University administration proposals dealing with personal relationships have had more to do with control over, and performance management of, faculty members than with concerns about equity and harassment.

As former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau said in 1967, “There is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” While it was in a different time and a different context, Trudeau’s statement comes to mind as we explore whether a university administration ought to have any say about what goes on in the bedrooms of those associated with a university campus.

In the round of collective bargaining that took place at the University of Western Ontario in 2010-2011, important questions were raised about this issue, particularly what bearing it may have on the roles, power dynamics and potential equity concerns among faculty, staff, and students. It also raised questions about how unions mediate and address such concerns in collective bargaining and whether other venues could be more appropriate for such discussions.

The issues are complex, and they are not new. It is hardly surprising that on a campus the size of Western, populated by adults working closely together, that intimate relationships will and do develop. Personal and professional lives intersect. Problems can arise, however, when these relationships overlap with academic or work-related relationships that involve supervisory roles, or power and status differentials, or when such relationships break down and have a consequent negative impact on others in the workplace.

Collective agreements, including those at Western, have long recognized these dynamics; contract articles (such as conflict of interest, conflict of commitment, and discrimination and harassment) set up processes for dealing with these situations both before and after problems emerge.

So why was the issue such a concern in the 2010-2011 round of bargaining at Western? While other articles in this issue of Academic Matters address its legal, social, moral, and ethical dimensions, we restrict our comments to recent developments at the University of Western Ontario and the repercussions on collective bargaining.

The University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA) and the university’s administration have long committed, in the discrimination and harassment article of the collective agreement, “to providing a working and learning environment that allows for full and free participation of all members of the institutional community.” The conflict of interest and conflict of commitment article, negotiated before the 2010-2011 round of bargaining, also required that faculty members disclose their involvement in any relationship posing “an actual or apparent conflict of interest” and to remove themselves from their supervisory role.

With these safeguards and rules already in place, one wonders what compelled UWO’s administration (unlike any other university’s administration) to try to impose a zero-tolerance policy on all intimate, consenting relationships, thus broadening the definition of conflict of interest to include anyone associated with the campus community? Is this reasonable? Is it possible? And how successful would such a policy be? This is not to deny that there have been some problematic relationships on our campus, but those that required union help or intervention have been very rare and have been dealt with through the appropriate and existing channels. Typically, if a faculty member, for example, is accused of sexual harassment, then the case would be taken up by the university’s Equity Services department, and the member would seek help from UWOFA, whose duty it is to provide fair representation to members finding themselves in difficulty. There is a clear process to address such cases, whether through the discrimination and harassment article or the discipline article for a fair investigation, with support provided for all parties involved. The very few serious cases that UWOFA has encountered in recent memory have all been dealt with through these channels. In situations where the faculty member was indeed found “guilty” of inappropriate, exploitative, or abusive behavior, an appropriate level of discipline has been applied, and in the worst cases resulted in the resignation or dismissal of the faculty member. Within the past 10 years, there have been no more than a half-dozen cases that involved serious allegations. On a campus numbering more than 35,000 people, this is hardly an epidemic and certainly not a crisis deserving of the draconian proposals made by the administration during the 2010-2011 contract talks.

The faculty association recognizes that each of the half-dozen cases created serious problems for those directly involved and for those around them. But, it is important to differentiate between relationships that are unquestionably abuses of power and predatory in nature and those where consent is freely given, and the partners are in a loving relationship. There is of course a continuum between the two extremes, and these grey areas require guidelines, which were offered in the conflict of interest and discrimination and harassment articles. And when relationships break down, there are complications within the workplace, if both parties to the relationship are in the same unit. Again, sensitive handling of such situations is preferable to public shaming and outright bans on relationships.

UWOFA debated the administration’s proposals extensively, sought advice from our provincial and national bodies ( the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations and the Canadian Association of University Teachers ), and did due diligence about the role the union should play in educating faculty association members including proposing preventative measures to ensure association members are aware of their responsibilities—and the risks inherent in workplace romances. There are only a few relevant cases to examine in Canada, as was noted in two University Affairs articles published 10 years apart (see: [2010], and [2000] ).

A "Do Not Disturb" notice hanging from a door knobWe were advised that there are no general rules established by case law that would support the administration’s demand for a zero-tolerance total ban. We were further advised that the administration’s assertion that fiduciary, professional, and employment responsibilities justified such a demand was not supportable either. The university does not have such a blanket interest in, or jurisdiction over, faculty association members. That is not to say that an employer may not impose discipline if an employee’s actions are genuinely destructive of the university’s interests, but each case should be decided on its own grounds, with jurisdiction established through evidence, argument, and appropriate case law.

Despite the amount of fodder such relationships create for rumour and innuendo, they raise issues that are not to be taken lightly. But it is not the union’s duty to act as a morality squad, dictating with whom and under what circumstances its members might become involved in their personal relationships.

