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Art School and Sexual Harassment: Where’s SAIC’s Policy?

Rachel Hewitt

There are plenty of stories and stereotypes about student/teacher relationships, particularly in an art school setting where professors tend to be more informal, and where time spent together generally extends beyond a twice a week lecture with several hundred students in attendance.  What happens however, when clichés become reality?  What happens when universities allow students and professors to engage in consensual sexual relationships?  What are universities prepared to do in the event of the inevitable fallout of these relationships, particularly in institutions where there is no official language specifically addressing fraternization between faculty and students, as in the case of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago?

In an anonymous letter addressed to friends, faculty, staff and students of SAIC, the student authors express concern over repeated sexual misconduct at the school, incidents including “but not limited to inappropriate flirting, favoritism and abuse of TAs, sexual advances, innuendo and hints of quid pro quo for sexual acts” some of which have been reported, but many of which have not out of fear of retaliation.  The letter is also a demand for SAIC to institute a policy against sexual relationships between faculty and students, something which many universities have in place, either completely banning this type of relationship or regulating the particulars.  This letter has prompted us to take a closer look at how college campuses handle sexual matters, with a specific look at how SAIC handles (or doesn’t handle) student/professor relationships and reports of sexual misconduct.

The main issue at hand is that neither the student nor the faculty handbooks contain any wording regarding fraternization between students and faculty.  In fact, the only mention of the word “sexual” at all in the faculty handbook is made in reference to non-discrimination in hiring practices.  Interestingly, the student handbook has quite a bit of wording on the topic of conduct in general while the faculty handbook is notably lacking in this information and mainly outlines hiring, review, and tenure procedures.

The letter also brings up SAIC’s status as a private institution and one whose environment encourages the integration of the personal lives of students and faculty, and takes into account the way that studio visits and alcohol fueled exhibition openings can lead to confusing and ambiguous situations.  All that said, perhaps it is even more important than in a traditional university setting to have some form of guideline to eliminate such ambiguity.  Other highly ranked private universities and even other Chicago art schools have policy on the books regarding these types of relationships.

For example, Columbia College’s faculty handbook states the following as part of its Anti Discrimination and Harassment section; “Under Columbia’s Academic Freedom Policy, a faculty member is expected to adhere to his or her proper role as an intellectual or artistic guide and avoid any exploitation of his or her students.”  Additionally, the Policy states that a faculty member has the responsibility to assure that his or her evaluation of students reflects the true merit of each student. Because it may easily involve or appear to involve a conflict of interest, an amorous or sexual relationship between a faculty member and a student entails serious ethical concerns when the faculty member has professional responsibility for the student, such as when the student is in the faculty member’s class.  Therefore, faculty members or other instructional staff shall not initiate, pursue or be involved in any amorous or sexual relationship with any student whom they are in a position to evaluate or supervise by virtue of their teaching, research, or administrative responsibilities. Such a relationship is a violation of this policy, and consent by a student to such a relationship will not be a defense against a later sexual harassment charge by the student.”  This policy indeed acknowledges the role of the professor as a potential artistic guide, and the unique community that is essential to an art institution, but places the utmost importance on ethics and professional responsibility of professors for their students.  RISD has a similar policy outlined in its student handbook.

Perhaps even more effective, is the policy of Georgetown University, which very strongly emphasizes the importance of maintaining the well-being of the students, and takes great care to discuss why such a relationship is a potential problem, for example  “At Georgetown University, virtually all undergraduate students are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, and many are living away from home for the first time. Because of the unique susceptibility of these young men and women, teaching professionals are under a special obligation to preserve the integrity of the teacher-student relationship in situations involving undergraduate students.”  This policy also discusses a variety of resulting issues, and offers detailed rules on such relationships, and also generally discourages those that fall outside official policy restrictions.

Further problems arise, inevitably when the institution has no way to address the fallout of such a relationship, and at SAIC for example, the language defining harassment in the student handbook raises an eyebrow, this excerpt in particular.  “The determination of what constitutes illegal harassment varies with the particular circumstances, but it must be so severe, persistent, or pervasive that it affects a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from an educational program or activity; or creates a hostile or abusive educational or working environment. It must include something beyond mere expression of opinions, views, words, symbols, or thoughts that someone finds offensive.”  There is clear language in the student handbook regarding reporting harassment as well as a zero tolerance policy on retaliation, but the aforementioned wording and tone don’t exactly reassure students that their experiences are valid, nor encourage them to report them.

It is the norm on college campuses for complaints of sexual harassment and sexual assault to be first handled internally, with police involvement occurring later, if necessary, and in theory, this makes sense, giving students several options for recourse, considering that even the police often don’t have an appropriate handle on sexual assault cases, but this method can also allow for an environment where universities can place a priority on their reputations and not their students and sweep complaints under the rug.

What then, is the reason that SAIC chooses not to implement such a policy?  As a request for an official comment went unanswered, I will have to speculate.  Most likely the school’s official position would involve defending the type of more intimate mentor/student relationships to be found on art school campuses, and would no doubt also purport its interest in treating everyone as adults who can make their own decisions.  As we’ve seen above with Columbia College and RISD, it is possible to maintain the unique relationships art students have with their professors and still have guidelines for conduct.  It is indeed possible to maintain a high ranking and continue to attract prestigious professors, as in the case of Georgetown.  Additionally, the lack of such a policy only serves to favor professors and open up the possibility for students to fall prey to favoritism, retaliation, and other negative consequences.   If, as it is said on the school’s “About” page under “Provocative Thinking and Making,” that “foremost, SAIC is about students” then it would benefit the school to take heed of its students’ concerns, and come up with some solutions to a problem that should clearly be addressed if the incidences outlined in the students’ letter are indeed so rampant.