As many of you may be well aware, a prominent counselor educator at a prestigious institution was recently accused of having sexual relationships with several current and former counseling students. Just “process” that sentence for a couple of seconds.
Now, unfortunately my first response was not of outrage or disgust, but rather of wonder about how much this actually occurs within academia and, more specifically, within the field of counselor education. The ACA code of ethics clearly states that within counselor education, “Sexual or romantic interactions or relationships with current students are prohibited.” But then, being my annoyingly inquisitive self, I wondered, “what in the world does ‘current’ mean?” Does it mean currently enrolled in a course that semester, or does it mean currently a student in the program, or does it mean students who have been enrolled but may be on hiatus? Well, maybe “clearly” isn’t the right word...maybe we need to polish this up a bit.
I remember in my undergraduate psychology program there was a professor who married a student whom I had been in several classes with. I also remember my discomfort with him snapping photos, waving, and displaying a prideful grin when she sat in the row in front of me a graduation. Even then, I remember questioning the power dynamics associated with their relationship. It was kind of creepy, and I have since questioned if that professor had interest or similar interactions with other students as well. Now, I’m not saying that two consenting adults cannot find love when one occupies the role of evaluator over the other. I am aware that this happens quite often in a variety of contexts. What I do wonder is should universities and, more specifically, counseling programs even prohibit such relationships? Or, better yet, should universities and counseling programs take a firm stand in prohibition of these relationships or should they simply follow the status quo?
I believe that counselor educators need to be held to a higher standard in this matter. We have, similar to counselors, a significant amount more access to those we serve than other professionals. Supervision can be a very intimate process that can potentially uncover a wealth of insecurities in the counselor-trainee, both personal and professional. Many classroom assignments are designed to have the trainee explore similar vulnerabilities and personal attributes in the attempt to promote self-awareness on one’s journey to become a counselor. It would be easy for counselor educators to use these details or attributes in order to manipulate the students we serve. This vulnerability is further compounded by the fact that counselor educators also serve as evaluators of student performance. This power, along with student vulnerability, in the hands of a counselor educator or counselor who is opportunistic is a dangerous tool.
Lastly, when discussing these types of power dynamics one must not come away with the impression that such abuses of power only occur regarding sexual relationships. Counselor education programs need to do a better job at discussing, and dealing with, various types of potential abuses by counselor educators. It says a great deal about our profession that these issues are not discussed more and with greater transparency. Also, if such abuses go under the radar in counselor education programs, it only makes sense that they also go unveiled with counselors in the fields as well. But shhh, hopefully I haven’t said too much…
Ken Oliver is a counselor in Missouri and an assistant professor at Quincy University in Illinois.em>