Boundary Issues in Teacher-Student Relationships

by S. Michael Plaut, Ph.D

S. Michael Plaut, Ph.D is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and the Assistant Dean for Student and Minority Affairs at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland 21201. Dr. Plaut is also the Editor of the Journal of Sex Education and Therapy (1996-2001) and is the Former Chair of the Maryland Task Force to Study Health Professional-Client Sexual Exploitation.

This article has been reproduced with permission from The Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 19, p. 210-219, 1993. Copyright © 1993 Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy. All rights reserved.

Increasing concern about therapist-patient sex has led to a consideration of boundaries in all trust-based relationships, which always include elements of power and dependency. Such relationships include those between teacher and student, especially those involving research or clinical supervision. Teacher-student relationships differ from those between therapist and patient because of the collegiality considered important for the student’s development. Yet, both share the objective of fostering independence of the “client.” Therefore, teachers need to find a balance of nurturance and separateness in their relationships with their students, so that the students can carry that modeling into their own careers.

FOOTNOTE

I would like to thank Kathleen Donofrio, Peter Fagan, Stuart Keill, Stephen Max, Catherine Nugent, Judith Plaut and Bernice Sigman for their critical review of the manuscript. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at Loyola College, Baltimore, Maryland, in August 1992 and at the annual meeting of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research, San Juan, Puerto Rico, in March 1993.


One of the most satisfying aspects of teaching at the college or university level may be found in the mentoring relationship that faculty members can develop with their students. A good mentoring relationship can be what is sometimes called a “peak experience” for both mentor and student — a sharing of something unique that no one else may experience in quite the same way. The student experiences an acceptance of ideas and contributions that may be unequalled in previous life experience. It has been shown that “graduate student relations with members of the faculty is regarded by most graduate students as the most important aspect of the quality of their graduate experience.”1

The mentor may experience, through the student, the closest one may feel to a professional immortality — a feeling that the baton is being passed to someone worthy and that one’s work will live on, not only on the yellowing pages of a journal somewhere in the stacks of a library, but in the mind and work of someone younger, more energetic, and equally committed to the task to which one’s professional life has been so fully devoted.

A unique aspect of the mentoring relationship among professional relationships is that the student is, at the same time, both student and colleague. In a healthy mentoring relationship, the student is encouraged and expected to be candid in responding to the teacher’s ideas, methods, or words. Part of a mentor’s role is to acquaint the student, not only with the specialized field that is shared, but also with the other leaders in the field and with the ways of professional and academic life. That apprenticeship process may include travel, social activities, and glimpses into each other’s personal lives. And yet, despite this closeness and sharing, the teacher does remain a teacher and the student a student. The teacher maintains certain evaluative responsibilities and the student continues to be dependent on the mentor’s guidance and approval.

Sometimes, however, the very closeness of the relationship challenges that necessary distance. Feelings of admiration and respect may become intense and personal. When those feelings do occur, what do we do with them? Can we experience them comfortably and still maintain appropriate student-teacher boundaries? What are appropriate student teacher boundaries? Is there a necessary limit to the personal, social, or even sexual interaction that may be experienced between student and teacher without compromising one’s professional responsibilities? Does it make a difference if the professional aspects of the relationship take place in the classroom, a laboratory, a clinical setting, or if they are of an administrative nature? Does it make a difference whether it is the student or teacher who initiates an increasingly close relationship? How should one handle social or sexual overtures made by a student? What can we do, as individuals, as professions, and as institutions to help ensure that appropriate student-teacher boundaries are maintained?

