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Lauren Battaglia Dumont, Jeffrey Barnett, Psy.D., ABPP

Boundaries in Academia: An Examination of Educator-Student Relationship Policy

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Objective: College students are young individuals in the process of maturing and developing (Murphy, Blustein, Bohling, & Platt, 2010). They are continually in contact with educators, and due to a variety of factors, the educator-student relationship has a large power differential in favor of the educator (Anderson & Shore, 2008). College students are extremely vulnerable and at risk for exploitation and harm in both sexual and non-sexual relationships with their educators (Anderson & Shore, 2008). Students become at risk for exploitation and harm when educators mishandle boundaries, which are meant to maintain a professional relationship that protects and promotes student welfare (Smith & Fitzpatrick, 1995). Inappropriate sexual educator-student relationship boundaries are violated, as anywhere from 2-25% of educators have engaged in sexual relationships with their students (Downs, 2003; Fitzgerald, Weitzman, Gold, & Omerod, 1998; Lamb, Catanzaro, & Moorman, 2003; Pope, Levenson, & Schover, 1979; Zakrewski, 2006). As a result, students feel harmed and exploited, and report moderate to extreme anxiety and discomfort that negatively influence their academic and professional careers (Glasser & Thorpe, 1986; O’Connor, Slimp & Burian, 1994). Non-sexual deviations from the traditional educator-student relationship can also occur. For example, an educator can enter into than more than one relationship with a student; the educator can be both a professor and an employer to his or her student who provides babysitting services. Engaging in such roles outside of the professional relationship is called a multiple relationship (APA, 2010). Other non-sexual deviations in the educator-student relationship include gift-giving, sharing meals with a student, and spending more time with a particular student or group of students than others (Zur, 2007). These types of deviations occur, as 40% of counseling supervisors reported engaging in multiple relationships with students, 27% of which were considered educator-student friendships (Navin & Beamish, 1995). Although these actions deviate form the traditional educator-student relationship, they are not necessarily inappropriate in nature. It is important to note these deviations increase the risk of exploitation and harm by inserting inconsistent goals, objectives, and role dynamics into the relationship (Lazarus, 1998; Markie, 1994) and become inappropriate when they result in exploitation or harm to the student (Gottlieb & Younggren, 2004). Therefore, educators must be provided with guidance regarding boundaries to promote student welfare and avoid student harm. Thus, the objective of this study is to examine the guidance provided to educators, regarding educator-student relationships, across twenty college and university faculty handbooks.

Methods: Twenty colleges and universities that varied in size and type (public, private, religious, and non-religious) were chosen at random. Each institution’s faculty handbook was reviewed in the same-fashion; The educator-student relationship policies were examined utilizing a check-list to determine if boundary-related items were included or not.

Results: Overall, 70% of the institutions did not discuss the idea that exploitation and harm can occur to students due to the power differential between educator and student. 95% of the institutions did not address the idea of non-sexual/romantic multiple relationships between educators and students. 40% of the institutions did not address sexual or romantic involvement with students beyond a no sexual harassment clause. The results indicate that major topics such as sexual and romantic relationships, non-sexual/non-romantic multiple relationships, and power differentials were not discussed in a large number of the institutions’ handbooks. Thus, educators are receiving inconsistent feedback about these extremely important topics. This has major implications for the welfare of students, as educators may not have the resources they need to ensure awareness of boundaries and their potential for negative impacts on students.

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