Tread Carefully In The Lives Of Professors And Their Former Students

September 2015

My first visit to Paris in the early 1980s included a visit to the City of Lights’ famous Père Lachaise cemetery. Among the many literary luminaries buried there were the adjacent tombs of Abélard and Héloï se, protagonists of the semi-tragic twelfth-century love story between a teacher and his brilliant student. To this day their tombs remain a pilgrimage site for lovers and never lack for fresh flowers laid round them. At the time, I had no idea that my own teaching career would someday lead to romance, marriage, and family with a former student of mine, and to all the attendant controversy, though not the dénouement, of the Abélard and Héloï se story.

Not that I was a stranger to the close, even family possibility of professor-student relationships. My only sibling, a younger sister, at nineteen years had married her generation- older university professor not long after I returned from military service in Vietnam. She and her husband now have been married for over forty years and have a college-age daughter. Although I had no objection to my sister’s choice at the time of their marriage, I think a more supportive source in their progress to a successful relationship was my single-parent mother’s support for her daughter’s choice. Family support was later to play an important role in the controversy over my relationship with Emily Bajorek-DeLater, now my wife for nine years but then a former student of mine.

I’d met Emily’s parents several years before our first date, on the occasion of which they offered me hospitality and a glass of wine before Emily and I spent the evening together. In particular, Emily’s father (a district judge at the time) was true to his libertarian principles and respected his of-age and precocious daughter’s choice in unmarried potential suitors. And at the time of my appointment and after, the college had no written or spoken rules about personal faculty-student relationships. Nevertheless, the college administrators, flexing their in loco parentis muscle and their “at will” contractual powers vis à vis faculty, not only decided to interfere by sending out their spies to follow us even into other towns and on family outings (e.g., Emily’s grandmother once spotted one of these college hirelings when the three of us were on a shopping trip in a town miles away from the college), but summarily dismissed me during my third teaching year at the college for “inappropriate activity with a student.” Emily, her father, mother, brother, and I shortly afterwards attended a concert together (at which off- campus venue there were present some of the college’s administrators, faculty, and students), that served also as a welcome show of solidarity for Emily and me. To the college’s administrators’ chagrin, we did have a number of supporters and well-wishers at the college, though as I said, Emily’s family’s support and confidence in me was the most important boost to us.

Shortly after my dismissal, Emily herself withdrew from the college and subsequently took her honours degree at the U of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, where we then lived. And when we married, Emily’s father not only walked her down the aisle, but turned round, donned his

judge’s robes, and officiated at our marriage at my Veterans of Foreign Wars post’s hall, where our reception was held.

Nearly twelve years have passed since our first date, followed by our marriage and now our year and a half-old child, Theodore Benjamin DeLater, and, as I said, Emily’s family’s continued support of her choice and their confidence in me were most gratefully appreciated.

I understand concerns about professor-student personal relationships—especially when the student is being taught by the professor in question and thus subject to his or her class authority and evaluation. But that was not our case, for Emily was then a former student of mine—and a brilliant, spirited student she’d been, as well as a class leader. After we’d left the college Emily and I traveled for conferences and visits from Baton Rouge to Boston, and from St Johns to Seattle and Portland. We were living on the Adriatic, in Piran, Slovenia, when we returned to the States to act as the sole care-givers to my ailing mother in the last five years of her life, who came to love Emily as her own daughter.

Surely not all student-professor personal relationships have turned out as well as ours has, but if there is a message I’d give to college and university administrators, it would be to tread carefully in treating cases of personal relationships between professors and their former students.