MIT announces consensual relationships policy

New policy bans consensual relationships based on asymmetries of power

Provost Martin Schmidt, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88, and Vice President for Human Resources Lorraine Goffe announced to the MIT community last Friday the release of MIT’s new consensual relationships policy. The policy broadly bans any consensual sexual or romantic relationship between MIT faculty, staff, graduate student, or undergraduate student when one party holds authority over the other.

“Relationships based on asymmetries of power affect the entire community and undermine our sense of fairness and integrity,” David Singer, chair of the Committee on Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response (CSMPR), who led the policy’s development, said in an interview with The Tech.

The policy bans all sexual or romantic relationships between faculty or staff and undergraduates. The policy also prohibits relationships between graduate and undergraduate students when one party has authority over the other, such as relationships between students and Graduate Resident Tutors or Teaching Assistants.

Faculty and staff are prohibited from relationships with graduate students if they are in any position of power over the students.

Furthermore, supervisors and mentors, such as Principal Investigators, are prohibited from relationships with those they supervise.

CSMPR also met with MIT’s professional education programs to ensure that the policies would be equally applicable to online learners and instructors of open online classes. The policy only applies to professors who have “academic authority” over the students in their online classes, Singer said. This distinction was made because many of these online instructors only provide lectures and materials but do not have authority over students.

Regarding the policy’s enforcement, Singer emphasized that first and foremost, it is “up to members of the community to know what the rules are.” According to MIT’s Human Resources website, supervisors are required to “put in place adequate alternative supervisory arrangements once they have knowledge of a policy violating relationship.”

Singer also said that outside parties like HR, the Title IX Office, and Violence Prevention and Response can be contacted to help enforce this policy.

In an email last November, President L. Rafael Reif emphasized the need for a “baseline of sound policies against harassment” and studying and strengthening policies where necessary.

The policy revision was first brought up in CSMPR in Spring 2016. Previously, MIT only had a conflict of interest policy which “simply noted that sexual relationships could prompt conflicts of interest,” Singer said, but did not provide details or guidance.

According to Singer, interest first sparked when CSMPR and MIT administration recognized that MIT, unlike all of its peer institutions, did not have a consensual relationships policy.

In 2016, CSMPR, a 32-member committee of undergraduates, graduates, faculty, and staff, began working with the Provost, Chancellor, HR department, Office of the General Counsel, and Marianna Pierce, the lead policy drafter for MIT employment policies, to draft the policy.

The group sought feedback from Faculty Officers, Heads of House, the GRT Council, the Dean’s Group, the Graduate Student Council, a group of EECS graduate and undergraduate TAs, the Faculty Policy Committee, and the Academic Council.

GSC President Sarah Goodman G wrote to The Tech on behalf of the GSC officers that they were “pleased to see that the administration is taking the matter of the conflict of interest arising from consensual relationships seriously.”

Goodman wrote that they were happy to see their feedback was taken into account, including “the definition of ‘academic authority’ [which] is broad enough to cover ‘participating in decisions on academic status’, which covers qualifying exams decisions, and ‘participating in decisions on funding or other resources affecting students,’ which cover cases impacting a graduate student's ability/authorization to use lab funds for research.”

Goodman also highlighted that the policy “covers prior relationships as well as current.” For example, if faculty or staff had had a prior relationship with a graduate student, he or she is not allowed to exercise authority on that graduate student.

However, Goodman was cautious to remark on the effects of this policy. “Of course, as with any policy, what will matter more than the policy on paper will be its enforcement,” Goodman wrote. “We hope that no adverse effects will come from parties willfully misinterpreting the policy.”

Mark Goldman G, a staff reporter for The Tech, pointed out that while he supports this policy, it may create problems for students who may already be or were previously in relationships with their thesis advisors. Students may have to switch advisors and thus restart their thesis, according to Goldman. Singer was hesitant to comment on this hypothetical situation but stated that it was the faculty member’s responsibility to manage this potential conflict of interest.

CSMPR will continue to work on this policy as well as other programs, such as. Singer encouraged feedback on this policy and other policies for future policy revisions. Other tasks include Title IX training for current faculty and staff who have not yet received training and the drafting a sexual misconduct policy.