By Michelle Goldberg at The Nation
Last fall, David Samuel Levinson, the author, most recently, of the literary thriller Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, taught a course called “Introduction to Fiction” at Emory University, part of a two-year fellowship he’d been awarded there. Blunt and scabrous, he prides himself on being frank with his students. “My class is like a truth-telling, soothsaying class, and I tell them no one is going to talk to you like this, you will never have another class like this,” he says.
One student, he says, a freshman woman, sat besides him throughout the course, actively participating. At the end of the semester, he gave her a B+, because, although she worked hard, her writing wasn’t great. “They don’t really understand that they can do all of the work, and turn in perfectly typed up, typo-free papers and stories, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to get an A, because quality matters, talent matters,” he says.
While he was on vacation over winter break, he got a Facebook message from her. He ignored it, figuring it was a complaint about her grade. She started sending him imploring e-mails asking him to reconsider her B+. Finally, he says, he got an e-mail from the director of his program saying, “You need to take care of this. You don’t want this to escalate.”
The student, he learned, was threatening to bring him up on sexual harassment charges. “Oh, I felt unsafe,” he whines, imitating her. The director, he says, told him, “I know this is bullshit, you know this is total bullshit, since you’re gay, [but] you really don’t want to deal with this bullshit. Just give her the grade.” Asked about this, the director says, “I don’t recall that, but I do recall advising him that as with all faculty, per our policy, that this was up to his discretion and thus his decision to make.”
Recently, there’s been much discussion of what some say is a growing intellectual chill and sexual panic on campus. In the latest example, on June 19, Teresa Buchanan, a tenured associate professor of education at Louisiana State University, was fired from the school where she’d taught for twenty years for using off-color language. Her alleged offenses included saying, in class, “fuck no” and making a joke about sex declining in long-term relationships, as well as using the word “pussy” in an off-campus conversation with a teacher. Reached by phone, she says she had no memory of saying “pussy” to anyone, but said that, if she did, it likely would have been in a conversation about how teachers must learn to handle irate parents. “If a parent is very angry and says, ‘You need to do a better job, you little pussy,” you need to know how to react. I wasn’t calling anybody that word.”
Indeed, a faculty committee determined that there was no evidence that her words were “systematically directed at any individual.” Nevertheless, the committee said her language created a “hostile learning environment” that constituted sexual harassment. It recommended that she be censured and nothing more, concluding: “The stress already inflicted on Dr. Buchanan by the…hearing process itself is seen as an adequate punishment, given the nature and apparent infrequency of the noted behaviors.” The administration rejected that and decided to go further, dismissing her. She plans to sue.
Buchanan’s firing follows the investigation of Laura Kipnis, a feminist film professor at Northwestern. Kipnis was famously brought up on charges under Title IX—the federal law banning sexual discrimination in education— as a result of an essay she wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.” “These are anxious times for officialdom, and students, too, are increasingly afflicted with the condition—after all, anxiety is contagious,” Kipnis wrote in that piece, which took issue with the current campus obsession with student vulnerability.
She didn’t know the half of it. In her essay, Kipnis discussed widely reported accusations of sexual assault by two students against Northwestern philosophy professor Peter Ludlow, which has resulted in numerous lawsuits. One of the students, as well as another who had nothing to do with the case but said she was acting on behalf of the university community, then filed Title IX complaints against Kipnis, arguing that her essay and a subsequent tweet had been acts of retaliation against Ludlow’s accusers.
Soon Kipnis was forced to submit to hours of questioning about her essay and the ideas underlying it. She was allowed to bring a supporter with her, and chose Stephen Eisenman, the head of the Faculty Senate. When Eisenman told the Senate that he believed the process he’d witnessed was a threat to academic freedom, he was brought up on Title IX charges as well. “This is a trivialization of Title IX, a diminishment,” says Eisenman.
