Hiding in Plain View: A relationship between a professor and a student poses difficult questions

A Thammasat University professor’s intimate relationships with his female students reveal broader problems about Thai universities. With their adjudication, Thammasat has the opportunity to set new standards for universities across Thailand.

“Can I call you bunny, and you call me bear?”

Pim [pseudonym] was a 20-year-old sophomore the first time they met. It was November 2013, and she was taking his class as a student at Thammasat University. She was impressed by him: he was a young, charming, suave professor, who had only completed his doctorate a few years prior.

By 2014, she was hired to be his Research Assistant. They worked together closely, and he was her direct supervisor. He would offer to pick her up from school and work, they would often take long car rides together and later began having dinners alone. They began exchanging intimate messages.

“Wanna hold u in my arm, kiss u all over”, the professor wrote to her on LINE in October 2014. The messages were accompanied by the LINE Brown Bear, kissing the white rabbit. He continued: “My lovely rabbit.”

According to Pim, the relationship intensified, and she lost her virginity to him.

He informed her from the beginning of the relationship about Article 35 of Thammasat’s regulations for “Grievous Misconduct,” which prohibited relationships between students and professors (even if the professor was no longer directly supervising the student, or if the relationship was consensual). He allegedly asked her to keep their relationship a secret.

At no point in their relationship did their interaction violate local laws.

While the professor had intimate relations with Pim, he also began messaging another 19-year-old student who had taken his class at Thammasat Business School. Mook [pseudonym] was also asked to be his RA. In screenshots shared with the Thai Enquirer, Mook was invited out to dinner and drinks by the professor in 2017, before she was of legal drinking age. According to Mook, she and the professor got drunk together, and, eventually, they engaged in oral sex. Their casual relationship ended abruptly soon after, when Mook found out the professor was already in a relationship with Pim.

“I definitely felt used and lied to,” Mook said to the Thai Enquirer.

By 2019, his relationship with Pim came to an end. She filed her case with Thammasat University, accusing him of breaching Article 35. Thammasat University issued their ruling in January 2021, although they have yet to publicly announce the outcome.

The professor has denied that any relationship with Mook took place and has told Thai Enquirer that the relationship with Pim only began after she graduated from the university. His only crime, he says, was that the relationship did not end well and he cites other cases where professors marry their former students and no charges were filed. According to the professor, he is “the victim” of a jilted former lover.

#MeToo in Thailand

The #MeToo movement had a renaissance in Thailand with the 2020 protest movement, where the sexual assault of students by schoolteachers and professors became a central focus. At one protest, a woman wore a school uniform complete with black tape over her mouth and red marks on her skin, holding a sign that read: “I have been sexually abused by teachers. School is not a safe place.”

Yet, the conversation has not moved beyond the few clear-cut topics: rape, sexual harassment, sex for grades. In fact, when this very story was brought up in the newsroom at Thai Enquirer, our male editor said at the time that, “If this was a rape case, it would be easier to write about.”

Thai media often sensationalize stories such as this to better fit this framework.

For this specific story, Khaosod ran with the headline “Famous Thai professor sexually violates [ล่วงละเมิด] female students!”

Meanwhile, television channels like Channel 7 and others have used the term “sexual harassment” [คุกคามทางเพศ] because of the lack of nuance in the Thai language.

But the case in question touches on the tougher boundaries of #MeToo. The relationship between Pim and the professor was consensual after all. According to both parties, there were clearly feelings of affections between the two.

The hit Hulu drama ‘The Teacher’ explores such questions, but their answer is made clear in a PSA: “It is never OK for a trusted adult to use their relationship with or authority over a young person to manipulate them into sexual activity.”

The boundaries are also clearly drawn on consensual relationships by universities like Harvard, the University of Texas, Western Michigan University and the National University of Singapore.

Pim’s case with the Thammasat University professor is at once unprecedented and characteristic of a broader problem within Thai universities. According to Pim, it is the first case to be filed and adjudicated on Article 35, even as multiple professors interviewed by the Thai Enquirer admit to knowledge of widespread violations of this rule. And it has potential to reshape the Thai conversation on sex and authority.

The Power of the Professor

The professor in question has stated in multiple interviews with Thai Enquirer that he had “never had relationships with students.”

According to the professor, Pim graduated in 2018, and the two started dating officially then, when she was no longer a student.

“Sending the Bear icon [on LINE] may be deemed inappropriate, but I just like this icon,” he said of previous LINE chats between the two. “I’ll admit we were close, but I know where the lines are drawn and I won’t cross that.”

He fails to address pictures shared with the Thai Enquirer which show him and Pim kissing and sharing a hotel room in January 2015 – when Pim was still a student.

When given time to respond, the professor said he could not find the picture in question.

At the same time, he defends the hypothetical practice of professors having intimate relations with students.

