Periodic Relationship Tabled at AUT, Too Much for Otago

Student-Teacher Chemistry The Best Form of Chemistry

Associate Professor Allan Blackman, a lecturer for Otago’s Department of Chemistry since 1991, resigned from the University in December last year to take up a position at Auckland University of Technology’s School of Applied Sciences. Earlier that year, Blackman became engaged to an Otago student studying towards her Honours degree in Chemistry.

Blackman’s relationship is not the only one, with a number of relationships between students and lecturers occurring within the University. However, these generally involve older postgraduate students. In an institution involving over 22,000 staff and students, it is to be expected that some interactions may progress to something more.

One student met his match on the NZ Dating website, only to find out during his lecture the following week that the one-night-only partner was his lecturer. The lecturer was wearing a wedding ring this time.

Another student attended a social event with her lab group, only to end up staying the night with the tutor of that lab group. She avoided attending subsequent labs, but says they remain friends and her assessments had all been graded before the event. Former OUSA President Logan Edgar was in a relationship with his tutor in 2012. However, tutors tend not to mark their own students’ work so the tutor held no influence over his grades. Critic notes that his current 32-year-old girlfriend probably stretches the age gap more than any tutor would, and we send our congratulations.

Critic has no doubt there are many more of these stories – however, it is the on-going relationship with a much older, much more senior staff member that appears to cause more of a stir. Professor Lyall Hanton, Head of the Chemistry Department at Otago told Critic “the greater the imbalance, the more uncomfortable the University is.”

Lyall says that following the issues with Blackman, the Department have had to “re-establish boundaries.” He explains that although this is the only incident where a staff member in the department has crossed the line, other staff members are now “more cautious about providing socialising opportunities.”

All NZ universities state that when there is a conflict of interest, such as when a staff member enters a relationship with, or has had a relationship with a student, “a disclosure of interest is required.” Their policies all indicate that “staff members must inform, verbally and in writing, the person to whom they normally report” and when this person is involved in the conflict of interest, “the staff member must report it to that person’s manager.” All tertiary institutions follow the policy that “staff should not be involved in supervision or assessment of students with whom they have a family or personal relationship.”

The University of Otago has the most thorough policy among the other NZ tertiary institutions. A review was made to the Ethical Behaviour Policy following the murder of 22-year-old Otago student, Sophie Elliott. She was tragically killed by her former boyfriend and Otago tutor, Clayton Robert Weatherston, in 2008.

The policy now states that the University “strongly discourages” intimate personal relationships between staff and students and that staff should do what they can to avoid relationships occurring. The policy states that the relationship “has the potential for, or could be perceived as, compromising the fundamental duties inherent in teaching and learning. Staff members have a responsibility to students to assess their work fairly, objectively and consistently across the candidature for their particular subject/course.”

The policy states “in settings where there is a difference in power between people, such as staff and students at the University, the potential for harm is greater and special care needs to be taken to avoid conflicts of interest.”

Massey, Christchurch and Victoria Universities all state in their policies “the University strongly discourages intimate personal relationships between staff and students and staff should avoid entering into an intimate personal relationship with a student at the University, particularly a student for whom they have responsibility.” Each policy goes on to state that “such a relationship risks taking advantage of the intrinsic trust, power and status differential implicit in the staff-to-student relationship.”

All three run by a policy where should a conflict of interest arise, the supervisor or Head of Department should be notified and will need to determine ways of dealing with the situation (e.g. not assessing a particular student’s work or having no involvement in a recruitment process).

At Otago, “the person to whom the matter is reported must ensure that processes are put in place to manage or remove the conflict of interest in the best way possible and in a transparent manner, and the staff member will be an active participant in the process.” Lyall explains that this means “the responsibility is on staff to not actively pursue behaviour that could lead to relations.”

The Tertiary Education Union believes there are “grey areas.” Tertiary Education Union president, Lesley Francey says it is a topic which requires an “ongoing review.” She believes that “if there is a power imbalance and the lecturer has power of the grades of a student, then it is totally inappropriate.” However, she says that if the staff and student are in different departments and the grades of the student cannot be affected, then “I don’t see a problem.”

AUT, Blackman’s current place of work, did not respond to questions regarding their policy. According to their policy online, no more than “a disclosure” is required. Critic contacted Blackman who predictably had “no comment” to make. However, Critic speculates that the lack of policy at AUT would lend to a more appropriate work environment for Blackman.
This article first appeared in Issue 5, 2014.
Posted 5:30pm Sunday 23rd March 2014 by Josie Cochrane.