This paper will explore these questions in light of recent concerns expressed about boundaries between professionals and clients,2-7 sexual harassment in the academic setting,8,9 and recent data suggesting a high frequency of sexual interaction between graduate students and teachers.10-12

BACKGROUND

In early Greek and Roman times, sexual relationships between youth and their mentors were often considered to be a normal extension of a close male bonding, both in the study of philosophy and in the training of warriors. There were mixed feelings about this practice, however, and some writings encouraged the practice of “bundling” — the requirement that a cloak separate the mentor and student during periods of repose. Teacher-student sexual relationships were considered exploitive by many, and this concern may have contributed to the strong feelings about homosexual behavior, even between adults, that persist to this day.13

Since those times, little concern has been expressed about boundary limitations in mentoring relationships, except for a tacit acceptance of the “casting couch” phenomenon that is assumed to persist in widespread fashion, especially when women are dependent upon men for mentoring and advancement14 (p. 132). However, a number of authors have questioned the appropriateness of sexual interaction in teacher-student relationships even when they are consensual. Studies have come from two rather separate bodies of literature. Some research has emerged from a growing concern about sexual exploitation of clients by professionals, primarily in the mental health professions,2,11,12 but also in such fields as medicine, law, and religion.3,6,7,15 More recently, extensions of the literature on sexual harassment in the academic setting have addressed the issue as well.10,16

Glaser and Thorpe11 received survey responses from 44 percent (464) of the female members of the Clinical Psychology Division of the American Psychological Association. Of these, 31 percent reported receiving advances from psychology educators either prior to or during a working relationship, and 17 percent reported intimate sexual contact (defined as intercourse or direct genital stimulation) with at least one psychology educator during graduate training. Of those, 33 percent considered it a hindrance to the working relationship in retrospect, while 19 percent did so at the time of the relationship. Over 95 percent of all the respondents considered such relationships to be ethically inappropriate, coercive or exploitive, or potentially harmful to the working relationship.

In a study of 235 male faculty members from all departments of “a prestigious research-oriented university,” Fitzgerald et al.10 found that 26 percent reported sexual involvement with women students. Schneider16 studied 356 graduate women from a number of disciplines, and found that 9 percent reported coercive dating and sex with members of the faculty. Of the 13 percent who engaged in consensual dating with members of faculty, 30 percent experienced “pressure to be sexual.” Comments given by respondents in both of these studies reflected a full range of opinion among both former students and faculty members. On one hand, some felt that any mutually consenting activity is acceptable. Others felt that even consensual relationships are, at the least, unwise, as they confuse boundaries, threaten objectivity, and because there is no way to predict a “successful” relationship. Still others noted more serious consequences of such relationships, including threats or harassment from a spurned faculty lover, resignation of students from their programs, and strong feelings of isolation and embarrassment.

Concern about the potential problems resulting from consensual sexual relationships between faculty and students has led some universities to enact formal policies16 and others to set less formal guidelines for faculty behavior.17 The revised Code of Ethics of the American Psychological Association18 which went into effect in December 1992, includes an explicit prohibition against “sexual relationships with students or supervisees over whom the psychologist has evaluative or direct authority, because such relationships are so likely to impair judgement or be exploitive.” As before, the ethical standards also warn against other kinds of “dual” or “multiple” relationships with those to whom one provides professional services. Some examples will be given later in this paper.

Despite these few recent developments, it is clear that there is still a substantial level of confusion in the academic community about the basis for any such standards. In general, teachers are given little or no guidance as to how to deal with this issue. It is not helpful either to us or to our students to say, simply, “Just say no.” We need to develop a sound understanding as to where appropriate boundaries ought to be, under what circumstances, and why this is important. The remainder of this paper will attempt to develop a framework for discussion of this issue, based on the considerable literature arising from cases in the health professions and a consideration of what constitutes a productive mentoring relationship.

CONSENSUAL VS. FIDUCIARY RELATIONSHIPS

Feldman-Summers4 defines a fiduciary relationship as “a special relationship in which one person accepts the trust and confidence of another to act in the latter’s best interest.” “In such a relationship,” writes Jorgenson,6 “the parties do not deal on equal terms. The fiduciary must act with the utmost good faith and solely for the benefit of the dependent party.” “There is no doubt,” continues Feldman-Summers,4 “that physicians, psychiatrists, mental health counselors, and attorneys are ‘fiduciaries.’ It may be argued that other professionals, such as teachers, should be included under the heading of ‘fiduciaries.’ That is, it may be argued that students — even college students — often place trust and confidence in their teachers in a manner similar to that observed in, say, the therapist-client relationship, especially when the teacher is sought out for individual guidance and assistance.”

