Office of the Provost

Frequently Asked Questions & Answers About the
Faculty-Student Relationships Policy
at the University of Michigan

(Standard Practice Guide Section 601.22)
April 19, 2004

(Click here to download this document as a PDF file.)

  1. What are the most important things for me to know about this policy?

  2. Is it okay for a faculty member to have a romantic and/or sexual relationship with a student?

  3. Who is included in the definition of “faculty”?

  4. What constitutes “supervisory responsibility”?

  5. Who is included in the definition of “student”?

  6. What if a relationship occurs between a faculty member and a student where no supervisory relationship exists? Does the University have an interest in that situation?

  7. Why doesn’t the University prohibit all romantic and/or sexual relationships between faculty members and students?

  8. Why has this policy been created?

  9. Under the policy, what defines a “romantic relationship”?

  10. Does this policy apply to people who do not hold a UM appointment but who have supervisory responsibility for students in either a paid or volunteer position?

  11. What about romantic and/or sexual relationships between UM staff and students?

  12. Why can’t the faculty member and the student resolve the conflict of interest by themselves (e.g., by the student dropping the faculty member’s class)?

  13. Does this policy apply to a romantic or sexual relationship between a Graduate Student Instructor and an undergraduate student?

  14. What if the relationship is over? Does the policy still apply?

  15. Does the student have a duty to disclose the relationship, or does the burden fall solely on the faculty member?

  16. When the faculty member discloses a relationship to an academic administrator, who will find out about it?

  17. Is there someone besides the department Chair to whom a faculty member can disclose a relationship?

  18. As a faculty member, I’m not certain whether my relationship with a student (current or past) is one that I am required to disclose. I’d like to get some general advice as a first step. Who can I contact?

  19. What should I do if I’m convinced a faculty member is having a romantic or sexual relationship with a student over whom he or she also has supervisory responsibility?

    (Back to top)

  20. What does it mean that the student must find the plan for resolving the conflict of interest to be “acceptable”? Should the student sign the plan to indicate her or his acceptance of it?

  21. Why is this particular conflict of interest singled out for coverage in an independent policy rather than in a general conflict of interest policy?

  22. If a faculty member is found to have violated the policy, what types of sanctions can be issued?

  23. If a student has a romantic and/or sexual relationship with a faculty member and then later files a claim of sexual harassment against the faculty member, will the University legally defend and indemnify that faculty member (i.e., provide him or her with legal defense against the charges)?

  24. How does this policy compare to those at other universities? Which others schools, if any, have a policy like this one?

  25. Who can students, faculty members, and academic administrators contact when they have questions or need advice?

1. What are the most important things for me to know about this policy?

Faculty members’ many professional roles with students—instructor, mentor, research advisor, supervisor, and frequently at the graduate level as scholarly colleague and collaborator—are the heart of education and learning in a university environment. When a faculty member has a romantic and/or sexual relationship with a student for whom he or she also has supervisory responsibility in any of these roles, a conflict of interest arises that must be disclosed and resolved.

Briefly, the policy strongly discourages romantic and/or sexual relationships between faculty members and students while recognizing that such relationships sometimes occur. The policy states, “If a romantic and/or sexual relationship occurs or has occurred between a faculty member and a student for whom the faculty member has supervisory responsibility, an inherent conflict of interest arises. When a conflict of this nature occurs, the faculty member must disclose the relationship so that a resolution to the conflict can be sought.”

The Office of the Provost developed the policy after extensive consultation and dialogue with faculty, staff, and students across campus about the interests and needs of faculty members, students, and the University.

Why is the term faculty member in italics?

In the faculty-student relationships policy, the term faculty member includes, “any University or University-sanctioned teacher, mentor, or supervisor of students.” For example, it includes clinical faculty members, research faculty, Graduate Student Instructors, Graduate Student Research Assistants, and others (also see questions #3 and #4 below). When the term faculty member is used in this document, it refers to all such individuals. The term faculty member is italicized throughout the document wherever it can refer to any person who is functioning as a faculty member within the context of the policy.

2. Is it okay for a faculty member to have a romantic and/or sexual relationship with a student?

The University strongly discourages romantic and/or sexual relationships between faculty members and students. Such relationships can pose risks to the faculty member, the student, or to one or more third parties. When a student voluntarily consents to such a relationship, that consent is suspect because of the unequal power of the two participants in the relationship. Such relationships can also lead the student to file a claim of sexual harassment if he or she feels exploited.

In addition, other faculty members, staff members, or students may worry about undue advantage or unfavorable treatment as a result of the relationship. These concerns can damage the educational environment whether the favoritism is real or perceived.