He doesn’t blame the students who brought the charges, only the administration that insisted on pursuing them. “They may be misguided, but they’re graduate students,” he says. “They’re allowed to make mistakes. What’s less acceptable is when administrators don’t show good judgment and a modicum of courage.”
A confluence of factors has created the current environment. Certainly, part of what’s at work is the emergence of a very crude sort of identity politics that valorizes knee-jerk offense taking. As Shira Tarrant, a professor in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach, says, “Ways of communicating on Twitter, or takedown culture, are infusing the classroom.”
More significant, however, is the pusillanimity of campus bureaucrats who are terrified of lawsuits, particularly in the wake of the Department of Education’s Title IX investigations into campus handling of sexual assault. Ange-Marie Hancock, a professor of political science and gender studies at the University of Southern California and author of Solidarity Politics for Millennials: A Guide to Ending the Oppression Olympics, observes that attacks on academic free speech are not just coming from the left. She points to Steven Salaita, whose job offer at University of Illinois was withdrawn due to tweets that were hostile to Israel, and Shannon Gibney, a tenured African-American English professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College who was reprimanded for creating a “hostile learning environment” for white men.
Colleges and universities, says Hancock, are “increasing not run by faculty or former faculty. They’re run by professional administrators who have a customer service or client service attitude towards students, as opposed to an educational attitude.” Indeed, according to the Delta Cost Project, an American Institutes for Research program that studies the rising price of higher education, at most four years colleges and universities the average number of faculty and staff per administrator declined by around 40 percent between 1990 and 2012.
Buchanan attributes her firing, in part, to a disjunction between the values of the administrators and those of the professoriate. Starting about 10 years ago, she says, “We noticed that every new administrator that came to LSU had the discourse and language of a business person. So, for example, my dean calls himself the CEO of his organization.”
“That never used to happen. We were the academy,” Buchanan continues, “Their whole discourse has shifted to this business discourse. To me that explains the lack of faculty of governance, because corporations aren’t governed by their employees, and it also explains to me this policing of behaviors.”
Thus there’s a symbiosis between student demands for emotional safety and the risk-aversion of bloated bureaucracies. The students may be inspired by radical ideas, says Michael Bérubé, a literature professor and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State, but “they wind up playing into the hands of a faceless and possibly pernicious bureaucracy.” The kind, for example, that orders investigations of feminist professors for writing inflammatory essays, or fires people for saying “fuck.”
In these cases, university administrations typically insist that they’re just following the law. “It’s required by federal law to investigate and respond when there are allegations of actions or statements that might violate Title IX,” says Alan Cubbage, Northwestern’s vice president of university relations. “Pretty much in any case the complainant will be interviewed, and if somebody is making a complaint about a particular individual, the respondent will be interviewed.”
But Samuel Bagenstos, a University of Michigan law professor who, until 2011, served as the number-two official in Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, says Northwestern wasn’t compelled to go as far as it did. “Federal law requires a prompt and equitable resolution of the complaint,” he says. “They do have to look into it. The question is, what does looking into it mean?”
In the Kipnis case, he says, “ All you would have to do was read her article, read the tweet, and maybe talk to the people who filed the complaint to understand that there’s no conceivable way that even if everything in the complaint were true, there’s no way that was a violation of Title IX.”
So why go further? Bagenstos describes a combination of bureaucratic caution and passive aggressiveness. The Obama administration has famously stepped up the use of Title IX against schools that have failed to respond adequately to the problem of campus rape, and in response, colleges are overcorrecting. “If you talk to administrators at universities around the country, they are really responding in a deeply overwrought way to the expansion of Title IX enforcement by the Obama administration,” says Bagenstos. “I think what’s going on in part is this reaction: You’re really going to make us do all this stuff we don’t want to do, we’ll show you it’s ridiculous by going the last mile and the next mile beyond that.”
“Certainly, no one can deny that students, both male and female, get harassed and sexually and verbally assaulted and need protection,” says Patti Adler, who until last year was a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But schools are under fire because if they don’t do enough, then the students sue, and if they do too much, there’s nobody on the other side really pushing back much.”
