First UM consensual relationships policy moves forward

Posted on Sep 15 2017 - 8:20am by Lana Ferguson

After more than 11 months of drafts and edits, the University of Mississippi may adopt a consensual relationships policy. The Council of Academic Administrators will vote Monday on whether to adopt the policy, with or without amendments.

A consensual relationship includes amorous or romantic relationships with mutual consent from both parties. Typically, a university’s consensual relationships policy governs what relationships are OK, discouraged or prohibited between two university employees or a university employee and student. A major focus is put on relationships between university staff or students and their superiors because of the conflicts of interests they can cause.

Ole Miss is one of the last schools in the Southeastern Conference and the state of Mississippi to adopt a university-wide consensual relationships policy; Louisiana State University is the only other school in the Southeastern Conference without one, and Alcorn State University is the only other school in the state, according to a review of almost 20 schools.

Currently, the only university-wide regulation of consensual relationships is in a single paragraph of the university’s sexual harassment policy.

The paragraph covers some of the issues that could be created from a consensual relationship, but it doesn’t outline or prohibit any relationships or provide guidelines.

Honey Ussery has been the Title IX coordinator for the university since October 2015. She said one of her first questions when she arrived on campus was if a consensual relationships policy existed, and she was redirected to this paragraph.

“There’s a paragraph in there that basically says relationships between students and faculty and staff is strongly discouraged,” Ussery said. “That’s the language.”

Right now, if a relationship discouraged by the sexual harassment policy exists, Ussery said there’s not really any process to regulate it.

“Unless (the consensual relationship) is an issue, we don’t hear about it,” Ussery said. “It’s strongly discouraged, but some departments do already have more stringent policies in place or their professional codes of conduct.”

As of now, the athletics department prohibits relationships between staff and student-athletes, and some disciplines like psychology have a professional code of conduct saying counselors should not date their patients.

“But overall, (the university) really (doesn’t) have anything in place,” Ussery said.

University administrators declined to provide a copy of the draft to The Daily Mississippian, saying they didn’t want to release it until it was final.

Ussery said the new policy hones in on regulating relationships between people in supervisor roles in a department and the people they are supervising, like a head of a department and a professor within the department or professor and his or her student.

“We had to make sure people understood it’s only when you’re in a position of authority or trust, like if you’re in the same department,” Ussery said.

Ussery said the current draft of the policy discusses employee-employee, employee-student and in certain cases student-student relationships. 

“Students should be able to date students, but at the same time, if they’re in that position of authority or trust, they kind of have those same limitations,” Ussery said, citing an example of student housing, like a community assistant having a relationship with one of his or her residents.

Creating the policy

Ussery said there were many reasons why the policy has taken so long to draft.

“I think some of the reason it’s taken this long is to, No. 1, get the language right, and you want to have it right,” she said. “We also wanted everyone to understand it. Last time there was an issue with lack of clarity … I don’t mind jumping right into the policy as long as the heart of the policy is still there.”

She said the main goal of the policy is to uphold a safe learning environment.

“Everybody wants our students to be safe,” Ussery said. “Sometimes, even in the best of circumstances, even though someone may think the relationship’s OK, it may seem coercive to that student. It’s also about the other students in the class. We want everything to be fair for our students, and this is a way to do that and get that balance.”

The latest draft of the policy was polished by Ussery, Honors College Dean Douglass Sullivan-Gonzalez, biology professor and Faculty Senate President Brice Noonan and history and international studies professor Vivian Ibrahim. 

“The policy probably started out as kind of a lot of different policies melded into one,” Ussery said. “What we have now is probably all its own.” 

Sullivan-Gonzalez said the policy makes the expectations for the university community clearer, showing what’s prohibited and what needs to be reported.

“This one’s right on target,” Sullivan-Gonzalez said. “It’s freedom for and freedom from.”

If adopted, the policy will lay out what relationships should not be had, what relationships are OK and what relationships may just need to be reported to superiors.

Faculty Senate

Faculty Senate President Brice Noonan said last year, human resources identified the absence of a policy governing consensual relationships and then reached out to Faculty Senate for its perspective. The Senate made suggestions, part of a back-and-forth conversation throughout most of the 2016-2017 academic year.

“The main thing the Senate worked with (human resources) to figure out was the issues of faculty and/or staff dating other individuals or having consensual relationships with other individuals that are not in an equal position,” Noonan said.

The policy was first introduced to the Faculty Senate last November. The meeting minutes show the policy was intended to be adopted early in the spring semester. 

After any mention of the policy took a hiatus from the Faculty Senate meetings for two months, a draft was presented to members in its February meeting. Ussery was in attendance to answer questions.

At the meeting, Ussery pointed out the university has no policy governing consensual relationships and one has been “in the works for many years,” according to the Senate meeting minutes.

The March meeting minutes show that a revised policy was created, but the Senate would later get the chance to see the policy again. April’s minutes show “just waiting on the consensual relationship policy document to be circulated and brought back as a final document,” and there was no mention of the policy in the May meeting minutes.

The spring semester deadline passed.

Noonan stayed involved with drafting the policy. He said it’s important to have a policy in place so people know what is and is not an appropriate relationship.

“The potential conflicts and issues that can arise from consensual relationships are numerous if people don’t realize they might get in trouble or they may be doing something that’s against the rules,” Noonan said.

He said the authors of the policy want to prevent any forms of conflicts of interests or undue influence within departments while preserving as many liberties as reasonable for all faculty and staff.

After seeing the Faculty Senate, drafts passed through the graduate student council and staff council. A draft was presented to the Council of Academic Administrators in August. Faculty members and human resources representatives have been working on a newer draft, which will be presented to the Council of Academic Administrators again this Monday.

If the council votes to approve the policy, with or without amendments, it will go to Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter to pass or veto.

Where the policy is now

Interim Provost Noel Wilkin is the chairman of the Council of Academic Administrators. 

He said that typically, people involved with writing any new policy are members of the group with an interest in bringing it forward. Wilkin’s role as chair is directing the authors of each policy on what groups should help vet the policy before bringing it to the council.

This policy went through many groups, sometimes more than once. Wilkin said the number of groups and amount of discussion that takes place is very dependent upon each policy itself.

“You can imagine the space we are trying to navigate here can be somewhat tricky, simply because we have a community that has many adults of age to consent to relationships,” Wilkin said.

Wilkin said that although, if adopted, this policy would set ground rules, he is not aware of any particular incidents that prompted the need for a consensual relationships policy besides the fact it would be helpful to have clear rules.

“I think people want to do the right thing, and people also want to know where the rules are associated with being a member of our community,” Wilkin said. He said it would be helpful to have a policy clearly outlining appropriate rules and regulations surrounding relationships.

“The intent of the authors is to make (the policy) true to the freedoms that people have as adults within our community but at the same time clearly articulate when those relationships may compromise the reason why people are here or the layers of authority that exist within our community,” Wilkin said.

– Lana Ferguson