Longform

Barrett, the Honors College at ASU, Is a Close-Knit Community; Some Say Too Close

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On a Monday afternoon in early November, Arizona State University's faculty senate gathered to discuss, among other things, a motion to revise the Academic Affairs Manual (ACD) policy governing "amorous relationships" between professors and students. That policy, ACD 402, has been on the books since 1982.

In Tempe's Education Lecture Hall, a single observer watched from a seat toward the back. Jasmine Lester, a 2011 Barrett grad, is a small woman with curly brown hair. She wears glasses and looks younger than her 25 years.

Helene Ossipov, president of the faculty senate, first laid out some ground rules. She asked senate members to refrain from dominating, and she made clear just who was invited to discuss this motion.

"Observers are welcome to observe as much as you want," she said. "But be like children. You may be seen but not heard."

For many years, ASU's amorous relationships guidelines fell under the university's sexual harassment policy. But in 2011, they were parsed to create a policy focused exclusively on consensual romantic or sexual student-professor relationships.

As written today, ACD 402 bans ASU employees from making key decisions -- grading, hiring, disciplining, or offering recommendations -- over anyone with whom they are in a sexual relationship. The policy bans faculty members from engaging in relationships with any students currently enrolled in their classes, and it says violations can result in disciplinary action up to termination.

But in 2014, the senate began considering revisions to ACD 402 that would give the policy much greater reach, banning all relationships between ASU faculty and undergraduate students.

If approved, the revisions would require faculty members to report any such relationships to a supervisor immediately, with policy exemptions made on a case-by-case basis.

"Our current policies regarding faculty-student relationships are inadequate as written," university spokesman Mark Johnson tells New Times. "The faculty senate should be applauded for taking steps to strengthen those policies to ensure that faculty members and lecturers have only professional relationships with students."

That November day, Cynthia Tompkins, who chaired the policy-revision task force, addressed the faculty senate. During the month-long comment period that preceded this meeting, she explained, many seemed to think the proposed revisions had come out of left field.

Tompkins acknowledged that professor-student relationships historically have had a wide range of acceptability -- you hear stories of professor-student couples that happily marry, she noted -- but she said many unacceptable versions have taken place at ASU in recent years.

In addition to the 20 firings mentioned above, Tompkins said, ASU has had at least one unwanted student-professor pregnancy this year.

The intent of the policy revisions, she said, is to put students back at the center of focus.

The floor was opened for discussion. Faculty members approached the microphone to raise questions and concerns.

Many were worried about the scope of the revised language. ASU is a big school. Would professors need to start IDing everyone they meet in Tempe?

The new language doesn't make clear just which relationships would be exempt. What about pre-existing ones? And what would happen if a professor reports a relationship and doesn't get an exemption?

"You really think about whether you want that relationship," Ossipov answered. "One person would have to leave the university."

Tensions rose.

"I want to be blunt. I think this policy is very invasive," a female faculty member said. "Every amorous relationship is not a 40-year-old faculty member and an 18-year-old-student."

Concerns were raised about privacy and the motion's intrusiveness and scope.

Finally, a frustrated female senator in the back of the auditorium walked up to the microphone and moved to vote down the controversial motion.

Twenty senators voted in favor of the policy revision. One abstained from voting.

And with 62 votes against the changes, the motion was -- for the time being, at least -- dead.

Ossipov said the motion would be returned to Tompkins' committee for further revisions. "However, this will come back," she said. There was uncomfortable laughter.

On January 26, the senate will hold its next vote on the revisions.

As the faculty senator who effectively silenced the conversation made her way back to her seat, Jasmine Lester glared at her, her middle finger raised in the air.
"This is my whole life," Lester said. "And she just shot it down."

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Ashley Cusick
Contact: Ashley Cusick