There are far too many true stories of universities investigating, punishing, or censoring discussions on matters of public concern. But among them, the ordeal that Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis has endured because of an article she wrote about sex-related issues on campus stands as one of the most ironic and perplexing. She shares all the absurd details in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education today, and it is a must-read.
In late February, Kipnis prompted a heated debate with an essay she penned for The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.” The article addressed student-professor relationships, issues of consent, the language with which we talk about sexual assault, purported emotional “triggers,” and the messy lawsuits that arise out of alleged sexual encounters with little evidence and hearings with few procedural safeguards, among other topics. In response, Northwestern students protested the piece and asked the university to officially condemn it.
Of course, students are free to criticize the essay. Student responses could have led to an open discussion on the topic. Instead, Kipnis was hit with Title IX complaints filed by two students over the essay and a subsequent tweet she had posted from her personal account. She hadn’t named any students in her essay or tweet; she had remarked only on nationally reported cases. Yet she was being charged under the same provision that normally protects students from discrimination and targeted harassment.
The substantive grounds for the charges are bad enough. How can society address the serious issue of campus sexual assault if professors (or anyone else, for that matter) are subjected to investigations for voicing opinions that some students don’t like? And what is left of academic freedom if, as Kipnis writes, “students get to dictate what professors can or can’t write about”?
The university’s procedures, though, were a whole other problem. Torch readers know that if an institution values due process principles at all, it will—at the very least—provide individuals accused of a violation detailed notice of the charges against them and a meaningful opportunity to defend themselves. The notice provided to Kipnis, however, appears to have fallen far short of this basic, minimal standard. Kipnis described her efforts to find out what exactly she allegedly did wrong:
I wrote back to the Title IX coordinator asking for clarification: When would I learn the specifics of these complaints, which, I pointed out, appeared to violate my academic freedom? And what about my rights — was I entitled to a lawyer? I received a polite response with a link to another website. No, I could not have an attorney present during the investigation, unless I’d been charged with sexual violence. I was, however, allowed to have a "support person" from the university community there, though that person couldn’t speak. I wouldn’t be informed about the substance of the complaints until I met with the investigators.
Apparently the idea was that they’d tell me the charges, and then, while I was collecting my wits, interrogate me about them. The term "kangaroo court" came to mind. I wrote to ask for the charges in writing. The coordinator wrote back thanking me for my thoughtful questions.
Eventually, Kipnis was allowed to hear the charges before being questioned—but only after repeated efforts and protests.
According to Kipnis, one of the complainants against her claimed “the essay had a ‘chilling effect’ on students’ ability to report sexual misconduct.” It is very difficult to see how a professor’s rehashing of already widely-reported allegations would have an effect on sexual misconduct reports—unless the mere fact that a professor is examining allegations critically would chill reports. But students’ comfort cannot trump community members’ right to question public allegations.
The other complainant objected to her being mentioned—not by name—as well as to Kipnis’s omission of information that the complainant felt should have been included. As far as Title IX has been stretched, under no credible interpretation could it compel speech by a university professor outside of her job duties.
A lack of notice wasn’t the only procedural problem. Northwestern hired outside counsel to question Kipnis and disallowed her from bringing an attorney of her own and from recording their sessions. Though she was told to keep her case confidential, a student took to The Huffington Post to opine on Kipnis’s essay and the complaints against her. And despite Kipnis being told that those multitasking as investigators, judge, and jury would arrive at a decision within 60 days, they have failed to do so.
Astoundingly, that’s not all. Kipnis writes:
In the meantime, new Title IX complaints have been filed against the faculty-support person who accompanied me to the session with the investigators. As a member of the Faculty Senate, whose bylaws include the protection of academic freedom — and believing the process he’d witnessed was a clear violation of academic freedom — he’d spoken in general terms about the situation at a senate meeting. Shortly thereafter, as the attorneys investigating my case informed me by phone, retaliation complaints were filed against him for speaking publicly about the matter (even though the complaints against me had already been revealed in the graduate student’s article), and he could no longer act as my support person. Another team of lawyers from the same firm has been appointed to conduct a new investigation.
Essentially, the situation is this: Writing about sex can land you under a Title IX investigation. Questioning the morality and practicality of that investigation can also land you under a Title IX investigation.
Professors, Kipnis writes, are aware of the increasing hostility towards the discussion of controversial issues on campus, and she describes the deleterious effect this is having on the learning environment:
Most academics I know — this includes feminists, progressives, minorities, and those who identify as gay or queer — now live in fear of some classroom incident spiraling into professional disaster. After the essay appeared, I was deluged with emails from professors applauding what I’d written because they were too frightened to say such things publicly themselves. My inbox became a clearinghouse for reports about student accusations and sensitivities, and the collective terror of sparking them, especially when it comes to the dreaded subject of trigger warnings, since pretty much anything might be a "trigger" to someone, given the new climate of emotional peril on campuses.
I learned that professors around the country now routinely avoid discussing subjects in classes that might raise hackles. A well-known sociologist wrote that he no longer lectures on abortion. Someone who’d written a book about incest in her own family described being confronted in class by a student furious with her for discussing the book. A tenured professor on my campus wrote about lying awake at night worrying that some stray remark of hers might lead to student complaints, social-media campaigns, eventual job loss, and her being unable to support her child. I’d thought she was exaggerating, but that was before I learned about the Title IX complaints against me.
Kipnis makes clear her awareness that today’s article puts her at risk for yet more trouble with the university, and her decision to speak out regardless is commendable. It will be interesting to see how many meta-complaints it takes before Northwestern realizes the ridiculousness and counter-productiveness of drawn-out investigations for discussions about sex, sexual assault, and disciplinary procedures. It should be obvious that no problems are solved by having fewer frank conversations.