Columns

Campus Confidential

Stephen Henighan

“What’s it like teaching at a university?” a male writer friend asked. “All those young girls. I mean, do you—?” When I said I didn’t, he looked not only disappointed but frustrated, as though I were withholding an undeniable fact of my existence. My friend was convinced that sex between professors and students was a staple of campus life. In this he resembled the makers of popular culture, who have frozen the university’s public image in the 196s. Many films or novels with university settings include an affair between a male professor and a female student. In the public eye, universities have never recovered from the antics of Donald Sutherland as Professor Jennings in the 1978 film Animal House. In fact, neither today’s undergraduates, who are stressed out from supporting part-time jobs on top of full-time study, student loans and career worries, nor the current generation of professors, who were educated in feminism and power dynamics, and are overstretched by funding cuts and bureaucratic interference in their jobs, have much time for campus affairs. These days, the careerist power grabs of academic administrators, who are replacing professors as the central figures in university life, produce more drama than campus sexual relationships. Which is not to say that such liaisons don’t occur.

Some people I know believe that a professor can be fired for having an affair with a student. This is a myth. On unionized Canadian campuses, firing a faculty member requires years of reports, committee deliberations and appeals. More importantly, society has stopped condemning consenting adults for private acts; it’s not feasible for universities to wage war against consensual sex, provided that both participants are of age. In Canada—different standards apply elsewhere—I’m aware of professors who have been fired for two sexual misdemeanours: harassment of younger women by older men; and the use of an office computer to download child pornography. The latter offence is uncommon, but there remains a fringe of older male professors—holdovers from the Professor Jennings era—who make women’s lives unbearable. Regarded as pariahs by their colleagues, these hounders and gropers are not very likely to have actual sexual relations with anyone; rather, they bully young women. Their victims are frequently graduate students or younger female professors. This kind of aggression could morph into an abusive relationship; but these days it is usually rebuffed, and often reported.

The 196s, the sordid heyday of the campus affair, presented unique conditions: sexual liberation and the availability of the Pill, combined with the persistence of patriarchal assumptions from the 195s. In Canada, the massive expansion of the university system to serve the baby boomers resulted in the importation of squads of male professors from the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe. Many of the young women who entered university as undergraduates came from towns or neighbourhoods where almost everyone had the same culture: foreign-born professors exercised an exotic allure. Having been hired with master’s degrees and a promise to finish a doctorate at a later date, many of these instructors were barely older than their students. Neither the mainstreaming of feminism that began in the 197s, nor the awareness of power dynamics introduced by critical theory in the 198s, had yet made their impact on campus consciousness. Most of the privileged minority who attended university did not need part-time jobs; professors were not yet labouring under “publish or perish” injunctions. Everyone had time on their hands. The mayhem that ensued was engraved on the minds of baby boomer students, who recapitulated these situations in movies, novels and newspaper columns over the next decades.

The university, meanwhile, chan

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at stephenhenighan.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.

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