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Case prompts staff/student relationships review

Weatherston case prompts review of staff/student relationships at Otago

By Heléna de Reus

The University of Otago is to reassess its policy on relationships between staff and students after tutor Clayton Weatherston was found guilty of the horrific murder of his former girlfriend and student Sophie Elliott.

The University has been copping flak in the media for not having a policy banning staff/student relationships, despite other universities having similar, or more relaxed, guidelines.

Dr Robert Alexander, Elliott's supervisor and a colleague of Weatherston’s, expressed concerns to the Herald on Sunday (HoS). “This guy had caused other trouble. If someone has caused trouble in a number of areas, I would have thought two and two could be put together … I don't think enough was done and I think this goes right to the top of the University.” Dr. Alexander said he was unable to answer any of Critic’s questions on the issue.

Under current Otago policy, relationships are not forbidden, but may cause a conflict of interest if “any kind of family, financial, or sexual relationship between a student and a staff member who has responsibility for or influence over assessment or other decisions relating to that student.” Guidelines state that in order to avoid such a conflict, the staff member must disclose to their immediate supervisor the existence or apparent existence of a conflict of interest and proper safeguards for the protection of all parties are to be put in place. Weatherston, a tutor and part-time lecturer in the Economics department, had acted in accordance with the guidelines by declaring his relationship with Elliott and by not marking her exams.

“The University [policy] … has specific processes which must be followed if a close personal relationship is formed between a student and a staff member,” University Director of Human Resources Kevin Seales told Critic. Weatherston’s extreme actions are unparalleled and could not have been predicted, he says. The policy is reviewed periodically and will be reviewed again in light of this case.

National President of the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) Dr. Tom Ryan says “Otago’s policy is like those of many other tertiary institutions in New Zealand and internationally in that it focuses on avoiding perceived conflicts of interest through staff members not assessing the academic work of a student they have an intimate relationship with.”

Victoria University’s policy on staff/student relationships requires staff members to disclose the conflict of interest so other assessment arrangements can be made. This obligation is covered in Victoria’s “Staff Conduct Policy,” which is scheduled for review later this year. AUT University does not have a policy that bans student/staff relationships, but its “Ethical Guidelines for Staff” and “Conflict of Interest Policy” are similar to the Victoria and Otago policies. Auckland University’s “Student Charter,” states that academic staff will not normally be involved in the admission to courses or assessment of a student “with whom they have a close family or personal relationship.” Waikato University’s code of ethics for academic staff states that they must treat students with respect at all times, recognise that all forms of harassment are completely unacceptable, and not allow personal relationships with students affect or appear to affect their professional relationship. Massey University does not have a specific policy, while Canterbury University did not respond to a request to comment for this story.

The HoS also reported that Peter Lambert, an Economics professor at the University of Oregon who arranged for the publication of Sophie's academic paper, said that universities in the United States would never have allowed such a relationship. However, Ryan says that the TEU is “slightly perplexed” by Lambert’s comment, as the current policies of the University of Oregon and the University of Otago are actually very similar. “This does not mean that [Otago’s policy] should not be reformed. It just means that the University of Oregon’s rules should not be used as a model for Otago,” he says.

ENDS

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