Rutter15 takes the position that a “forbidden zone always exists in the relationship between doctor and patient, therapist and client, clergyman and congregant, lawyer and client, teacher and student. All of these professions carry a special trust not to abuse the seen or unseen dependent elements that inevitably develop.” Because of the greater power of the professional, the client is unable to give truly informed consent, and it is thus the responsibility of the person in the more powerful position to control the necessary boundary between the two parties.3,7,15

The extension of this position to the academic setting was well stated by Henry Rosovsky, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, in a 1983 letter to his faculty.17 “Amorous relationships that might be appropriate in other circumstances are always wrong when they occur between any teacher or officer of the University and any student for whom he or she has a professional responsibility. Further, such relationships may have the effect of undermining the atmosphere of trust on which the educational process depends. Implicit in the idea of professionalism is the recognition by those in positions of authority that in their relationships with students there is always an element of power. It is incumbent upon those with authority not to abuse, nor seem to abuse, the power with which they are entrusted…. Other amorous relationships between members of the faculty and students, occurring outside the instructional context, may also lead to difficulties. In a personal relationship between an officer and a student for whom the officer has no current professional responsibility, the officer should be sensitive to the constant possibility that he or she may unexpectedly be placed in a position of responsibility for the student’s instruction or evaluation. Relationships between officers and students are always fundamentally asymmetric in nature.”

THE MENTORING RELATIONSHIP

Although all teacher-student relationships include a level of dependency, the extent of this dependency and thus the need for firm boundaries may be said to vary with different situations, and this may have implications for policy making or in the assessment of a given situation. A teacher and student may simply be at the same institution and have no direct relationship. On the other hand, there may be a reasonable potential for a relationship to occur, for example in the case of a department chairman or dean, on whom the student may need to depend at some point.17 A classroom situation may or may not involve one-on-one contact between teacher and student, but there is almost always an evaluative component to the relationship, which demands a certain level of objectivity and distance. Finally, there are one-on-one mentoring relationships initiated for the purpose of direct supervision of the student’s learning. It is in such relationships that the need for both closeness and boundaries are at their greatest. Clinical supervision in the mental health professions carries special needs for appropriate boundaries because of their relative levels of intensity, intimacy, personal disclosure, and isolation2,5

Levinson19 (p. 98) has discussed the importance of a mentoring experience in professional development and highlighted some of the important characteristics of such relationships. As teacher, the mentor’s role is to enhance the student’s skills and intellectual development. As a sponsor, he uses his influence to facilitate the student’s entry and advancement into the profession. In his role as guide, he welcomes the initiate into a new occupational and social world and acquaints him with its values, customs, resources and cast of characters. As exemplar, he serves as one whom the student can emulate. He may sometimes serve as a counselor in times of stress. And finally, he is hopefully a believer in the student’s dream for professional development.

In an academic environment, the mentor must also serve as an evaluator of the student’s performance. This role may be reflected in relatively immediate functions, such as grading, or in more temporally indefinite functions such as the writing of letters of recommendation for advanced training, licensure, or career opportunities.

There are a number of issues that various authors have considered important in defining the mentor’s role. The first is what Levinson19 (p. 99) calls the parent-peer balance. He writes that, “the mentor’s primary function is to be a transitional figure. The mentor represents a combination of parent and peer; he must be both and not purely either one. If he is entirely a peer, he cannot represent the advanced level toward which the younger man is striving. If he is very parental, it is difficult for both of them to overcome the generational difference and move toward the peer relationship that is the ultimate (though never fully realized) goal of the relationship.” He goes on to say that this parent-peer relationship tends to vary somewhat based on the relative ages of mentor and student.

