faculty senate conner hounshell

Conner Hounshell, speaks in front of faculty and staff during the Faculty Senate meeting in the faculty house on Thurs. April 8, 2019.

WKU’s University Senate voted to change parts of WKU’s policy on consensual faculty and student relationships during a meeting last Thursday.

The change comes from the University Senate’s Faculty Welfare and Professional Responsibilities Committee. The current policy states dating and sexual relationships between students and faculty members with whom they have an advisory, supervisory or evaluative relationship are strongly discouraged, but the new changes strictly prohibit them. 

University Senate Chair Kirk Atkinson said there were no specific events that prompted the change but the committee has been working on this policy for a while. He said there have been times in the past where the policy has been debated, and some people have argued it infringes on the privacy of both parties involved in the faculty and student consensual relationship.

In this case, Atkinson said it is about balancing that opinion with protecting students from being in a “tough situation” and putting emphasis on the responsibility of faculty members.

The updated version of the policy still allows relationships between faculty and students of which there is not an advisory, supervisory or evaluative relationship, but it is now “strongly discouraged,” which the previous policy did not mention. In this case, the faculty member must report the relationship to their department head. 

Lauren McClain, an associate professor in the sociology department who serves on the Faculty Welfare and Professional Responsibilities Committee, said in cases regarding spouses of faculty members returning to WKU, efforts should be made for the faculty member to avoid evaluating or advising their spouse’s work.

Atkinson said in faculty and student relationships there is the opportunity for “undue power.” He recognized in the event of a breakup, the student could feel “odd” or as if they were in a bad situation where there was too much influence from the faculty member over their grades or other academic pursuits. 

McClain also commented on the power dynamic in faculty and student relationships and questioned the state of consent.

“The power differential between faculty and students makes relationships between them fraught with potential for exploitation and makes voluntary consent by the student suspect,” McClain said. 

She said students may feel compelled to date a faculty member for fear of repercussions, or in the circumstance the relationship does start out voluntarily, they may feel like it is difficult to end it. She said if a student does initiate a relationship with a faculty member there could be issues for that faculty member such as a “perception they are showing favoritism toward that student.”

She also said there may be a “potential liability” for faculty members if the relationship does not go well and said it is in the best interest of students for these relationships to be avoided altogether.

Conner Hounshell, a student on the Faculty Welfare and Professional Responsibilities Committee, said he believes consensual faculty/student relationships should be banned altogether except for preexisting relationships. He also argued it would give a “deterrent to faculty preying on students.” 

Hounshell said his main concern is the potential for unhealthy and abusive relationships forming, and a policy banning this dynamic would help prevent WKU and faculty from getting into lawsuits. He said although the policy change is not what was decided on, he thinks the new updated policy change is a step in the right direction. 

In the future, Hounshell said he hoped a ban on these relationships will be implemented except on those in which faculty have spouses wanting to attend WKU. 

The policy amendment was sent to acting Provost Cheryl Stevens following the senate vote and is awaiting approval.

News reporter Natasha Breu can be reached at 270-745-6011 and natasha.breu597@topper.wku.edu. Follow Natasha on Twitter @nnbreu.