(Back to top)

3. Who is included in the definition of “faculty”?

In the policy, the term faculty member refers to all faculty members and to all other individuals with supervisory responsibility for students in an educational setting. This includes any University or University-sanctioned teacher, mentor, or supervisor of students including but not limited to, regular instructional faculty, clinical faculty, supplemental and research faculty, postdoctoral fellows, graduate student instructors, graduate student research assistants, preceptors, and graders.

To have supervisory responsibility over students in an academic setting does not necessarily require that the person hold a paid appointment at the University.

4. What constitutes “supervisory responsibility”?

We do not restrict the concept of supervision to a direct supervisor-employee relationship. Rather, we refer to “supervisory responsibility” more broadly to include, but not limited to, teaching, research, academic advising, coaching, service on evaluation or thesis committees, grading, recommending in an institutional capacity for employment, fellowships, or awards. This supervision can occur on or off campus, in curricular, co-curricular, or extra-curricular activities. When necessary, academic administrators will decide on a case-by-case basis whether the policy applies.

5. Who is included in the definition of “student”?

All students who have matriculated into a degree program at the University are covered under the policy. Such students do not necessarily need to be currently enrolled for the policy to apply to them (e.g., students who have matriculated but have not yet registered for classes, students who decide not to enroll for a period of time, and doctoral degree candidates who are not registered). Individuals in non-degree educational programs (e.g., professional or continuing education seminars) are also considered to be students under the terms of the policy.

6. What if a relationship occurs between a faculty member and a student where no supervisory relationship exists? Does the University have an interest in that situation?

While recognizing that sometimes a relationship occurs between a faculty member and a student, the University strongly discourages such relationships, as stated in the policy.

7. Why doesn’t the University prohibit all romantic and/or sexual relationships between faculty members and students?

Again, the University strongly discourages romantic and/or sexual relationships between faculty members and students. The focus of the policy, however, is on the conflicts of interest that may arise as a result of such relationships, and the University’s responsibility for resolving such conflicts of interest.

The University recognizes that romantic and/or sexual relationships between a faculty member and a student can and do occur under circumstances in which the faculty member has no supervisory responsibility for the student and is not likely to ever have such responsibility. Therefore, no conflict of interest arises as a result of such relationships.

8. Why has this policy been created?

The teacher-student relationship lies at the foundation of the educational process. As a matter of sound judgment and professional ethics, faculty members have a responsibility to avoid any apparent or actual conflict between their professional responsibilities and personal relationships with students. Previously, the Sexual Harassment policy addressed romantic and/or sexual relationships between faculty members and students.

The new policy was created for several reasons. Because not all faculty-student relationships lead to claims of sexual harassment, the University needs a policy that stands alone instead of being part of the Sexual Harassment Policy. Creating a new policy also allowed the University to articulate clearly its values, expectations, and procedures for responding to conflicts of interest that arise as a consequence of romantic and/or sexual faculty-student relationships. The new policy also specifies more clearly what types of actions constitute violations of the policy and the range of sanctions that can be issued.

9. Under the policy, what defines a “romantic relationship”?

A formal definition of “romantic relationship” is likely to be incomplete and debatable. Even the most reasonable people may disagree about the meaning of “romantic.” Therefore, the policy leaves it up to the academic administrator and the involved parties to answer this question on a case-by-case basis. The policy uses the term “romantic and/or sexual” because a romantic relationship may or may not include a sexual relationship.

Also see UM Standard Practice Guide 201.23 Appointment of Relatives or Others with Close Personal or External Business Relationships (Nepotism).

(Back to top)

10. Does the policy apply to trainees, postdoctoral fellows, residents, and other individuals who are in positions that involve advanced study?

The answer to this question depends on the person’s role in the situation.

Any trainee, postdoctoral fellow, resident (e.g., House Officer) or person in a similar position who is functioning in a faculty member role as defined in the faculty-student relationships policy must adhere to the policy as a faculty member. For simplicity, the term trainee is used in the paragraphs below to represent this group of individuals.

Under other circumstances, however, the University would view a trainee as a “student” under the terms of this policy. Specifically, if a UM faculty member has supervisory responsibility for a trainee and can influence the individual’s career progression--and also has a romantic and/or sexual relationship with this person, a conflict of interest arises and the faculty member must disclose the relationship.