“If it’s a student and it’s consensual, it’s not wrong…it may violate university regulations, but not codes of ethics or morality.”

He points to Harvard’s rules, which he argues allows professors to consensually date students.

“If a university student can get into Harvard, they’re probably not an innocent baby who can be tricked.”

Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, in fact, explicitly prohibits faculty-student relationships – romantic or sexual. Even relationships with graduate students outside of an instructional context “lead to difficulties.” The policy is clarified further: “Even when both parties have consented… it is the person in the position of greater authority who, by virtue of his or her special responsibility…will be held accountable for unprofessional behavior.”

Similarly, Western Michigan University’s policy discourages consensual relationships because of “the subtle yet powerful element of coercion that may exist in such relationships.”

Fundamental to this argument is that professors hold power beyond specifically grading students’ work or evaluating their performance. By virtue of the respect they hold in society, they are automatically considered figures of authority, and that “special responsibility” allows them to earn their students’ trust and consent for sexual acts. In the case of both Pim and Mook, where the professor then became their professor-employer for their RA work, the professor’s authority was doubled.

Pim admits this dynamic was fundamental to their relationship. “He didn’t use the power of being a professor but being a professor made him seem trustworthy,” she noted. “For example, when he invited me to go to his condo, I agreed to go because he said, I am a professor, you can trust me.”

When asked for comment on the case, Dr. Ruth Banomyong, Dean of Thammasat’s Business School, observed: “These are unequal power structures. Thai society is very clearly a hierarchical society, where professors are placed too far up the hierarchy, higher than they should be in reality.”

“In Thai culture, we are told by our families or society that we have to listen to and respect our teachers and professors. This narrative is embedded in our very thinking,” observes Angkana Intasa, senior member of the Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation, who has accompanied Pim throughout the Thammasat investigation.

“So when we are in a university and meet a professor who is more experienced than us, we are not so able to hold our own (tao tun) – especially when we are never taught to be savvy about our sexuality.”

Other Thammasat professors recognize this and have openly expressed their discomfort with their colleague’s behaviour. 

Dr. Pavida Pananond, Professor at Thammasat’s Business School, argues that such a relationship is a clear breach of ethics.

“I fully support [Thammasat’s] code of conduct as I consider it an abuse of position of trust and a direct conflict of interest, as professors are in the position to provide evaluations on students’ performance.”

“To use that position beyond professional limits, especially in intimate personal relationships, violates not only the trust imbued in the position, but also the university code of conduct. Ethical violations like this should not be tolerated.”

“If we are looking at this case in terms of ethics, or in terms of professional conduct, especially in the case where one is a professor or a teacher – we must hold ourselves to a higher standard and moral ground,” remarked Thammasat Business School Professor Emeritus Somchai Supphatada.

“So, in this case where one engages in an intimate relationship with a student – in whatever degree – that is already wrong.”

Somchai, one of the most senior members in the faculty during the time the case was filed, added that although he never knew of the professor personally, this is not a matter Thammasat University – or any educational institution – should allow to persist.

“There is that possibility that future students could fall prey into this type of behavior,” said Somchai. “This is the reason why we decided to pursue this case.”

The accused professor maintains that allegations brought against him – are politically motivated. He said that there were those within the Thammasat Faculty eager to “get back at him” because he had “brought about corruption cases to the university.”

Documents seen by Thai Enquirer suggest that among professors who have helped Pim bring about the case to the university, there were ongoing corruption probes.

This proves, according to the professor, that he is a victim of a concerted effort by colleagues that he outed and a scorned former lover to discredit him and get him fired. He points to voice recordings, heard by Thai Enquirer, that allegedly showed Pim telling him that she would “get him back.”

A Question of Adjudication

Pim and the professors have pointed to the “slower-than-usual” response from the university, citing the lack of proper leadership, mechanisms and channels given to students to express such grievances, as well as to bring cases like this to light. Almost one and a half years later, and the adjudication is still ongoing – with no clear verdict in sight.

This issue points to another problem – how leading educational institutions, like Thammasat, continue to allow and tolerate such behaviors from its authority figures.

”Not only does the university fail to meet standards set by comparable leading academic institutions in the region, the lack of decisive actions also breeds the culture of impunity, contributing to one of the social ills widely seen in the Thai society,” Pavida laments.

This kind of consensual intimacy the professor had shared with Pim and Mook is not an isolated phenomenon – similar cases like this have been reported in other leading regional institutions like the National University of Singapore (NUS). In early October 2020, Tembusu College rector Dr Jeremy Fernando was sacked within weeks after the first complaint against him for having “an intimate association” with an undergraduate was received by the university in late August of the same year.

Similar to Thammasat, the NUS Code of Conduct for Staff clearly states that staff members are prohibited to engage in intimate relationships with an undergraduate student or place themselves in a position of “conflict of interest.”

