By Lisa Black at Chicago Tribune
A Northwestern University professor who wrote a controversial essay on how colleges police faculty-student relationships sparked a national debate over academic and sexual freedom.
In doing so, she found herself the subject of an investigation into gender discrimination — one of the very issues she was writing about — after two students complained that she had created a “chilling effect” on their ability to report sexual misconduct.
Communications professor Laura Kipnis recently was investigated for complaints that she violated the federal Title IX law against gender discrimination with her essay “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.”
She was cleared in late May after a nearly three-month investigation by an outside law firm determined “that a preponderance of the evidence does not support the complaint allegations,” Kipnis said, reading from the probe’s findings.
“I am startled that anyone could think that Title IX could apply to (an essay),” Kipnis said of the piece that was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education in February. “That seemed to me a real overreach.”
Title IX was enacted in 1972 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity. Students have increasingly used it as a tool to combat sexual misconduct, sexual violence and harassment allegations, experts say.
In her essay, Kipnis, an author and film professor, chided the university for its ban on faculty members dating students, calling it the “Great Prohibition” and arguing that such policies treat students as vulnerable children.
She included in her essay a summary of sexual misconduct claims made by two students against another Northwestern professor, Peter Ludlow, that remain in civil litigation. She did not name the students or professor in the essay.
“It’s the fiction of the all-powerful professor embedded in the new campus codes that appalls me. … If this is feminism, it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama,” she wrote.
One of the two graduate students who filed Title IX complaints against Kipnis because of that essay confirmed that the investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by Kipnis.
But the student, who asked not be named, said she remains concerned about how Kipnis described the claims against Ludlow, especially within the context of an essay ostensibly about consensual relationships between faculty members and students.
“Both students (who made claims against Ludlow) are saying these aren’t issues with consensual relationships,” said the graduate student, who was not one of the students the university said was sexually harassed by Ludlow.
In internal investigations, the university found that Ludlow had violated its sexual harassment policy but rejected a more serious allegation that one student had been sexually assaulted, according to a defamation lawsuit filed by Ludlow against the university last year over its handling of the claims.
Ludlow was never charged with a crime in connection with the claims and, in his suit against the university, described them as “false, unjustified and exceedingly damaging to (his) personal reputation and his career.”
One of the students who made claims against Ludlow sued him in Cook County Circuit Court last year alleging that he violated the Illinois Gender Violence Act in 2012 by groping her and plying her with alcohol when she was too young to drink legally.
Ludlow’s defamation suit is pending, as is the student’s Gender Violence Act suit against Ludlow.
Ludlow remains employed as a philosophy professor but is not teaching this quarter, a university official confirmed.
While Ludlow’s lawyer declined to discuss the specifics of the lawsuits, he praised Kipnis for shining “a light on the process not just at Northwestern but nationwide.”
“We welcome any debate on how universities can best protect principles of academic freedom, due process and the rights of faculty and students,” said the lawyer, Joseph J. Madonia.
Within weeks of writing her “Sexual Paranoia” essay, Kipnis learned that two graduate students had filed complaints against her alleging “retaliation” and “creating a hostile environment” under the Title IX law, she said.
She described the ensuing investigation as secretive and said she was not provided specifics of the complaints or allowed to have an attorney present during an interview with investigators, according to a second essay she wrote called “My Title IX Inquisition.” That essay was published in late May, also in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and has attracted national attention as critics questioned its ramifications for academic freedom and free speech.
Both essays have provoked debate, mostly in online forums and within academic circles. The controversy has stirred opposing feminist viewpoints on student vulnerability and faculty-student relationships.
While Kipnis bemoaned the loss of the “wild old days” when professors and students dated without fear, she wrote in her essay, “I suppose I’m out of step with the new realities because I came of age in a different time, and under a different version of feminism, minus the layers of prohibition and sexual terror surrounding the unequal-power dilemmas of today.”
The graduate student who filed one of the Title IX complaints against Kipnis said she did not agree with Kipnis’ broader points in the essay. But the student said she filed the complaint because she believes Kipnis misrepresented the Ludlow case to the detriment of his accusers.
“There are some really complicated issues underlying this case,” she said.
And a lawyer for one of Ludlow’s accusers said the Title IX law doesn’t go far enough.
“One of the problems, in my opinion, is the federal law, Title IX, is not very protective of the students,” said the lawyer, Kevin O’Connor. “If anything … it does more to shield the institution than provide the student some kind of recourse.”
Others have criticized the university for taking more than two months to rule on the Title IX complaints against Kipnis.
“You can certainly imagine the chilling effect this will have not only on the individual professorbut all faculty members,” said Azhar Majeed, lawyer for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit advocate for free speech. “You can certainly imagine that otherprofessors will be hesitant to speak out not just on gender issues but any political issues of the day.”
Northwestern released a statement that said the university “is firmly committed both to academic freedom and to free speech, but it is also required to investigate and respond to allegations made by complainants that particular actions or statements might violate Title IX.”
Besides being legally obligated to investigate student complaints, “we are doing this because we want to have an environment that is safe and healthy and harassment-free,” spokesman Alan Cubbage said later. “We want people to feel confident that they can make a complaint.”
Not all academics who have weighed in are siding with Kipnis.
Justin Weinberg, associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, noted that Kipnis wrote in her first essay: “I strongly believe that bona fide harassers should be chemically castrated, stripped of their property, and hung up by their thumbs in the nearest public square.”
But Weinberg, in an online forum called the Daily Nous, wrote that by citing the graduate student’s claims against Ludlow, Kipnis “implies (the student) is lying, and suggests that her complaint … is an exaggeration and ‘melodrama.’ ”
“Kipnis urges readers to see (the accuser) as harming Ludlow, rather than the other way around,” Weinberg said.
He added later in an email to the Tribune that he did not believe that Kipnis necessarily violated Title IX but thought it reasonable that someone investigate the students’ concerns.
Kipnis said that she understands that people will disagree with her opinions. In the past, she has courted controversy by writing books such as “Against Love: A Polemic,” a humorous, contrarian view of monogamy.
But she said that she fears that the Title IX investigatory process “does invite the potential for abuses or capricious types of charges to be filed.”
She has received many supportive emails, she said, some that point to similar cases involving speech perceived by students to be offensive.
Despite the backlash Kipnis encountered by writing about these issues publicly, the professorsaid there’s room for more debate.
“There does need to be more open conversation about it,” she said.
Schools: Northwestern University