THIRTY YEARS ago this month, an eight-year-old named Beaver Cleaver crossed millions of TV screens for the first time on his way to the Grant Avenue Elementary School. Shortly thereafter, he graduated into the world of the third grade and the kind of teacher who can change one's life: Miss Landers. For the next three seasons Beaver nurtured an intense attraction for this woman, and in the process contributed in more ways than many realize to one of the dominant images of the modern American teacher: attractive, accessible, desirable.

This fall, many of the viewers whose notions of life and love were formed by Ozzie and Harriet, Donna Reed and Beaver Cleaver have returned to the classroom to find their fantasies reversed. Instead of watchers they are the watched: college instructors who thousands of times each term will make private statements to students -- over 90 percent of the time older males to younger females -- which cross an invisible ethical line. In a surprising number of cases, students will respond. More than 125,000 female students this year will hear direct bribes or threats involving sexual contact with their professors. Many will end up like Maryanne.

Maryanne graduated in 1986 from a large state university with a B.S. degree. Four years earlier, she'd begun her studies elsewhere -- at at a private Midwestern college -- attracted initially to the ivy-covered charm, distinguished faculty and promise of a friendly and informal community. In her sophomore year (when, in her words, she was "eager to grow up") she became involved with an attractive faculty member whose special interest in her writing persuaded her that she was intellectually exceptional.

Maryanne ignored friends and upperclasswomen who warned that they'd observed this pattern before: The professor had persuaded her that she was simply too bright for men in her peer group. Three months later, with neither warning or discussion, the affair was over. In choosing to transfer to the anonymity of a large university, Maryanne left behind an academic program and fellow students of great importance to her because she was unable to cope with the unyielding sense of public humiliation she felt every day on campus.

New Problems, New Rules

Most American colleges and universities have by now put in place an official policy on sexual harassment. Statistics from the past few years suggest that between 20 and 30 percent of this year's female college students -- over 1 million women -- will experience sexually harassing behavior during their years on campus. In recent years, due-process guidelines have been strengthened, thanks in part to the work of local and national faculty organizations and the American Association of University Professors.

But amorous, consensual relations such as Maryanne's pose a different and more controversial problem -- especially for college faculties, which hold proudly to ideals of self-regulation, academic freedom and the belief that it is not a college's business to monitor private lives as long as professional duties are being met. The dilemma touches the heart of the academic enterprise: Can those in positions of power in the academy be expected to limit their right of free association? Does an employer, in this case the college or university, have a moral and ethical responsibility to see that a judicious respect for the teacher-learner relationship guides private faculty lives on campus?

Those responsible for developing a policy worry that it might be unenforceable, that it would allow a student to retaliate for a low grade with an unjust accusation, that it would prompt a closetful of complaints which have been accumulating for years. (With menacing potential in our litigation-prone society.) These concerns weigh particularly heavily since pushing a policy uphill through a campus bureaucracy can take between two and four years.

Things were simpler in less enlightened times. If an older male faculty member was discovered in a romantic relationship with a younger female student, he was simply and privately chastised for "imprudent" or "unprofessional" behavior while the young female was encouraged to change classes, majors or even colleges in response to something which -- in the vast majority of cases -- she had not initiated. But over the past two decades, many female students and women's-rights groups began to press for policies which addressed what they saw as the core problem within amorous faculty-student relations: unequal power levels.

In their book, "The Lecherous Professor," Billie Wright Dzeich and Linda Weiner explore the "myth of the consenting adult" -- a student who is assumed to be a full and equal partner in the relationship and who can cite no behavior fitting the conventional definition of harassment. They suggest that "Few students are ever, in the strictest sense, consenting adults. A student can never be a genuine equal of a professor insofar as his professional position gives him power over her. Access to a student occurs not because she allows it but because the professor ignores professional ethics and chooses to extend the student-faculty relationship. Whether the student consents to the involvement or whether the professor ever intends to use his power against her is not the point. The issue is that the power and the role disparity always exist, making it virtually impossible for the student to act as freely as she would with a male peer."

The trust a student places in a professor is honorable, powerful and often predictably naive. Helen, an undergraduate at a small East Coast private college, found that out. "I was recommended to him as a baby sitter," she told a faculty committee. "His wife and I became very close and I had a great relationship with their three wonderful children. When I'd visit, he'd ask me questions about home, my family, my hobbies and future plans. The next semester, I enrolled in his course and when we'd occasionally meet in the late afternoon to discuss the progress of my project, he would invite me to dinner at their house. I was flattered by the attention and friendship. I often commented to my friends what a cool professor he was. I never thought it possible that I'd get to be friends with a professor."