After the first complaint was received by the university on August 27, Fernando was suspended on August 31. The professor was subsequently interviewed by the university on September 1, and the internal investigation for the first case was concluded by September 5.

On September 7, another complaint was filed against Fernando by another student, and a second internal investigation was completed by September 21. The two students were interviewed on their complaints on August 31 and September 9. All the while the case was ongoing, a no contact order was issued to the accused professor, barring him from contacting the complainants.

The NUS then informed Fernando of the allegations on September 21 and gave him an ultimatum of seven working days to respond with any relevant information or mitigating factors to dispute his case. The professor responded on September 30.

By October 7, he was fired.

The NUS, in a landmark decision, also filed the case in a police report and brought the case to the public. The university additionally established a new benchmark in how it will now deal with similar incidents moving forward – indeed, the kinds of incidents that blur the lines of teaching, and providing a safe environment for its students.

Thammasat, on the other hand, has allowed the accused professor to contact Pim, where she alleges harassment and blackmail.

A Widespread Problem

Thammasat’s adjudication on the matter is recognition that relationships like this are a serious problem in universities across the country.

Pim’s relationship with her professor is far from the first of its kind. Multiple Pantip threads reveal this as widespread behaviour.

One student writes of her relationship with a professor: “Sometimes I’m tired of trying to hide it…sometimes I regret it.” The twenty replies counsel her to be patient, drawing on their own experiences or the experiences of their fellow students who have been or are in relationships with their professors.

On a separate thread, another Pantip user asks: “Can there really be love between a professor and their student?” Once again, the twenty-two replies share personal anecdotes of such love, citing their parents, their friends and themselves.

Dr. Banomyong laments the laxity of ethics in Thai society, arguing: “It is not only at Thammasat, but at every university across the country, where cases like this exist. Everyone has a different set of ethics.”

The accused professor has latched on to this as evidence of his own innocence. He points to the case of Dr. Thon Thamrongnawasawat, Deputy Dean at the Kasetsart University Faculty of Fisheries, who married his former student merely three days after she graduated. “There are other people, even within my faculty, that have married former students,” he argues. “It’s only because this relationship didn’t end in marriage that it is attracting media attention.”

But it is precisely because not all cases end ‘well’ that such relationships are prohibited by university rules.

Both Pim and the professor agree that Pim suffered severe depression towards the end of the relationship – she mentioned this was a consequence of how manipulated she felt.

But the professor said that it was because of this mental state that she was not a reliable witness. He accuses Pim of being unstable mentally as a result of the break up.

Angkana, through her Foundation work, has seen far worse. “[It often] causes significant depression to the victims, especially in cases where they stand up to tell society about what happened,” she said. “Many people have contemplated suicide.”

To make Pim’s case a question of ‘sexual violation’ or ‘sexual assault’ individualizes the problem and makes it a question of a single sexual deviant preying on young women that must be brought to justice. In fact, Thailand’s criminal code would not recognize any violations in this case and no lawyer would say this is a matter of sexual assault.

Rather, the case highlights the “subtle coercion” involved in hierarchies of power between professor-student or employee-employer. Such hierarchies can be used by authority figures to gain consent for sex with someone far less experienced.

Sometimes it takes years for the inexperienced person to recognize this and come forward. But in all cases where a power dynamic endures – regardless of love or consent – the person of greater authority must be held responsible.

Thinking through her experience, Pim closes with a final reflection: “I just don’t want any other student to experience what I went through.”

*Corrected quotations on last paragraph of Power of Professors section.

COVID-19

Daily Covid-19 number falls to 72

Thailand found 72 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours, officials said Thursday. The daily number has been...

Latest article

Manufacturing dips as pandemic persists, but beats forecast

Thailand’s manufacturing production index (MPI) in January dipped by 2.8 per cent year-on-year as the Covid-19 outbreak impacted domestic activity, the Office of Industrial...

Daily Covid-19 number falls to 72

Thailand found 72 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours, officials said Thursday. The daily number has been below 100 for a week,...

TISCO jumps more than 6 per cent on dividend news

Shares of TISCO Financial Group (TISCO) gained 6.09 per cent to 95.75 baht, with a transaction value of 1.16 billion baht, after it announced...

The Siamese Satirist: The Wuhan Virus probably started in Denmark

Having investigated the origins of the Covid-19, scientists from across Asia are now saying that the pandemic probably originated from the European Country of...

Poetry: Ozymandias

In a faraway, makeshift land- a ruler sits on a throne of teak.A throne, ancient by his own command, - carved out by scholars,...

Danish virologist defends media comments that Chatuchak could be birthplace of Covid-19

Danish virologist Thea Fischer has defended comments that she made to a Danish media outlet that the Covid-19 virus could have originated in Chatuchak...