MOE vague on prof-student romances

By Daniel J. Bauer

The headlines about the topic in the local English press this past week easily captured attention. They also spelled out the issue in colorful phrasings. An article headlined “MOE urges teachers to avoid romantic affairs with students” appeared on page 20 of The China Post (11-01-11). A rival publication covered the story on the same day with the heavily inked “MOE set to clamp down on teacher-student trysts” (TT 11-01-11 p. 2). If you’re passing through town and are unfamiliar with the term, “MOE” is not a reference to the slapstick comedy character some of us older folks grew up adoring, “Moe,” of “Larry, Moe and Curley.” No, “MOE” on the local scene stands for “Ministry of Education.” One account said the MOE wanted schools to “ban relationships between teachers and students by stipulating in teachers’ contracts that such a relationship should be considered immediate cause for suspension or dismissal” (TT). Minister of Education Wu Ching-ji was quoted as saying that professors working with graduate students “may not directly supervise any student with whom he or she is having a sexual relationship” (TT). Very fine and thank you, but let’s slow down just a bit. Such phrasings reveal the limitations of words when we use them ambiguously. What, to be specific, does “supervise” mean for Mr. Wu? Presumably, he means “supervising a ‘lun wen’,” a graduate thesis. On the other hand, instructors appear to be supervising students the first moment they walk into a classroom and begin to teach.

More importantly, there really is a difference between a romantic and a sexual relationship.

The report spoke of an axe falling on sexual relationships between “supervising” instructors and graduate students. If the MOE truly cares about inappropriate (a word that often irks me) or downright wrong relationships between students and professors, let’s get “romantic” into the wording too. A check on the Code of Conduct for faculty and staff at the University of Michigan, however, will show that the Board of Regents in Ann Arbor has acknowledged the near impossibility of a vacuum-sealed definition of “romantic relationship.” That prestigious university leaves judgment of instructors’ potential impropriety in a “romantic relationship” to relevant authorities.