Following months of a heated debate over unauthorized revisions made to a University Senate policy on undergraduate-faculty relationships, senators have cited apprehension and uncertainty regarding their role in the creation of a similar upcoming resolution governing graduate student relationships with faculty.
In April 2018, the Senate approved an undergraduate-faculty relationships policy which banned all consensual romantic and sexual relationships between undergraduates and faculty, staff, and teaching assistants. The policy, co-created by the Student Affairs Committee and Faculty Affairs Committee, passed after contentious debate at that month’s plenary meeting. Faculty members pushed back by arguing that as adults, students should be given more ground in making decisions regarding their own relationships.
The confusion over the forthcoming policy on graduate-faculty relationships—a draft of which will not be publicly released before the end of the semester—follows a prolonged, year-long process regarding changes to the undergraduate-faculty policy. According to descriptions of the timeline and process from senators in attendance at numerous meetings with administrators, faculty, and other students, negotiations over the policy involved significant bureaucratic barriers that made it difficult for them to retain a voice in a policy directly formulated by the Senate itself.
Regarding the policy surrounding graduate-faculty relationships, neither FAC nor SAC have received any updates about plans to move forward on the policy from General Counsel—a non-senate administrator who provides legal counsel to the University—although senators said they were told updates would be sent two weeks ago, according to FAC members Greg Freyer and Letty Moss-Salentijn.
University administrators could not be reached for comment at the time this article was published.
Last November, student senators learned that the Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action office had already posted the undergraduate-faculty policy online without notifying students—and that the General Counsel had made changes which were not authorized by the Senate. In particular, a line that guaranteed specific protections for students was removed: “At all times, the institutional response shall keep the students’ educational aims and needs foremost.”
According to senators, General Counsel made unauthorized changes to the policy, citing “legal reasons” in conversations with SAC and FAC.
“General Counsel put language in and posted it, which is completely unacceptable. That was a completely unacceptable decision and is not going to happen again,” Jeanine D’Armiento, faculty and executive committee senator, said.
Tensions culminated two days later at the Senate’s November plenary, where student senators, faculty, and administrators within the Senate expressed frustration and confusion with the removal of the line. In the months that followed, according to student senators involved in the process, faculty and student senators negotiated with University administrators to return the policy to its original state.
In December 2018, General Counsel then confirmed that they would write the policy on graduate-faculty relationships at a meeting between FAC, SAC, GC, EOAA, and the Executive Committee, according to senators who attended the meeting. At the Senate’s February plenary, administrators announced that General Counsel was still in the process of drafting the policy, but that the timeline would depend on changes city and state legislation.
According to School of Social Work Senator David Cheng, administrators cited New York State’s new sexual assault prevention policy, which requires all employees to receive sexual harassment training starting April 2019, as a potentially complicating factor in the upcoming policy. Columbia also recently announced it would bargain with the graduate student union and recognize them as workers last November, meaning that certain graduate students could potentially qualify as employees.
However, citing the history with the undergraduate-faculty policy, some senators expressed concerns about the Senate’s lack of involvement in the creation of the graduate-faculty policy. In particular, Cheng said he was worried student senators would be removed from the conversation once again.
“Given what happened last time, I’m worried that this means that General Counsel will have more say over the policy than students. Students senators already feel shut out of the conversation,” Cheng said.
Cheng, who cited concerns regarding the Senate’s structure and system, including closed-door committee meetings, said that a policy governing graduate student relationships should fundamentally involve graduate students and faculty from the onset.
“It should start with the Senate, because as students, we should have a say over the language from the start,” he added.
According to Freyer, it is still early to discuss potential implications about the upcoming policy, particularly given a lack of communication from General Counsel.
“The policy has been moving more slowly than we thought; we haven’t heard from General Counsel yet. Right now, I can’t really speak to what’s going on because we just haven’t heard anything. Everyone is just waiting,” Freyer said.
D’Armiento said that ultimately, the Committee on Faculty Affairs, Academic Freedom and Tenure will push for a fair policy-making process to support the students.
“We’re going to push for a policy that allows everyone to have their say,” D’Armiento said. “We’re not going to allow General Counsel to make a policy and just rubber stamp it … We’re surprisingly close in what we all want and don’t have expectation that this is going to be contentious.”
News Editor Karen Xia contributed reporting to this article.