AD102 Consensual Relationships
Subject Matter Expert:
Policy Steward:Senior Vice President and Chief of Staff>
To communicate the University’s policy regarding consensual romantic or sexual relationships (consensual relationships) between individuals in a supervisory, mentoring, teaching, evaluative, advising, or coaching relationship (supervisory relationship) and between faculty and students within the same academic unit. This policy applies to all University employees, Postdoctoral scholars/fellows, Visiting scholars and members of the student body. Consensual relationships that involve no supervisory capacity as outlined are not covered by this policy, unless the consensual relationship is one between a faculty and a student within the same academic unit; however, should a supervisory role develop in the course of that relationship, this policy must be followed.
Penn State is committed to creating an environment free of discrimination and harassment. University policies AD91 and AD85 specifically address the University’s position on these issues and may at times overlap with the issues addressed in this policy. The University prohibits evaluative or supervisory responsibilities at all levels among individuals who are in consensual relationships.
The University fosters a culture of transparency regarding consensual relationships and believes that disclosure and management of such relationships is the soundest way to assist with ensuring that potential conflicts are adequately addressed.
The University community involves many diverse interactions among its members that enhance the academic and professional development of each member of the community. As a matter of sound judgement and professional ethics, those who are tasked with supervising, mentoring, teaching, evaluating, advising, and coaching responsibilities must avoid actual and perceived conflicts of interest within these relationships. Romantic and/or sexual relationships between individuals within these contexts have the potential to pose risks to the individuals involved, third parties, and the University as a whole. Such consensual relationships have the potential to lead to complaints of sexual harassment and other adverse consequences. In addition, individuals not involved in the consensual relationship may have perceptions of favoritism, undue access or advantage, and other conflicts of interest. Such perceptions undermine the atmosphere of trust essential to the educational process or the employment relationship.
Given the asymmetric nature of consensual relationships where one party has the responsibility to evaluate the other—for instance in giving grades, thesis advice, evaluations, recommendations, promotions, salary increases, or performance evaluations—the consensual nature of the relationship is inherently unequal and will be carefully scrutinized if any complaint is filed.
For these reasons, the University prohibits evaluative or supervisory responsibilities at all levels among individuals who are in consensual relationships. Therefore, such relationships require immediate disclosure at the start of the consensual relationship so that the evaluative or supervisory responsibilities can be restructured to address the conflict of interest. Upon receipt of this disclosure, the relevant unit administrator will be responsible for ensuring the immediate and appropriate management of the procedures to address and remediate the conflict of interest. Additionally, all consensual relationships between faculty or staff and either undergraduate or graduate students within the same academic or work unit must be reported, regardless of whether there is evaluative or supervisory authority involved. Such reporting is required to more easily implement the necessary arrangements in the event that evaluative or supervisory authority becomes a possibility between the parties involved at any point in the future. Relationships can change over time and need to be reported and managed differently when such change includes a supervisory or evaluative arrangement.
Given the complex multi-campus structure of the University, note that this policy does not prohibit consensual relationships between faculty and larger, more general populations of students, with no evaluative or supervisory context involved, such as all Penn State undergraduate or graduate students. The policy is expressly designed to address consensual relationships in which such a context is already present or there is some likelihood that it will develop in the future.
This policy covers consensual relationships as defined below and applies to all members of the University community, including executives, administrators, academic administrators, faculty, staff, union-represented employees, and part-time employees; postdoctoral scholars/fellows; and students. If there is any doubt whether a relationship falls under this policy, employees should seek guidance from their supervisor, unit administrator (defined below), work unit Human Resources Strategic Partner or Consultant, University, College or Campus Ombudsperson (per Policy AC76), or the Affirmative Action Office. Students should seek guidance from their unit administrator, the Gender Equity Center or the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity.
Consensual relationships: Romantic or sexual relationships among members of the University employee, postdoctoral, visiting scholar or student populations, whether casual or serious, short or long term, entered into with consent of both or all parties. The relationship does not have to include physical intimacy, if a romantic relationship exists that is beyond the reasonable boundaries of a collegial or professional relationship. A single sexual encounter is considered to be a sexual relationship under this policy. Note: See University Policy AD85 for a definition of consent in the context of a sexual relationship.
Evaluative or supervisory authority: The power to control or influence another person’s academic advancement, employment, or extracurricular participation, including but not limited to, admission, grades, assignments, evaluations, hiring, work conditions, compensation, promotion, discipline, supervision of dissertations/theses, recommendations, financial support, or participation in extracurricular programs. This definition applies to employees, postdocs, visiting scholars and students.
Academic Unit: An academic degree program or department within a College/Campus/School (including the Graduate School), whose primary mission is teaching, research, and/or creative scholarship.
Work Unit: A department, office or location under which employees perform their assigned duties. Work units can be academic or non-academic in nature, and employees within the unit may report to different supervisors.
Unit Administrator: The primary person responsible for supervising the conduct and performance of one or both individuals and may include the department head, Director of Academic Affairs, division head, school or center director, director/manager (business line, operations, etc.) or unit executive. In the case of students, unit administrator may include the primary person responsible for administering the academic program in which one or both individuals are enrolled, or in which the student is employed.
The existence of evaluative or supervisory responsibilities among individuals who are in consensual romantic or sexual relationships requires immediate disclosure at the start of the relationship so that those responsibilities can be reviewed and, if possible, restructured to address the conflict of interest. Although it is appropriate for any or all parties involved in the relationship to disclose it, the University specifically holds the individual who maintains evaluative or supervisory authority responsible for reporting such a relationship at the start to the relevant unit administrator. Violations of this policy will be addressed as appropriate.
Disclosure of the relationship must be made to the disclosing individual’s unit administrator, as well as to the unit administrator(s) for the other individual(s) involved in the relationship, if that is not the same person. For example, in a case where there is an existing relationship between a student and a faculty member, and the student wishes/needs to take the faculty member’s course, which is not in the faculty member’s home department, then it is necessary to disclose the relationship to the unit administrators for both the faculty member and the student in order to ensure that the necessary arrangements can be made.
Once the relevant unit administrator has been made aware of the relationship, that individual will schedule a meeting with the parties involved to discuss the development of a management plan to address any conflicts of interest related to their relationship and any perceptions of bias or favoritism by others. Such a meeting should take place as soon after the disclosure as possible. In cases where one of the parties is an undergraduate or graduate student, the student must be informed that they are permitted to have a member of the Gender Equity Center or the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity attend this meeting if they wish to have someone accompany them. In instances where the individuals involved in the consensual relationship do not have the same unit administrator, the unit administrator for the individual who has the evaluative or supervisory authority will be responsible for scheduling this meeting. When appropriate, the unit administrator will contact the administrator for the other party to adequately assess and manage the situation. In rare circumstances, there may be multiple unit administrators involved and all administrators are requested to attend the meeting (e.g. dual degree students, etc.). Specific consideration should be given in these cases to assess whether it would be appropriate to allow one administrator to represent multiple units in order to minimize the number of individuals meeting with the parties.
The management plan must address the following components:
- Area(s) of conflict of interest (e.g., course enrollment, thesis committee membership, direct supervision/evaluation of employment, admissions decision, research collaboration).
- Immediate steps to be implemented to remove the evaluative/supervisory capacity of the relationship, including the details of all alternative arrangements to be made.
- A specific timeline for plan implementation.
- Individual(s) responsible for monitoring and assessing the effectiveness of the plan, determining the criteria for successful implementation of the plan, and modifying the plan as appropriate. The unit administrator is responsible for approving any changes to the plan.
- Specific steps to be taken should one of the parties involved wish to report any concerns with the relationship throughout its duration or at any time after it has ended. Should a concern be raised, or a complaint filed, alleging that the relationship is/was not consensual, either policy AD85 or policy AD91 will be followed.
- University resources/support for all parties involved in the relationship.
The management plan must be approved by all parties involved in the relationship, as well as by the unit administrator managing the plan. If agreement on a plan to address the conflict cannot be reached, the unit administrator(s) will consult with their direct supervisor. This next-level administrator/executive will make the final decision, revise the plan as needed, and meet with the parties involved, including the unit administrator, to review the plan that will be implemented to address the conflict. At any time during this process, any of the parties involved may consult with the Affirmative Action Office, their Human Resources Strategic Partner, or for students specifically, the Gender Equity Center or the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity to seek assistance on the matter. Please note that although the University no longer has a policy that mandates all employees to report sexual harassment and misconduct, per AD85, certain University employees are still required to submit reports of sexual harassment and misconduct to the University’s Title IX Coordinator (refer to that policy for the list of those employees).
