in such liaisons that raise questions about consent.
Martha Piper, who is interim president of the university, told a meeting with the B.C. bureau of The Globe and Mail she is not aware of any Canadian university that has such a ban. She noted the subject is difficult, but said 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."
Dr. Piper's comments come amid a wave of criticism on campuses across North America about how universities handle sexual-assault complaints from students. UBC created a committee to develop a protocol specific to handling sex-assault complaints after several graduate students and alumni complained in November that the school had taken months to act on multiple allegations against a PhD candidate.
Premier Christy Clark last month committed to requiring universities and colleges to have policies protecting students from sexual assault, either passing a private member's bill that Green Party MLA Andrew Weaver has submitted on the subject or passing a similar government-authored version.
A spokesperson for the B.C. Advanced Education Ministry would offer no comment on what will be in the bill.
Dr. Piper was president of UBC for nine years ending in 2006 before she was called back for her interim post after former president Arvind Gupta resigned last year. She said the issue of romantic relationships between students and faculty is a complicated one without easy answers.
"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."
But she said she wants the issue assessed as UBC develops a new sexual-assault policy. The process involving a dozen students, staff and faculty was prompted by complaints about the way the university handled past incidents.
A first-draft policy is expected in June.
UBC, like many other Canadian universities canvassed by The Globe, has conflict-of-interest policies that compel faculty to disclose intimate relationships with students and for such faculty to not assess their partners.
In a follow-up statement, Ms. Piper said she remains "concerned" about that status quo.
"On the one hand, we need to respect the decisions of consenting adults and on the other ensure that the rights of students are appropriately protected."
Any change would require the approval of the UBC faculty association. The association did not respond to telephone calls and an e-mail seeking comment.
Mr. Weaver, who studied at the University of Victoria and has been a professor there for a quarter-century specializing in climate science, said he has always been uneasy about faculty-student romantic relationships, calling them "utterly inappropriate." He thinks a ban on them is appropriate, but that it would have to be advanced as a professional-standards measure.
"Anybody who has gone to universities know there are cases where there are inappropriate student-professor relations, not only student-professor relations, but student-staff as well," Mr. Weaver said in an interview.
"We all have known of many stories where 'Prof has affair with student.' I have always personally found that unethical. From my perspective in a power-over relationship, there is no excuse.
"Until such time as student and professors no longer have a meeting in the classroom or lab bench, it's just not appropriate, just like we would never allow a doctor to have even a consensual relationship with a patient."