U of I prohibits faculty-undergrad relationships

Board also approves harassment background checks after misconduct scandals and criticism

click to enlarge Altgeld Hall on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.
Altgeld Hall on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.

The University of Illinois Board of Trustees approved changes to its policies on hiring as well as faculty and staff relationships with students and subordinates. In an online meeting May 21, board members voted in favor of the two proposals without discussion. The new policies result from the work of committees that formed in the wake of scandals involving sexual harassment and abuse claims against University of Illinois professors.

One approved policy prohibits certain relationships between students and professors. All faculty and staff would be barred from having an "intimate personal relationship" with undergraduate students. All U of I system employees would be barred from such a relationship with those they supervise.

Professor Deborah Anthony teaches legal studies at the University of Illinois Springfield and called the move a "step in the right direction." Anthony served on a task force that considered the policy change. "The policy acknowledges the inherent unequal bargaining power that's often present in certain types of relationships." Anthony said the change would help make dynamics clearer if students accuse faculty and staff of misconduct.

The other policy requires applicants to disclose whether they violated sexual misconduct policies at a previous job. Applicants must agree to sign a waiver allowing the U of I to ask past and current employers about a documented history of sexual misconduct.

"Developing better institutional responses to sexual misconduct is one of the most important challenges of our time," said Robin Kar in a release. He's a professor of law in Urbana and chair of the Committee on Faculty Sexual Misconduct. "These two policies play a role in a broader, multiyear process which I hope will place the University of Illinois at the vanguard of such developments."

Kar's committee released sweeping suggestions in a 127-page report published in September 2019. The U of I board voted in support of related recommendations last November. Questions have remained about implementation of specific changes to the sexual misconduct policy.

Committees tasked with researching and recommending sexual misconduct policy changes formed in 2018, the same year students and faculty publicly raised questions about the result of an investigation into multiple claims against UIUC law professor Jay Kesan.

An NPR Illinois and ProPublica investigation uncovered additional cases where professors accused of sexual misconduct were found in violation of university policies and then allowed months of paid leave and resignations. In some cases, the university promised to keep the details of their departures under wraps.

Last October, the Illinois Student Government wrote a public letter following the NPR Illinois/ProPublica investigation. Students asked for more transparency and that they be included in crafting new policies.

"It's been well over a year, developing a holistic approach that establishes these new policies and procedures, along with the education and training that will foster a culture of safety and success," said U of I president Timothy Killeen during the board meeting. "The new measures reflect our commitment to healthy relationships, and safe campus communities where everyone can study, work, learn and explore free from sexual misconduct or harassment in any form. And this puts the U of I system in a national leadership role."

No new funding is needed for the recently approved proposals, according to documents the board voted on. According to a university release, feedback from university and staff will continue over the summer as details on how to implement the new rules are worked out.

Mary Hansen is a reporter for NPR Illinois and was an editor for a 2019 ProPublica Local Reporting Network series on faculty sexual misconduct that Rachel Otwell served as lead reporter on. Rachel Otwell is now staff writer for Illinois Times. You may contact her at rotwell@illinoistimes.com.

This article was adapated for print from a previous online version.

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