MIDDLEBURY, Vt. (AP) – Middlebury College faculty members are expected to vote this month on a new policy on romantic relationships between students and professors, one that would discourage but not forbid such liaisons and require that they be reported to the academic dean.

Discussion of the sensitive topic began last fall, when the Faculty Council began reviewing the exclusive liberal arts school’s sexual harassment policy, said Miguel Fernandez, an associate professor of Spanish and one of six elected members of the council.

The existing policy said student-teacher relationships are “discouraged” by the college, “even though such involvements need not constitute a form of sexual harassment.” Fernandez said that language struck some council members as “too vague.”

Since then, the council has convened focus groups, set up a blog, surveyed policies at other colleges and held a discussion last month at a faculty meeting.

Middlebury is not alone in wrestling with the issue; many schools around the country have done so. One issue is what sort of connection the student and professor have aside from their relationship. If the professor has the student in a class or is in some other supervisory role over the student, that is often regarded as especially troublesome, experts said.

The University of Vermont and Vermont State Colleges ban romances in which the faculty member has authority over the student.

The state colleges apply the ban to a faculty member who “is in a position of power and authority with respect to that student, including but not limited to” roles of instructor, coach, adviser, work-study supervisor and counselor.

“We think having no policy is a mistake,” said Frank Vinik, a lawyer and risk manager for United Educators, an insurance co-op covering 800 colleges and universities.

Vinik said a law school dean at the University of California resigned in 2002 after an affair that he called consensual and the student called harassment. After that, Vinik said, the university created a policy on consensual relationships in addition to its harassment policy.

Some schools ban even relationships in which both parties say they’re consensual. St. Michael’s College, for example, effectively characterizes “amorous, sexual or other inappropriate relationships with students” as unprofessional conduct that could lead to dismissal.

Vinik said such policies are more common at smaller colleges that don’t have graduate schools.

Information from: The Burlington Free Press, http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com

AP-ES-02-10-08 1206EST

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