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True Love Is Always an Exception


She was 15 and he was 28 and her teacher at the Ferrer Modern School in New York, when they met, and married, in 1913.

That sentence, from the 1981 obituary of Ariel Durant, is an important historic note to keep in mind when considering prohibitions against professors dating their students. Kelly Anders, an administrator at the University of California-Davis, writes at Prawfs Blog:

In several law schools where I have worked, there are professors or employees who are happily married to former students, whom they began to date while they were students. Perhaps schools turn a blind eye because law students are adults — in contrast to undergraduate students — and, in theory, they are thus freer to make decisions about whom to date, much like people who date co-workers. But what about unwanted attention or a perceived inability to say no?

The reference to “unwanted attention,” of course, brings us onto the legal battleground of sexual harassment. It has always struck me as absurd that anyone could be expected to know their attention was “unwanted” prior to actually expressing that attention. It is one thing if Employee A continues to make overtures toward Employee B after the latter has made clear that the interest is not reciprocated, but it is not rarely the case — and one hears horror stories about these cases — that the very first attempt at flirtation lights the fuse on a powder keg of resentment that leads to a sexual harassment complaint.

One typical scenario is that you have a male and female who are friendly co-workers until the moment when the male says or does something to indicate that he would be interested in being more than friends. This suggestion — and it may be conveyed indirectly, by a joke or a gesture — suffices to poison the friendship, at least from the female’s perspective. She had believed her workplace friendship with this man to be a strictly platonic and professional relationship. The moment he hints at a romantic interest, however, she suspects that the whole “friendship” was just an angle, a scam, a Trojan Horse ploy to get close to her so he could make his move. She feels deceived and betrayed, and perhaps rightly so. But if you are familiar with how sexual harassment complaints are handled, you see how what is basically a personal misunderstanding can turn into a Kafkaesque nightmare, where a guy finds himself accused of a civil rights violation for what seems to him entirely innocuous behavior.

In some cases with which I am familiar, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the complainant is just an opportunist looking for an easy payday, because it has become standard practice in corporate policy — and everybody knows this — to pay “go-away money” to sexual harassment complainants. Basically, if a woman can make a remotely plausible claim of discrimination or harassment, and she has any evidence at all (e.g., a rudely worded e-mail) to support her claim, the lawyers will always advise clients to settle the case. It doesn’t matter if the woman suffered no actual harm, or if the person accused of harassment insists his innocent actions have been unfairly interpreted. The cost of defending against a discrimination suit is simply an expense no company wants to pay, and so standard practice: Pay the complainant a lump sum (usually a year’s salary) in exchange for her leaving the company and signing an agreement not to pursue further litigation.

Everybody in business knows this kind of stuff happens and, because everybody knows it, the potential threat of a sexual harassment complaint casts a large shadow over the 21st-century workplace. It is not merely that male-female interactions tend to become almost ritualistic in their androgynous formality — for no male with half a brain would dare even acknowledge a female co-worker is female — but that every managerial decision has to be second-guessed as to whether it might inadvertently suggest discrimination against females. A sort of tokenism creeps into personnel decisions. If the last two employees you hired or promoted were male, the next time you have an opening there will be a certain amount of pressure to hire or promote a female in the name of “diversity.” And there are innumerable ripple effects of that mentality.

We return, then, to what Kelly Anders says about law professors dating their students. One reason for my low opinion of academia in general is my knowledge of ulterior motives of the “permanent student.”

Well do I remember from my own college days those graduate students who had apparently realized that staying in school forever — which seemed to involve a lot of time hanging out at the off-campus pub — provided them with sexual access to a continually renewed supply of undergraduate females. The graduate teaching assistant, or the newly-minted Ph.D. striving to attain tenure, was quite often involved in furtive affairs with students. These affairs were seldom entirely secret; friends of the students involved would at least suspect what was happening, even if the student did not tell them; and rumors about such affairs fostered widespread suspicion of favoritism. Any reasonably attractive female student who seemed friendly with a male instructor was presumed to be either having an affair with him, or else dangling the bait in front of him with the hope of getting a better grade.

When “male feminist” Professor Hugo Schwyzer was revealed to be a womanizing psychopath, I was not really surprised, and I suspect similar (but not so egregious) behavior is far more common among university faculty than is generally acknowledged. As far as I know, for example, I’m the only journalist who noticed that Professor Lisa Johnson apparently married a “butch” lesbian who was formerly her student.

Anyway, Professor Glenn Reynolds says about the student-professor dating question: “The interesting discussion is in the comments,” and I will quote some of those comments here:

Professors should not date students. Schools, including law schools, should forbid this behavior, full stop. . . .

My official stance is that faculty and students should not date — period. . . . Regardless of age, students are students, and the teacher-student relationship should be held in the highest esteem, without being diluted or prejudiced by non-professional (and unprofessional) feelings. . . .

No one should think he/she has a right to use the workplace for romantic pursuits, and in a situation of older adults having authority over younger ones, there are lots of potential issues that could arise which would complicate consent issues. . . .

I agree with those comments, and view with profound suspicion anyone who is arguing to the contrary. A policy that generally forbids romantic involvement between faculty and students makes sense in so many ways that you have to wonder why anyone would be trying to carve out loopholes and exceptions in such a wise policy. However . . .

There are cases which seem genuinely exceptional, and the amazing love story between Will and Ariel Durant is one of those. Where these truly exceptional cases occur, there is no need to create a loophole in a policy that generally forbids faculty-student romance, because even if the faculty member were immediately fired under such circumstances, this would seem a small price to pay to have obtained true love. And I think that’s really the appropriate standard: If you really love somebody in that happily-ever-after way, you’d quit your job to be with them if the rules of your job stood in the way.

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