UWOFA’s status of women and equity committees, together with Western’s Caucus on Women’s Issues, have long taken a leadership role on this campus, with respect to discrimination and harassment, including the organization of professional development events about these issues. Indeed, in addition to taking leadership roles with Western’s Caucus on Women’s Issues, UWOFA members have also been active on the President’s Standing Committee on Employment Equity and the Joint Faculty/Administration Employment Equity Committee. Western’s faculty members have helped to develop resources used across the country about the “chilly climate”, backlash, and respect for diversity on campus. We have maintained a good working relationship with our colleagues in the administration’s Equity and Human Rights Services. Thus UWOFA’s resistance to the proposed administration measures, which were aimed largely at our members, are not based on anti-equity sentiments, nor on naïve assumptions that problems don’t exist. It’s just, quite simply, that we don’t believe that such harsh measures, including surveillance and a climate of fear and innuendo, are the solution to any problems that do arise.

When Western’s administration circulated its discussion paper, Boundaries in Personal, Employment and Academic Relationships in 2009, UWOFA’s equity committee, board of directors, negotiators, and joint committee members all reviewed and commented on the substance. They all concluded that these issues, while worthy of discussion, were adequately covered in our collective agreement and that further rules or policies were not required in this regard. The faculty association communicated this view to the administration long before negotiations began. Nonetheless, the administration signaled —through an article in the Globe and Mail (“On-campus sex ban: Hands off the student body, Prof”, Globe and Mail, Thursday, April, 8, 2010) that they intended to bring this to the bargaining table during the 2010 negotiations.

No other university campus in North America has such rules embedded in their collective agreements, though many share UWO’s existing policy regarding conflict of interest for those involved in dual or parallel relationships, that is, relationships that are both personal and supervisory. Western is hardly unique in the number of problematic cases that arise, so why would it distinguish itself as the most authoritarian when it comes to ways of dealing with such situations?

The administration’s own discussion paper begins by posing the possible positions a university might take: 1. Toleration (don’t ask/don’t tell), 2. Regulation (discouragement of such relationships, along with a requirement for disclosure and management), or 3. Outright prohibition. The end of the paper concludes that prohibition is unlikely to work but proposes that Western might establish a more formal policy and framework explicitly dealing with sexual relations between students and faculty members. Yet, the proposals that came to the faculty association during the recent round of collective bargaining were more like the prohibition scenario than the regulation and discouragement options.

This prohibition stance was included by the administration’s proposing changes, either directly or indirectly, to such contract articles as conflict of interest, academic responsibilities, promotion and tenure, and discipline, all of which address union members’ “entering into an intimate, amorous, romantic, or sexual relationship…with a student or an employee where there is a power imbalance… .” Furthermore, a chair or director (also UWOFA members) was to report any such violations to their dean as soon as they become “aware” of such situations.

What was behind these proposals that which combined with other extreme proposals brought us perilously close to a faculty strike? UWOFA’s concern was that in combination with other harsh proposals, the proposals dealing with
relationships had more to do with administration control over, and performance management of, faculty members than with concerns about equity and harassment. The outlandish language used by the administration in its proposals invited ridicule rather than a serious discussion of issues of mutual interest. UWOFA’s sense was that these proposals were tabled as an opportunistic leveraging of Ontario’s extensions to its occupation health and safety legislation—Bill 168—that speaks to workplace violence and harassment. The new law has increased the obligations of both employers and employees to protect workers from violence and harassment, in the workplace, even from external threats such as domestic violence that may carry over into the workplace. Yes, there have been a few cases of serious breaches of trust and sexual harassment in on-campus relationships. But rather than focus on abusive relationships, the proposals would have disallowed any relationship of an intimate nature between persons associated with the university.

The union, while maintaining that existing language already addressed such scenarios, countered with proposals offering greater clarity for the existing collective agreement’s conflict-of-interest article, which, when accepted, would explicitly require union members to report any conflict of interest arising from such relationships. Both sides further agreed the process for dealing with discrimination and harassment needed to be streamlined and its timelines shortened, for the sake of everyone involved. The parties also agreed that both union members and the administration would pursue further education and professional development around these issues. The panel presentation and discussion on campus following negotiations organized by the faculty association, which gave rise to this Academic Matters article and special issue are examples of one such initiatives. There continues to be concerns around safeguarding people’s privacy and protecting confidentiality in such cases —unless there is a clear threat of violence to anyone.

In the end, we maintained that the administration’s proposed incursions into the lives of faculty members, other staff, and students, must be limited to instances where the law and clear responsibilities for someone’s safety prevail. These types of situations are, thankfully, few and far between; nonetheless we must all be aware of our responsibilities in this regard. We also agreed that union members should be aware of the inherent risks in workplace relationships and should protect themselves, through timely disclosure and alternative arrangements for supervision, if they enter into such relationships.

From the perspective of the union, a positive working environment that is supportive, rather than punitive, provides a stronger guarantee that union members will seek help and advice early, with the union offering guidance for members who may be in trouble and ensuring due process for all. We believe the new collective agreement has found such a balance. Following the negotiations, a Western Gazette article (November 23, 2010) reviewing the university’s conflict of interest policies quoted one dean, who acknowledged that, “People do fall in love… .” The provost further commented: “Our goal is to encourage faculty members and other Western employees to avoid generating conflict where possible… Where there is a close personal relationship that creates a conflict of interest or perception of conflict of interest, a faculty member would be expected to terminate the supervision or evaluation of that student or employee and ensure other arrangements were put in place.” On this we can agree.

Aniko Varpalotai is currently the chief negotiator for the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association and a professor in the Faculty of Education. Mike Dawes, the association’s recently retired chief negotiator, is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics.