Spotlight on campus romances

Relationship scrutiny: A policy of mandatory counselling  for staff involved with  students might have led to a  different outcome for murdered student Sophie Elliott
Relationship scrutiny: A policy of mandatory counselling for staff involved with students might have led to a different outcome for murdered student Sophie Elliott

A soon-to-be-released Otago University review of rules on staff-student romances, sparked by the brutal murder of Sophie Elliott by lecturer Clayton Weatherston, may force a sea change at New Zealand tertiary institutions.

Universities are watching to see whether the review will have implications for their own policies.

A hard-hitting submission by the Elliott family to the Otago review has called for stricter measures such as the resignation of staff involved in such relationships.

Clayton Weatherston
Clayton Weatherston

A tertiary education expert says universities abroad generally have more stringent policies than New Zealand institutions. One Australian university defines staff-student romances as sexual harassment, and some American universities prohibit them.

There were 16 submissions to the Otago review, including one by the Elliott family, submitted in conjunction with an Otago University chaplain.

Weatherston was Elliott's lecturer before and during their romantic involvement. They were together for about six months and broke up just weeks before he killed her. Elliott's mother Lesley said she wanted vulnerable students who entered into relationships with university academics to be supervised and counselled, and for the academics involved to immediately resign.

"We feel the student needs to be supervised till she/he leaves university, or the staff member goes. It is well known the end of a relationship is a time of high risk," she told the Sunday Star-Times.

"I feel something should be in the employment contract of staff to the effect that if a relationship develops, they are obliged to resign. We think this policy also needs to be highlighted to students... If students knew a person would have to resign, they may have second thoughts about going out with staff."

In the submission the Elliotts suggested the relationship between a staff member and student be declared to the head of department and that student supervision, in the form of monthly monitoring by student health counsellors, be put in place. If any issues arose they would be taken to the head of department.

"We know Clayton Weatherston did do what he was supposed to as the policy was then – ie, report to the head of department that he was in a relationship with a student, and her work would be set and marked by another person, which it was," Lesley Elliott told the Star-Times.

"That was not the end of the issue for Sophie. It did cause problems and I know from what Sophie told me there were arguments."

Elliott said her daughter did go to a counsellor at Student Health near the end of the relationship with Weatherston, "when he had worn down her self-esteem".

"Had the policy been that [having counselling] was mandatory, then things could have been very different early on."

Elliott said it was instructive to compare the New Zealand stance with that of overseas institutions, some of which did not tolerate relationships between staff and students.

In the UK, the University and College Lecturers' Union has a policy which states "consensual sexual relations between academic staff and students... make it difficult to maintain an objective, even-handed learning environment.

"Staff are strongly advised not to enter into a sexual/romantic relationship with any student they are responsible for teaching, supervising or assessing," the website said.

In Australia, there are strong voices on both sides of the argument: those who believe consenting adults should be able to do what they like, and those who say there are too many pitfalls. Brian Martin, professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, believes any staff-student relationship was "inappropriate and bad for students".

In a 1991 article in The Australian, titled: "Staff-student sex: an abuse of trust", Martin wrote that if Australia adopted a policy of dismissing staff for having sexual relations with a student, it could "decimate the ranks of many Australian university departments"

Last week Martin told the Star-Times: "The issue was a hot topic in the early 90s but then it has faded away. But I'm not sure the problem had faded away."

At the University of Melbourne a staff member's sexual approach to a student, or engaging in a sexual relationship with a student, may constitute sexual harassment, the university's website said.

Some United States universities deem staff-student relationships as improper conduct and they are strictly prohibited. For example, at Nova Southeastern University, romantic and sexual relationships between academic staff members and students are subject to the prohibition against sexual harassment.

Dr Tom Ryan, national president of New Zealand's Tertiary Education Union, said the TEU's policy was that staff and student relationships should be avoided wherever possible "because we see them as too often being disruptive – they disrupt relations between the individuals concerned but also between the staff member and his or her colleagues and also between students".

Ryan agreed that institutions would be keeping an eye on the Otago situation.

"Everyone in the sector is very aware of the tragic case at Otago. It's such an extreme example it brought the issue to everyone's attention. It's a warning... that these issues need to be taken seriously."

Sunday Star Times