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Cheyney Ryan on UO’s sexual harassment training

Law and Philosophy Professor Cheyney Ryan on UO’s sexual harassment training:

The new on-line sexual harassment training, which most people have now completed, demonstrates some of the U of O’s failings in this area. I cite two them; there are others.

1. “Conflicts of Interest/Abuses of Power in Sexual and Romantic Relations with Students”:

This section deals with the U of O policy, first proposed by faculty, then watered down by the administration, then further watered down by Affirmative Action–to the point of gibberish.

According to the on-line training, current policy says two things:

“No faculty or staff member should initiate or acquiesce in/agree to a sexual or romantic relationship with a student who is supervised or evaluated by the faculty or staff member.”


“If a faculty/staff member becomes romantically involved with a student over whom the faculty or staff member has evaluative authority, the faculty or staff member has a duty to report the relationship to his/her department head or the OAAEO, and make prompt, appropriate arrangements to mitigate the apparent or actual conflict of interest.”

Obviously these conflict. How do I “become” romantically involved with a student if I am prohibited from initiating or acquiescing to such a relationship in the first place? “Mitigating” the conflict is beside the point; it should not happen at all. (Hence, the accompanying “scenarios” are beside the point.)

I have a special interest in this as the co-author of the original faculty legislation, which contained no such absurdities. It simply said: Faculty should neither initiate nor acquiesce in sexual/romantic relations with students they supervise.

2. A second problem is even worse.

The on-line training constantly repeats the importance of reporting incidents, starting with student victims of sexual violence. It says nothing about the statutes of limitations for doing so. But this is all important, since a meaningful response requires timely reporting. There were statute of limitations problems in almost every case I encountered, in over thirty years of dealing with these issues at the U of O. Often, the university refused to act because the statute of limitations had expired.

Every faculty member and administrator should know the statutes of limitations for these matters, if the procedures are to work effectively.


  1. simpleton 03/30/2014

    I agree that faculty/staff should not initiate romantic behavior with students or others who they hold power over. But what if faculty begins a relationship with a student when there is no conflict of interest, and then as quarters and classes change a conflict is created by the student being registered for the faculty members class? What if a staff member has a job that does not present a conflict of interest, and then his or her role changes in a way that creates one? It seems to me your language wouldn’t provide a way of addressing these possibilities.

  2. Recall 03/30/2014

    I was annoyed at doing the training, but learned a lot. Thank you for requiring it.

    Certainly I think I have at times made comments that could be construed as harassment, and there’s been times where others have made comments which are harassing towards me. Its good to think about the line, and the right steps to making our workplace and classrooms safe places while still keeping academic freedom.

  3. Cheyney Ryan 03/30/2014

    I think the faculty should revisit these issues generally. The policy on sexual/romantic relations was proposed almost twenty years ago. Much has changed since then. I would urge Bob Kyr to set up a group to look into this and other concerns about sexual harassment. Reply to ‘simpleton’: the obligation to mitigate was first intro to deal with situations like that you describe. It was then generalized (by the adm and AA) to undermine the whole point of the policy.

  4. Max Powers 03/31/2014

    Don’t forget that Title IX has changed the game where students are concerned. The standard of evidence has changed. When a student is involved if it is “more likely than not” that harassment occurred, the University must act as if it has occurred. It is not “beyond a reasonable doubt” or “clear and convincing.”

  5. Keith Appleby 03/31/2014

    I actually agree with you, Cheney Ryan. Bottom line: It should never happen. I used to get into arguments with some of my “feminist” colleagues in sociology who argued that as long as people are consenting adults, then any romantic relationship is perfectly fine. They seemed to completely ignore the issue of power in those sorts of relationships.

    Again, while I do agree that these relationships shouldn’t happen, in terms of the use of the hedging in the policy: I believe that this is really just designed for extremely unlikely circumstances and what-if scenarios. Granted, I’m fairly jaded. But, using some imagination, what-if there was a student who appeared in a class that the faculty / staff / GTF instantly fell in love with? There has to be some policy to deal with this (e.g., having someone else evaluate the students work). I think that this sort of thing happening is a fairy tale, but humans are emotional creatures and many still do subscribe to such fantasies. Thus, there is the need for policies to deal with many unforeseen circumstances.

  6. Hilarius Bookbinder 03/31/2014

    It’s simple, really. UO admins need to ask one question:

    What do they want their students to feel when they enter a classroom? Like a potential member of a community of learners and educators, or like a potential member of a dating pool for people too emotionally immature to engage in a relationship where the power differential is nil?

    Then you build a policy that reflects the answer to that question.

    Unfortunately, UO admin has constructed a policy where their answer to this question seems to be “Both.”

  7. Harm reduction 04/01/2014

    I actually read the 2-part policy a little differently, as reflecting a sensible philosophy of harm reduction. (Did I just call a UO policy sensible? Hey, stopped clocks and all.)

    The first part of the policy quoted above clearly says don’t engage in such relationships. That is well justified: they create too much risk of exploitation of the student. But it also recognizes that saying “don’t do it” won’t be 100% effective, so it creates a route for mitigation of the risks when such relationships do arise.

    Without that second part, suppose a faculty-student relationship starts in violation of the policy. What next? If there is a threat of punishment if it comes to light, that will create pressure to keep the relationship secret for the benefit of the faculty member, which could put the student into an even more exploitative position.

    • Cheyney Ryan 04/04/2014

      This may be the thinking of some, but I question it. We have all sorts of policies about what faculty may do re: students. I cannot serve alcohol in my office during office hours, for example. But we do not have an additional policy saying how to mitigate the problem if you violate this policy, even though it may not be 100% effective. I think the second part renders the first part rather meaningless.

  8. Max Powers little brother - Notnuff 04/01/2014

    I agree that it was annoying to have to take the training. As I recall, we only are only obligated to report bullying if the bullied party reports that they feel bullied. We have no obligation to report if we observe bullying. Is that the message everyone else got?

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