Helen's subsequent seduction by the professor surprised no one. She recalls, "I think I let it go on for a few reasons. One was fear and simply not knowing what to do. My experiences in relationships were few to begin with and none of them compared to what was happening with him. Also, I was aware that if I said something, he might not give me credit or a good grade for my work. He kept telling me that there wouldn't be other students after me, telling me I was special."

Unfortunately, the consensual dilemma arises at a time when teenagers themselves are beginning to admit that they need distinctions in these areas more than similarities. {See box.} An eight-year national survey completed last year found that adolescents' values and social roles were formed predominantly not by peers and the forms of popular "youth culture" but by the adults in their lives, and that teen-agers were now seeking more "consistent rules" in both family life and school life.

Split Decisions

At present almost all "policies" covering student-teacher relationships are statements attached to the institution's sexual-harassment policy, which protects students from unwanted sexual advances and from having to work within a sexually intimidating, hostile or offensive environment. To date, most schools have followed one of three different strategies.

1) The Hard Line. Temple University's policy states that "with reference to behavior between an instructor and students of that instructor, no instructor shall make a sexually suggestive or intimidating remark, ask a student for a date or sexual favor, or in other ways make a sexual advance to the student . . . . The principle of professional ethics embodied here is that, while a student is a student of a particular instructor, the student is not available for any sort of sexual or romantic advances or relationship."

The University of Iowa has taken a similar direction. There, a faculty member involved with a student is "prohibited" from making decision which may "reward or penalize" the student.

2) Non-Binding Disapproval. The University of Minnesota's initial policy on harassment, passed in 1981, was strengthened in 1984 to include a "warning" that "a relationship between a faculty member and a student should be considered one of professional and client in which sexual relationships are inappropriate. The power differential compromises the subordinate's ability to freely decide. Although the policy does not specifically forbid sexual relationships . . . it actively discourages even apparently consenting sexual relationships {since} it will be exceedingly difficult to prove immunity on grounds of mutual consent."

The University of Pittsburgh, in a similar policy, states: "In all cases, the University considers sexual relations between a teacher and his or her student . . . to be extremely unwise," and stipulates that "the teacher or supervisor bears full responsibility for proving a defense of mutual consent."

3) No Policy. At the University of Texas (Arlington), the council of academic deans proposed a policy stating that the school "considers it a serious breach of professional eithics for faculty to initiate with a current student a relationship with romantic or sexual implications or intentions" The proposal carried no specific penalties but was defeated in any case. An engineering professor complained: "It boxes us into a corner rather than {giving us} flexibility to deal with individual circumstances," and added that "when human beings encounter one another, they always carry their sexuality with them."

At the University of California, the academic senate rejected a similar proposal which would have declared romantic or sexual liaisons "unethical . . . under circumstances which compromise the student-faculty relationship." One faculty member was quoted as saying, "It seems like a civil-rights violation to say who people can fall in love with. That should be their business."

Tearing Down the Ivy

Colleges and universities need to develop a broad vision of the ethics of the campus -- specifically, one which clarifies, and attempts to specify, the new relationship between student life and adulthood in the final decades of the century. We increasingly lack a definition of adulthood which sincerely reflects student behavior. This does not imply that amorous relations are appropriate but rather that current codes of conduct, if not some of the principles behind them, are becoming blurred.

Procedurally it is likely that schools which forbid or prohibit amorous relationships outright will experience the most grievances in coming years. Conversely, institutions that have adopted no policy -- or have had one narrowly defeated -- have not "protected" either the civil liberties of its employes or the learning environment of its students. These institutions are vulnerable legally for having left a general sexual-harassment statement to address a newer and more complex concept. They are living on borrowed time.

Avoiding both extremes, a sensible policy model should clearly and separately state that amorous relations between faculty members and students are unethical; that they dissolve the integrity of the basic student-teacher relationship. That statement should be complemented by continuing campus-wide discussion of the ethics of faculty-student relations within the context of a changed definition of adulthood. To the degree that colleges are now obliged to serve a more parental role, they will find that authority which attempts to caution and guide behavior -- rather than forbid, deny or ignore it -- will build the greatest level of trust in both older and younger adults.

Beaver Cleaver knew a few things about his feelings for his teacher. As viewers, we knew a few more things about both of them. Thirty years later, as viewers and participants, we know far more.