In relationships involving trainees, the University’s nepotism policy may also apply. The nepotism policy applies whenever someone holds a University position that is under the supervision of a relative or a person with whom he or she has a close personal or external business relationship. In this situation, the two University employees must disclose the relationship to their administrator, who must resolve the conflict with a written agreement. See UM Standard Practice Guide 201.23 Appointment of Relatives or Others with Close Personal or External Business Relationships (Nepotism).

11. Does this policy apply to people who do not hold a UM appointment but who have supervisory responsibility for students in either a paid or volunteer position?

Yes. The policy applies to all individuals who have supervisory responsibility for students in an educational setting. This supervision can occur on or off campus, in curricular, co-curricular, or extra-curricular activities. Outside the obvious settings (e.g., the classroom, interactions with faculty, research endeavors, etc.), academic administrators will need to decide on a case-by-case basis as to whether the policy applies.

12. What about romantic and/or sexual relationships between UM staff and students?

During discussions about the faculty-student relationship, it became clear that the University needs a parallel employee-student relationship policy. The Offices of the Provost and University Human Resources are developing such a policy.

When both individuals are University employees, the University’s nepotism policy would apply (i.e., UM Standard Practice Guide 201.23 Appointment of Relatives or Others with Close Personal or External Business Relationships (Nepotism). The nepotism policy requires that both employees disclose the relationship to their administrator, who must resolve the conflict with a written agreement.

13. Why can’t the faculty member and the student resolve the conflict of interest by themselves (e.g., by the student dropping the faculty member’s class)?

If a faculty member and a student wait to enter into a romantic and/or sexual relationship until after the faculty member has no supervisory responsibility for the student and is not likely to have such responsibility in the future, no conflict of interest arises. Therefore, in making this decision they have by themselves “resolved” any potential conflict of interest.

If the two people have already entered into a relationship, a conflict of interest arises that potentially affects multiple parties, including the faculty member, the student, other faculty members, other students, and the University. Therefore, it is not appropriate for the faculty member and the student alone to assess what would constitute an appropriate resolution to the conflict of interest. Instead, the faculty member must disclose the relationship to the appropriate academic administrator, who will take these multiple interests into account as he or she attempts to resolve the conflict of interest.

14. Does this policy apply to a romantic or sexual relationship between a Graduate Student Instructor and an undergraduate student?

Yes, if the GSI has supervisory responsibility for the student. If so, a conflict of interest exists, and the GSI must disclose the relationship to the appropriate academic administrator.

15. What if the relationship is over? Does the policy still apply?

A faculty member may be prohibited from having supervisory responsibility over a student with whom he or she has had a romantic and/or sexual relationship in the past. Regardless of the duration or exact nature of the romantic and/or sexual relationship, the faculty member must disclose the relationship so that the academic administrator can consult with the involved parties and then decide whether a current conflict of interest exists.

(Back to top)

16. Does the student have a duty to disclose the relationship, or does the burden fall solely on the faculty member?

The faculty member is responsible for disclosing the relationship.

17. When the faculty member discloses a relationship to an academic administrator, who will find out about it?

University administrators need to respond appropriately to all conflicts of interest that arise under this policy. To this purpose, the administrator will need to inform those individuals who are involved in attempting to resolve the conflict of interest. Within this context and in accordance with University policy, the University expects administrators to make every reasonable effort to preserve confidentiality and protect the privacy of all parties.

18. Is there someone besides the department Chair to whom a faculty member can disclose a relationship?

Yes, the faculty member may disclose the relationship to an appropriate administrator at a higher level (e.g., an associate dean, dean, or director). However, if that administrator decides a conflict of interest exists, the disclosure must lead to a written plan to resolve the conflict of interest. Therefore, in many cases the academic administrator will need to be informed and involved.

19. As a faculty member, I’m not certain whether my relationship with a student (current or past) is one that I am required to disclose. I’d like to get some general advice as a first step. Who can I contact?

The following individuals and offices are good resources. However, when a faculty member seeks general advice from any of these contacts or others, he or she has not satisfied the policy requirement that he or she disclose the relationship.

An instructional, clinical, or research faculty member may wish to consult with any of the resources below:

• Any of the School and College Faculty Ombuds (for a list of Ombuds, visit http://www.umich.edu/~facombud/.
• The Office of Academic Human Resources on the Ann Arbor campus (763-8938)

A student who needs to disclose a relationship because of his or her role as a faculty member as defined in the policy (e.g., a GSI or a GSRA) may consult with the University Ombuds for students (763-3545 or see http://www.umich.edu/~ombuds/ ). Students who are enrolled in the Rackham Graduate School should contact the Rackham Resolution Officer at 647-7548.

20. What should I do if I’m convinced a faculty member is having a romantic or sexual relationship with a student over whom he or she also has supervisory responsibility?