Adler learned all about administrative overreaction two years ago, when either one or several students complained about a classroom role-playing exercise. A tenured full professor who’d won both teaching and research awards, Adler’s signature course was called “Deviance in U.S. Society.” Each semester concluded with a skit, in which teaching assistants, former students and friends collaborate on scripts about various figures in the prostitution world, then act them out in front of the class. “That’s how you engage 500 students,” she says of the exercise, which featured characters including an Eastern European “slave whore,” a pimp, a “bar whore,” and a high-end escort. “The class is about the stratification of a deviant subculture,” she says, and the performance was meant to bring that home.
Hearing about the skit now, it’s not surprising it raised red flags for administrators. But it had been a feature of Adler’s class for over 20 years. Each semester, around 500 students saw it, and there had never been any objections, at least until the fall of 2013. That, she says, is when she learned that a teaching assistant had reported that the skit made some students uncomfortable. (In a public statement, the university’s provost said there had been several complaints.) Officials from the university’s discrimination and harassment office then attended that semester’s performance, though Adler hadn’t noticed them. They deemed the skit a risk to the university, and to make the risk go away, Adler says they offered her a buyout.
Adler is adamant that, had she been asked, she’d have ended the role-playing exercise. “They never said to me, ‘We think the skit is a risk to the university and you could be sued,’” she says. “I’m afraid of them. I would have fucking dropped it like a hot potato.” But she didn’t have a chance to answer the charges against her or to revise her curriculum. The administration, she says, just wanted her gone. If she didn’t take the buyout, she was told she could no longer teach her signature course and was warned that should any complaints be lodged against her in the future, “I could be accused of violating sexual harassment policy and fired for cause. I’d lose my retirement benefits, including my medical insurance.”
Adler loved her job, and says she was devastated. (In his statement, the provost disputed Adler’s version of events: “As to comments she has made that she might be fired in the future, I should note that any employee at the University—including faculty members—found responsible for violating the University’s sexual harassment policy, is subject to discipline up to and including termination.”)
Adler was a very popular teacher, and the attempt to push her out caused an uproar. Students started an online petition in her favor; one wrote, “Patti Adler’s deviance class was the best class I have ever taken. In particular, the interactive prostitution lecture was the most memorable and informative lecture I have ever experienced.” The National Coalition Against Censorship, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the Colorado ACLU, and the Student Press Law Center wrote a letter urging the immediate reinstatement of Adler’s class “without further reviews or conditions.” The American Association of University Professors championed Adler’s cause, decrying “an unwarranted and egregious violation of her academic freedom.” She thought about suing, but ultimately decided she “didn’t have the stomach for it.”
Eventually, the public pressure grew so intense that the university said she could continue to teach the Deviance class. Adler, however, still felt her position to be too precarious. She returned for one last semester, then retired. “I wanted to make it seem like they had not beaten me, but I knew I could only stay for a semester,” she says.
“I feel bad that I was caught so unaware, that I hadn’t realized that the codes had shifted,” Adler says. “People would be well advised to quake in their boots when they hear they’re being investigated.”
That is, if they care about advancement in academia. Levinson, who just finished his stint at Emory, does not. He says he never wants to teach undergraduates again, and thus sounds almost merry as he unloads his disgust with the whole process. “The academic world can go shove itself up my ass,” he says. “I’d rather dig ditches than have to deal with a bunch of spoiled rich white kids.”
Ultimately, Levinson says, he gave in to a combination of administrative pressure and fear of being forced to endure the bureaucratic gauntlet of a sexual-harassment investigation. One administrator, he says, told him that while he could fight the potential charges, “at the end of the day he was like don’t bother, it doesn’t even matter. It’s just a stupid grade.” Levinson changed it.
Then, when his fellowship was over and he’d left campus, he logged back in the system and changed it back.