Next is the issue of mutuality,1 and this is probably where the challenge of the mentoring relationship to maintain appropriate boundaries becomes greater than in other professional relationships. As good teachers, we expect our students to contribute to our own professional growth. We learn from what they read, we want to be challenged by their questions, and we like to see their success as reflecting, at least in part, on our own professional expertise and devotion to them.

A part of this mutuality is our social interaction with our students, especially in a close academic environment.1,20 Such social interactions serve a number of important functions. They can enhance working relationships in the training environment. They help acquaint the student with the people and the culture of the profession he or she is planning to enter. They may help contribute to the personal development of the student. And such activities reflect a concern with the development of the whole person, not only a well-educated professional.

While the importance of mutuality and social interaction may appear to threaten necessary boundaries to some extent, there is another vital element to the teacher-student relationship that more than outweighs that threat, and that is the teacher’s obligation to foster independence and autonomy in his or her students. In this way, our role as teacher is similar to that of a parent or a therapist. In an article outlining the characteristics of a helping relationship, Rogers21 wrote about the importance of warmth, caring, liking, and interest, all of which reflect a degree of closeness to our clients. But he also discussed the need for separateness, and of not being compromised in our helping role by our client’s helplessness, dependency, depression or love.

Kopp22 wrote of the need to have “gurus” in our lives to guide us at critical times. However, he states emphatically that “the teaching mission of the guru is to free his followers from him (p. 19).” “There are no mothers or fathers for grown-ups,” he says, “only sisters and brothers. We must each give up the master without giving up the search (p. 188).” Clearly then, prolonging the dependency of the student tends to work against the very intent of the relationship — that is, to enhance the ability of the student to function as an independent professional.

The mentoring relationship traditionally has held special problems for women.8,15,16,19,23 Sheehy14 (p. 132) observed that “female mentors have been particularly scarce. And when a man becomes interested in guiding and advising a younger woman, there is usually an erotic interest that goes along with it. What follows from that are many combinations we can easily recognize: producer and star, professor and graduate student, doctor and nurse, director and actress, and so on. The kicker is that the relationship of guide and seeker gets all mixed up with a confusing sexual contract. On the other hand, career women who haven’t had a mentor relationship miss it, even if they don’t know what to call it. Almost without exception, the women I studied who did gain recognition in their careers were at some point nurtured by a mentor.”

Rutter15 wrote that, “a man in a position of power over a woman holds a sacred trust to guard her welfare, guide her safely into life in the wider world, and eventually share the power with her so that she can, if she wishes, leave him and go her own way. When a woman is in the position of power, she, too, holds this responsibility.”

Where, then, do we set our boundaries? Conroe and Schank2 suggested a guideline, at least with regard to clinical supervision, emphasizing the importance of finding a balance that suits the situation at hand. “Boundaries,” they wrote, “should be firm enough to allow the supervisor to set appropriate limits and to provide necessary feedback but open enough to allow the supervisee to explore even the most sensitive personal issues as they arise in counseling and supervision.”

BOUNDARY VIOLATIONS

The importance of appropriate boundaries is not restricted to sexual contact per se, even though that has been the focus of most of the attention in this area. Sexual involvement not only has profound symbolic significance in a relationship, but it is relatively easy to define in operational terms. However, there are many other behaviors that reflect either the emergence of a “dual relationship” or an exploitation of the student’s dependency and trust to meet one’s own needs.7 For example, faculty members may get students caught up in political issues they are dealing with within the institution or may take advantage of some special ability or connection a student may have. We may treat students differentially, not because of their academic or clinical qualifications, but because of a personal regard or attraction. We may disclose information of a personal nature that is more a reflection of our own needs or our isolation than of a true interest in the student’s professional or personal growth. Boundaries, therefore, refer to a spectrum of activities that have the potential to exploit the dependency of a student in a number of ways.

