Family

Seek legal advice for professor abuse of power: Tsinman

By Jennifer Brown, AdvocateDaily.com Senior Editor

In the academic environment, a student-professor relationship can start as one of mentorship but may slip over the line into one of intimacy and manipulation, placing someone in an uncomfortable power dynamic, says Toronto family lawyer Inna Tsinman.

Failing to understand the potential ramifications of such relationships can have far-reaching effects on one’s personal and financial future, says Tsinman, founder and principal of Tsinman Law.

“If you find yourself in this kind of relationship, you have to know what the implications are. Understanding what your rights are and what steps you can take is very important,” she tells AdvocateDaily.com.

Tsinman, who often works on family law cases involving economic coercion, says students should understand what they can do to protect themselves, including seeking legal advice if they feel at risk.

“Women, in particular, feel compelled to stay with the person because they may have a financial hold on them, or they are influential in terms of their reputation, career, or other personal success,” she says.

Last fall, a former University of British Columbia student called for a ban on student-teacher relationships. The woman indicated in a letter to the school that current policies didn’t go far enough to address the issue. Her lawyer wrote a letter stating: “Students should not be put in the position of proving this obvious imbalance of power in sexual relations with professors on a case by case basis.”

A recent Global News story covered an Ontario case in which two University of Windsor law students alleged a professor sexually harassed them.

“The way I see it, there is not enough outrage around these kinds of relationships,” says Tsinman.

Many U.S. universities, including Yale and Stanford, have banned relationships between faculty members and undergraduate students and students that faculty members supervise. Several Canadian provinces — Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia and Manitoba — have passed legislation requiring post-secondary institutions to have policies in place to address sexual violence. Tsinman says all Canadian universities should completely ban these "romantic" and often sexual relationships.

“Two adult individuals can wait until the academic program is over and the possibility of exploitation of power no longer exists to ignite their romance if there is actually something real between the two,” she says. “Obviously there is not enough education out there for women to know that they don’t have to succumb to such relationships.”

Tsinman explains that economic coercion is not as apparent in an academic environment but, in the extreme, it can have adverse implications on a student’s ability to advance in their career, land a job or secure grant money for research or study.

“When I speak to people about this they will sometimes say, ‘Well she consented so what’s the problem?’

“Often these relationships don’t work out, and women should know that they don’t have to do this in order to advance in their career,” says Tsinman. “While they may be struggling to obtain limited spots in graduate school etc., women do not need to succumb to these kinds of relationships.”

If a student finds themselves in a situation with a faculty member, they need to know where to seek advice and in what order. The first step should not always involve a visit to a faculty head’s office.

“I always recommend that women obtain legal advice on their own to manoeuvre through this,” says Tsinman. “A lawyer would be able to give her a sense of how to deal with the faculty, what is available to her, and what steps not to take. Telling her to go to the school administration is not the right step. The administration has its own mandate and resource pressures which dictate how much they can help.”

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