Once the management plan has been finalized, the unit administrator overseeing the plan will provide a written copy to all parties involved in the relationship, and a copy of the plan will be placed in their respective unit files (e.g., employee file, student file). A review of the plan must be conducted at the start of each semester. If at any time during or after the relationship, the unit administrator determines that adjustments to the management plan need to be made as a result of changes in organizational structure, relationship status, or plan ineffectiveness, they will schedule a meeting with the parties involved to develop any necessary revisions. The updated plan will also be provided to the parties involved and placed in their respective files.
Given the potential of such relationships to impact those not directly involved, a third person may also report the existence of a consensual relationship, or a perceived relationship, among individuals where one person has evaluative or supervisory authority over the other(s). In such a case, the individual reporting the relationship should make a report to the unit administrator for the person in the relationship who has the evaluative or supervisory authority. That unit administrator will schedule a meeting with the individuals believed to be involved in the relationship, but will meet with each of the individuals separately, to discuss the report and determine its validity. If it is determined that a consensual relationship does exist, the appropriate unit administrator, as described above, will immediately develop a management plan, utilizing the process outlined above. If there are questions or concerns about the impact on the reporter of third person reports, refer to University Policy AD67, which protects such individuals from retaliation. If a third party wishes to anonymously report a relationship, they may do so by submitting a report to the Ethics and Compliance Hotline at https://secure.ethicspoint.com/domain/media/en/gui/55078/index.html. All reports submitted to the Hotline will be referred to the Affirmative Action Office for handling.
As noted in the Introduction, all other consensual relationships between faculty and undergraduate or graduate students within the same academic unit, where there is no current evaluative or supervisory authority involved, must also be reported by the faculty member to the appropriate unit administrator. Although there will be no management plan initiated for these relationships given the absence of evaluative or supervisory responsibility, note that the faculty member must notify the unit administrator immediately if such supervisory duties arise (e.g. the student registers for the faculty member’s course, the faculty member becomes a member of the student’s thesis committee, etc.).
A person with evaluative or supervisory authority over another in a consensual relationship or a faculty member in a consensual relationship with a student who is in the same academic unit violates this policy by failing to immediately disclose the consensual relationship. Likewise, any person in a consensual relationship failing to adhere to the management plan violates this policy. Violations may result in disciplinary actions, which can include, but are not limited to, written warnings, loss of privileges, mandatory training or education, loss of salary increase, administrative leave, suspension, expulsion, revocation of tenure, and/or termination of employment depending on the circumstances and severity of the violation. Disciplinary actions against employees (faculty and staff) and postdoctoral scholars/fellows will be handled in accordance with relevant policies such as AC76, AC70, HR68, HR78, and HR79. Disciplinary actions against unionized employees will be handled in accordance with the relevant collective bargaining agreement. Disciplinary actions against graduate students will be handled in accordance with relevant Graduate Council policies such as GCAC 801, 802, 803, 804, and/or with the Student Code of Conduct. Disciplinary actions against undergraduate students will be handled in accordance with procedures established for violations of the Student Code of Conduct. Note that if a relationship is not deemed to be consensual, the process for addressing such circumstances outlined in university policy AD85 or AD91 will be implemented.
Given the risk that consensual relationships among individuals in evaluative or supervisory contexts pose to the campus community, it is crucial that all such relationships be reported to avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest, favoritism, undue access or advantage, or exploitation. Therefore, if the person in the relationship who holds evaluative or supervisory authority reports the consensual relationship immediately, cooperates in the development of a management plan, and subsequently adheres to that plan, an investigation and disciplinary sanctions may not need to be pursued.
Other policies may also be referenced, especially the following:
AC47 General Standards of Professional Ethics
AD67 Disclosure of Wrongful Conduct and Protection from Retaliation
AD85 Title IX Sexual Harassment
AD88 Code of Responsible Conduct
AD91 Discrimination and Harassment and Related Conduct
HR59 Employment of Relatives
HR91 Conflict of Interest
Revision History (and effective dates):
- January 29, 2021 - New policy.
Date Approved:January 29, 2021>
Date Published:January 29, 2021>