Boundary violations compromise the integrity and effectiveness of the student-teacher relationship.17 At the very least, the existence of a dual relationship makes it difficult to evaluate or to provide feedback in an objective manner. If the professional relationship is an administrative one, the student may lose a potential resource for assistance in areas such as financial aid, career counseling, and so on. A dual relationship can confuse roles for the student, who is no longer sure what the relationship to his or her mentor should be.14,15 The continued dependency fostered by a boundary violation tends to inhibit the student’s development as an independent professional, and perhaps as a person as well. As Sheehy14 (p. 132) has written, a woman who becomes intimately involved with her mentor “may have a difficult time finding her own equilibrium because her professional, emotional and sexual nourishment are all piped in from the same person. And eventually, that person is too much like her father for her own developmental good.”

Students who have become sexually involved with their mentors have been known to modify or abandon their educational programs out of a sense of confusion and embarrassment.8,16 They may be dismissed from a program on an academic pretense, again raising the question as to whose responsibility it should have been to maintain boundaries in the first place.

The perception by others in the academic environment that there may be a “favorite child” can only threaten working relationships in the group. The known existence of a sexual relationship and its tacit acceptance by the academic community reduces the tendency to discuss the issue openly, either as an institutional issue, or as an issue in clinical supervision.2 The acceptance of boundary violations also provides poor role modeling for future teachers and professionals.
Finally, one must consider the potential of personal harm to the student, especially if there is a history of poor self-esteem, dependency, or victimization. As with patients who become over-involved with their therapists, the betrayal of trust and sense of loss can sometimes lead to depression and a need for psychiatric care.5

PREVENTION

What can be done to help ensure that appropriate, healthy boundaries will be maintained in student-teacher relationships? First, we need to be aware of risk factors — those things that may lead to a blurring of appropriate boundaries.4,12

The gender relationship between student and teacher is itself a risk factor, just given the sheer probability of an erotic attraction. There are a number of factors that could reflect a psychological vulnerability on the part of the student, such as low self-esteem, a need for authority, a pattern of repeated victimization, or difficulties with a personal relationship. “Transference” issues can come up in a close mentoring relationship just as readily as in a therapeutic relationship. For example, a student may see her teacher as the kind of father she wished she had.

There are risk factors for the teacher as well. As with therapists, we sometimes see a pattern of predatory sexism related to a characterological impairment.2 This may be reflected in a series of repeated relationships, or deliberate manipulation of a professional relationship to meet personal needs. Attempts by the student to terminate the disturbing aspects of such a relationship often result in either intimidation or dependent, demanding entreaties on the part of the professional.

Teachers may exhibit their own psychological vulnerabilities, which play out in relationships with their students. There may be times of our lives when we begin to doubt our attractiveness or our effectiveness and feel that we need to test ourselves. Most of us get into the business of helping partly to satisfy our own narcissistic needs. We need to be needed, and that sometimes makes it hard to let go of our charges. We may be experiencing difficulties in our own personal relationships, and it becomes tempting to reach out to a student who, at the very least, respects who we are and what we do. Even if we do not take such an initiative, we may find it harder to resist the initiative made by a needy or seductive student who hopes that we can fill personal needs that transcend our role as mentors.

Finally, there is a set of risk factors that are inherent in the professional or institutional setting itself. White24 has referred to this phenomenon as “organizational incest.” In his characterization, the demands of our professional lives can shut us off from the nurturance that we should be getting from outside the organizational setting. To the extent that the boundaries separating us from these outside sources of nurturance become impermeable, either because of our own self-imposed commitment or because of the demands imposed upon us by the institution itself, we may tend to turn our professional, social, and even sexual energies inward, creating a “closed system.” This can also occur in a professional dyadic relationship. For example, a faculty member experiencing little collegial support from other faculty members, may depend excessively on the loyalty, sympathy and support of a devoted student.1 One of the ways of minimizing organizational incest is to acknowledge the importance of outside relationships in our lives by including significant others of both faculty and students in some of our social activities.20

In addition to being aware of the risk factors, there are a few other ways we can monitor our boundaries with students. We need to be honest with ourselves about whose needs we are meeting, when we invite a student to work with us, when we decide which students we may involve in a special project or in a social engagement, or to whom we tend to disclose certain kinds of personal information. We may sometimes need to see if there are other ways for us to get certain of our own needs met, whether at home, in therapy, or through our colleagues.

We also need to treat the challenge of maintaining appropriate student-teacher boundaries as an open issue. This should be done both in the orientation of new faculty members and as a part of the training and supervision of our students. The maintenance of healthy boundaries is not only something that teachers need to do in their own relationships with students. We need also to prepare our students to monitor boundaries with their own students, patients, and clients. We can help them develop this awareness by exploring this issue as a part of their training and by modeling appropriate professional behavior in our own relationships with them. Finally, we can help develop institutional guidelines and policies that reflect a commitment to the maintenance of appropriate student-teacher boundaries.2,8,9,16

REFERENCES

1. Bargar RR, Mayo-Chamberlain J: Advisor and advisee issues in doctoral education. J Higher Educ 54:407-432, 1983.

2. Conroe RM, Schank JA: Sexual intimacy in clinical supervision: Unmasking the silence. In GR Schoener, JH Milgrom, JC Gonsiorek, ET Luepker, RM Conroe (eds), Psychotherapists’ sexual involvement with clients: Intervention and prevention. Minneapolis, Walk-In Counseling Center, 1989.

3. Edelwich J, Brodsky A: Sexual dilemmas for the helping professional, Revised and expanded edition. New York, Brunner/Mazel, 1991.

4. Feldman-Summers S: Sexual contact in fiduciary relationships. In GO Gabbard (ed), Sexual exploitation in professional relationships. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Press, 1989.

5. Jacobs C: Violations of the supervisory relationship: An ethical and educational blind spot. Social Work 36:130-35, 1991.

6. Jorgenson LM, Sutherland PK: Fiduciary theory applied to personal dealings: Attorney-client sexual contact. Arkansas Law Rev 45:459-503, 1992.

7. Peterson MR: At personal risk: Boundary violations in professional relationships. New York, WW Norton & Co, 1992.

8. Komaromy M, Bindman AB, Haber RJ, Sande MA: Sexual harassment in medical training. New Engl J Med 328:322-326, 1993.

9. Williams EA, Lam JA, Shively M: The impact of a university policy on the sexual harassment of female students. J Higher Educ 63:50-64, 1992.

10. Fitzgerald LF, Weitzman LM, Gold Y, Ormerod M: Academic harassment: Sex and denial in scholarly garb. Psychol Women Quarterly 12:329-340, 1988.

11. Glaser RD, Thorpe JS: Unethical intimacy: A survey of sexual contact and advances between psychology educators and female graduate students. Amer Psychol 41:43-51, 1986.

12. Pope KS: Teacher-student sexual intimacy. In GO Gabbard (ed), Sexual exploitation in professional relationships. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Press, 1989.

13. Scroggs R: The New Testament and homosexuality: Contextual background for contemporary debate. Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1983.

14. Sheehy G: Passages: Predictable crises of adult life. New York, EP Dutton & Co, 1976.

15. Rutter P: Sex in the forbidden zone. New York, Fawcett Crest, 1989.

16. Schneider BE: Graduate women, sexual harassment, and university policy. J Higher Educ 58:46-65, 1987.

17. Galbraith JK: A view from the stands. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

18. Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Washington, DC, American Psychological Association, 1992.

19. Levinson DJ: The seasons of a man’s life. New York, Alfred A Knopf, 1978.

20. Plaut SM: Institutional resources for medical students in committed relationships. Acad Med 65:593-599, 1990.

21. Rogers CR: The characteristics of a helping relationship. Personnel and Guidance J, September 1958, 6-16.

22. Kopp SB: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him! New York, Bantam, 1976.

23. Seater BB, Ridgeway CL: Role models, significant others, and the importance of male influence on college women. Sociol Symp 15:49-64, 1976.

24. White WL: Incest in the organizational family. Bloomington, Ill, The Lighthouse Training Institute, 1986.


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