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Updated 2:00 PM January 19, 2004



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SPG on faculty-student relationships: Resolve conflicts of interest

As changes to the Standard Practice Guide policy on faculty-student relationships near completion, those responsible for making revisions in the document say it is focused on resolving the conflicts of interest that arise from such relationships.

The latest version of the policy prohibits a faculty member "from having supervisory responsibility over a student with whom he or she is having a romantic and/or sexual relationship." It also states the University recognizes that sometimes such relationships occur.

If a faculty member has a supervisory role over the student, he or she must disclose the relationship and seek resolution to the conflict of interest between the faculty member's professional responsibilities and the personal relationship.

Provost Paul N. Courant and Associate Provost for Academic Affairs Janet Weiss told the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs (SACUA) Jan. 12 the document is almost finalized after months of review and input from many groups, including SACUA, deans and directors.

An earlier draft of the policy called for the establishment of a plan to "manage" the supervisory responsibilities of a faculty member who is in a romantic/sexual relationship with a student. After receiving input from across campus, Weiss said, the language has been changed from managing to resolving the conflict of interest.

"The faculty member has the responsibility to avoid the conflict of interest," Weiss said. "We strongly discourage these relationships and will rely on [the faculty members'] professional judgment."

The revamped policy requires the faculty member to disclose to a supervisor his or her relationship with the student. It also requires development and approval of a conflict resolution plan. If a plan is not agreed upon by the faculty member, student and head of the academic unit (dean, director or equivalent), the romantic and/or sexual relationship must be discontinued until the faculty member no longer has supervisory responsibility for the student.

Several SACUA members questioned the need for management or resolution. "Why don't we just prohibit it and just say it should not happen?" asked Seonae Yeo, associate professor of nursing.

"Sometimes these relationships do happen, without malice," Courant said. "The intention here is to make a reasonable effort to resolve the conflict." Not all such relationships are inappropriate, the provost said, and completely prohibiting them is difficult, if not impossible.

Courant said then-Associate Provost Valerie Castle researched other institutions' policies, and found that some colleges and universities do prohibit romantic or sexual relationships between faculty members and students. Others attempt to handle relationships only when they turn into claims of sexual harassment. Weiss said U-M is on a shorter list of universities that focus on the conflict of interest.

She said the provost's office currently is working on training materials for deans and administrators for when the policy is implemented.

John Riebesell, SACUA vice chair and associate professor of biology at 'U-M-Dearborn, expressed concern over a clause in the policy: "if an administrator learns of a potential conflict of interest from another source, he or she must determine whether a conflict of interest exists, and, if so, must take appropriate action."

"'Appropriate action' seems like too many possibilities," Riebesell said. Weiss responded that administrators who learn of potential conflicts of interest that arise from faculty members' romantic relationships with students should bring the parties together to investigate and, if necessary, develop a resolution plan.

"We can't cover all of the scenarios," said Dr. Charles Koopmann Jr., SACUA chair and associate chair of the Otorhinolaryngology Department. "Reason should rule."

To read more about the proposed policy, visit

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