If feasible, you may wish to approach the faculty member who may be in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with a student to make him or her aware of the policy and the requirement that faculty members must disclose such relationships.

If you are a faculty or staff member who sees an unresolved conflict of interest that follows from a relationship between a faculty member and a student, you should contact a relevant academic administrator (in most cases, a department chair) or the Office of Academic Human Resources on the Ann Arbor campus (763-8938). To do so supports the University’s commitment to a good learning environment for all students.

21. What does it mean that the student must find the plan for resolving the conflict of interest to be “acceptable”? Should the student sign the plan to indicate her or his acceptance of it?

The University must be able to demonstrate that the student found the resolution to the conflict of interest to be acceptable. Therefore, the head of the academic unit (e.g., the dean, director, or equivalent), who has final responsibility for the plan, must secure some form of written evidence that the student finds the plan to be acceptable (e.g., the student’s signature on the plan).

If the faculty member, academic administrator, and head of the academic unit cannot develop a plan that the student finds to be acceptable, then the head of the academic unit may decide that no resolution to the conflict is possible and the romantic and/or sexual relationship must be discontinued until the faculty member no longer has supervisory responsibility for the student.

22. Why is this particular conflict of interest singled out for coverage in an independent policy rather than in a general conflict of interest policy?

It is true that the conflict of interest covered under the Faculty-Student Relationships policy is only one of a range of possible conflicts of interest, including those that arise from business relationships external to the University.

However, we also know from experience that conflicts of interest that arise because of a romantic and/or sexual relationship between a faculty member and a student can be especially complex and challenging because of the private nature of the relationship and because of the implications for third parties. For this reason, it is not surprising that so many of the University’s peer institutions have adopted some form of a faculty-student relationship policy.

Also see UM Standard Practice Guide 201.23 Appointment of Relatives or Others with Close Personal or External Business Relationships (Nepotism).

23. If a faculty member is found to have violated the policy, what types of sanctions can be issued?

If a faculty member is charged with violating the policy, the dean is responsible for investigating the charges and, if the dean finds the charges to be accurate, for taking appropriate action. The dean can issue sanctions up to and including termination of appointment or, in applicable cases, may initiate the procedures in Regents Bylaw 5.09 Procedures in Cases of Dismissal, Demotion, or Terminal Appointment.

If a student, while functioning as a faculty member as defined in the policy, is charged with violating the policy, the University will decide on the most appropriate venue to review the charges and, if the student is found to have violated the policy, to set appropriate sanctions up to, and including, expulsion.

(Back to top)

24. If a student has a romantic and/or sexual relationship with a faculty member and then later files a claim of sexual harassment against the faculty member, will the University legally defend and indemnify that faculty member (i.e., provide him or her with legal defense against the charges)?

It is the University's policy to defend and indemnify faculty and staff who become parties to legal proceedings by virtue of their good faith efforts to perform their University employment responsibilities (see Standard Practice Guide 601.09 Defense and Indemnification). Whether a faculty or staff member has acted in good faith will depend on the facts of each particular case, and will be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Generally, if the faculty member has adhered to the faculty-student relationships policy and any other applicable University policies, yes, the University will most likely defend and indemnify the faculty member. However, if the faculty member has violated the faculty-student relationships policy by not disclosing the relationship or violated any other University policy, the University might not defend or indemnity the faculty member and he or she will be responsible for the payment of attorneys’ fees and any judgment or settlement.

25. How does this policy compare to those at other universities? Which others schools, if any, have a policy like this one?

Some institutions prohibit romantic and/or sexual relationships between faculty members and students. Other institutions have policies in place with a basic premise that consent in the relationship is unlikely to be viewed sympathetically as a legal defense if the student files an accusation of sexual harassment. Institutions with policies that are similar to the University of Michigan’s new policy include Duke University, Michigan State University, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Chicago, and Stanford University.

26. Who can students, faculty members, and academic administrators contact when they have questions or need advice?

Any individual should initially contact the academic administrator of his or her unit, who in most cases will be a department chair or program director.

Individuals also have the option of contacting any of the following offices or people:

• Assistant Provost Glenda Haskell (haskell@umich.edu or 936-3546)
• Associate Provost Janet Weiss (janetw@umich.edu or 763-1282)
• Office of Academic Human Resources (763-8938)
• Office of Institutional Equity (see http://www.umich.edu/~hraa/oie/ or 763-0235)

Another helpful resource for students is the University Student Ombuds (763-3545 or at http://www.umich.edu/~ombuds/).


(Back to top)