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Harvard Is Clarifying Its Sexual Harassment Policies

Harvard University is one of numerous educational institutions to come under investigation for how its administration handles accusations of sexual harassment and assault.

Initially, their existing policy relating to relationships between students and teaching staff stated that professors couldn’t have romantic or sexual relationships with students in their classes. The policy was silent on whether they may have relationships with students they do not teach.

Harvard has had difficulties in this regard since the 1990s, when the courts found that educational institutions, such as universities, could be held financially liable for sexual harassment. After several eye-opening decisions, many teaching institutions, such as Yale University and the University of California, drafted stringent formal policies banning romantic and sexual liaisons between students and teaching staff.

This type of sexual harassment policy attempts to address the unequal power dynamics at play if a student and teacher get involved in a sexual relationship. Consent becomes a thorny and hard to distinguish issue.
Interestingly, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) does not recommend that colleges ban such relationships. However, they have admitted that such relationships are “fraught with the potential for exploitation.”

Harvard has changed its policy to reflect a clear prohibition of any sexual relationship between any professor and any student, including students under supervision, being evaluated or graded as well as graduate teaching assistants. The refinement of Harvard’s policy brings it more into line with Title IX (the federal sex discrimination in education law). This move may well be duplicated at other U.S. colleges and universities in the months to come.

One sticking point about getting clear consent or “Yes means yes” is that consent may include gestures and other nonverbal cues. Gestures and nonverbal clues can be anything but clear, particularly when someone has been drinking or doing drugs.