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‘Almost never appropriate,’ VCU faculty/student relationship policy leaves wiggle room

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RICHMOND, Va. — A new policy on employee/staff consensual relationships was distributed earlier this week to all employees at Virginia Commonwealth University, though some instructors questioned why the wording wasn’t more specific.

The revised policy, according to the provost and vice president for academic affairs, sets “strengthened and updated” guidelines which restrict consensual relationships between students and VCU employees, including faculty.

The current revision of the interim policy — initially approved in 2006 – was approved in April 2015, after a review by university administration and the faculty Senate leadership.

A section of the policy reads:

To summarize the essence bluntly – it is almost never appropriate for a faculty member to develop a romantic or sexual relationship with a VCU student. Such relationships are inherently imbalanced and create conflict of interest and potential sexual harassment problems.

The wording had at least one instructor skeptical. The instructor, who wished to remain anonymous, pointed out that the same wording would not apply to an honor code.

An honor code wouldn’t stand if it stated “It is almost never appropriate to cheat or plagiarize,” the faculty member pointed out.

They also remarked, “that a policy should exist that [specifcally] prohibits relationships between students and faculty members.”

Others pointed out that VCU is a diverse university with more than 30,000 students, many who are non-traditional students, and of different schools and ages. That could lead to situations where the student was the same age or older than the employee.

Pamela Lepley, Vice president of Division of University Relations, offered more explanation.

She said that the older policy was more ambiguous, and they wanted to strengthen it.

When asked if the policy was truly less ambiguous, given that the terminology “almost never appropriate” would be unacceptable when applied to the honor code, Lepley referred to the accompanying Q & A part of the policy.

She said that “there are rare instances when it may be appropriate,” which is detailed in the Q&A.

The example offered is a professor in the College of Humanities and Science who meets a medical student outside of school. That relationship would not necessarily be a policy violation, though the employee needs to be vigilant to ensure they do not assume a position of authority over their partner, in the academic setting.

“It would be rare when it would be appropriate, but we need to be reasonable,” Lepley said.

When asked, Lepley said the new policy “did not have anything to do with a specific event.”

Rather, it “had everything to do with a convergence of events,” which included new counsel, new federal and state laws, an outdated code of conduct and older, more ambiguous staff and faculty consensual relationship policy.

In fact, Lepley said, they had a policy on policies which required the 2006 policy to be updated.

The policy  will be in effect for the next year pending additional comments from University Council and the broader VCU community.

The full policy is available in the VCU policy library.