Laura Kipnis
‘Unwanted Advances’ shows Laura Kipnis’ critiques of academic culture more relevant than ever

By April 11, 2017

Two years after blowing the lid off her Title IX investigation by Northwestern University, professor Laura Kipnis has published “Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus,” a more in-depth analysis of the issues first explored in her 2015 Chronicle of Higher Education feature, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.” If it feels like only yesterday that Kipnis stepped out with her criticism, it’s because in the two intervening years that criticism has, if anything, only increased in relevance.

The “paranoia” Kipnis dissected in her earlier writing is a reference to the stigmatization of romantic relationships between faculty and students, which, during the years of Kipnis’ education and her earlier years as a professor, were considered far more acceptable. Today, by comparison, they are highly taboo. At some campuses they are outright prohibited, and even where they aren’t, faculty consider them highly inadvisable, at best. (I’ll note now that faculty-student relationships and questions of whether or how they should, or shouldn’t, be sanctioned by universities are not matters within FIRE’s mission.)

The portion of Kipnis’ February 2015 Chronicle essay that aroused particular furor from Northwestern students (and led to two of them filing Title IX complaints against her) briefly described, without naming names, the case of a philosophy professor at Northwestern who had been accused of sexual assault by a student he had socialized with. Kipnis did not yet know Peter Ludlow, the unnamed professor in the article, and what brief mention she made of his case came from publicly available information, including a lawsuit the student had filed against Ludlow. In the end, not one, but two students would make claims against Ludlow, and one of these students also filed a Title IX complaint against Kipnis for writing about the case.

(I won’t go into extensive detail about Ludlow’s case here, but I recommend interested readers check out this excerpt in The Chronicle of Higher Education, this review in The Guardian. And also, of course, buy Kipnis’ book.)

In the wake of Kipnis’ sudden notoriety following her scathing critique of Northwestern’s Title IX process, Ludlow asked Kipnis to act as his “faculty advocate” in his pending termination hearing. Kipnis agreed to act in this capacity, despite not having known Ludlow either personally or professionally. Based on what she knew from the publicly available information about Ludlow’s case at the time, Kipnis wasn’t sure dismissal was an unjust sanction. Yet her own experience inside Northwestern’s Title IX machine and her firsthand accounting of its obtuseness, opaqueness, and inquisitorial nature motivated her to accept. She also felt certain that the proceedings amounted to a show trial, and that the university was absolutely set on dismissing Ludlow.

“Of course I said yes—it was like being offered front-row seats at a witch trial,” she writes.

The Ludlow case’s lessons, for Northwestern and beyond

Peter Ludlow resigned from Northwestern rather than see the process through to its conclusion. An upshot of his leaving Northwestern was that he was able to give Kipnis his entire case file without condition for her to write and report on as she wished. Her unwinding of Ludlow’s case file, and the troubling conclusions she reaches about the credibility of both accusers’ claims against Ludlow and the fairness of Northwestern’s Title IX process, form the bulk of “Unwanted Advances.”

As I said before, the faculty-student relationship dynamics are not a matter within FIRE’s mission. Nevertheless, the extensive analysis Kipnis provides readers is of great interest and importance. For one, university Title IX processes are so murky and confounding that it’s rare for the general public to be provided as in-depth an examination of a case as Kipnis has given to Ludlow’s. This in itself has significant value.

There’s another reason why it’s valuable to have so much insight into the process Ludlow faced: One can be accused of a lot less than sexual assault and find themselves in the teeth of a university Title IX process very similar to the one Ludlow faced. As Laura Kipnis’ own case proves, sometimes all you have to do is write about what’s already publicly available.

While “Unwanted Advances” focuses significantly on her and Ludlow’s experiences at Northwestern, she makes a point of saying multiple times that the problem is bigger than Northwestern’s. Indeed, Northwestern could be a stand-in for any number of universities struggling with the same challenges.

What’s more, while Kipnis focuses largely on cases stemming from the messy dynamics of relationships, she also emphasizes a point that our past few years of experience at FIRE can vouch for without question: Universities are more than willing to extend the reach of their Title IX investigations into the classroom, directly implicating faculty members’ teaching and research while brushing aside questions of academic freedom. Kipnis cites, among other disturbing cases, the plight of one intellectual historian:

[The professor] was summoned by his university’s vice president of institutional diversity and equity (who was also the Title IX officer) to justify his having assigned ex-slave Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, in conjunction with studying Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. … The accused professor’s grad students also objected to being assigned readings by feminist scholars whose views on gender they disagreed with. The professor was presented by the diversity officer with a list of twenty-seven garbled remarks he’d supposedly made; when he tried to explain the remarks, the diversity officer likened the professor, who’d grown up in Nazi-occupied Belgium, to Hitler. At first he thought she was comparing Hegel to Hitler, but she later repeated the Hitler comparison to the university’s grievance committee when the professor filed a complaint. The professor was forbidden from teaching the same course again.

Obviously specious claims, ‘preponderance of the evidence,’ and more

I could go into a lot further detail about any number of the angles Kipnis takes in “Unwanted Advances.” Her contention that Title IX investigations are increasingly premised on the presumption of the lack of agency of complainants and unending powers of manipulation of professors is one that should make universities nervous. As she writes, “for the bureaucrats writing our campus codes, only the crudest versions of top-down power are imaginable. Students are putty in the hands of an all-powerful professoriate.” Yet it is quite easy, as I’ve found to my great frustration diving into numerous faculty cases over the years, for even obviously specious claims to derail an academic career.

I’ll note finally that Kipnis’ analyses of the process Ludlow faced highlight as well as any account the pitfalls of the “preponderance of the evidence” standard of proof that has been mandated by the federal government’s Office for Civil Rights in Title IX investigations. Kipnis wants her readers to decide for themselves whether Ludlow was rightly or wrongly judged by Northwestern, but it is especially evident from her account that the low preponderance standard makes it very easy for investigators to make subjective judgments against one party or the other based on little more than one’s predisposition toward either the complainant or the accused. If Kipnis’ analysis is faithful, Ludlow was harmed at multiple stages of the process because Northwestern’s Title IX investigator was inclined to treat his every defense as suspect by nature. When the preponderance standard is “fifty percent plus a feather,” one’s biases and prejudices can easily provide the needed featherweight. Everyone, complainants and accused parties, stands to lose under this system.

When I thanked Kipnis for having a copy of the book sent to me, she told me I was “as much an insider to all this as anyone in the country.” To the extent that’s true, it’s in part due to her efforts. After speaking out about her case, Kipnis became a beacon for faculty around the country who faced similar trials, but felt cowed into silence or unsure of where to turn. Many of those professors who contacted Kipnis about their cases found their way to FIRE, at her urging. I’ve received more than a few emails in the past couple of years that opened with a variant of “Laura Kipnis suggested I contact you.” Difficult as these professors’ cases can be, I’m glad to hear their stories, and glad more that Laura Kipnis has been so determined to tell hers. “Unwanted Advances” provides a crucial context to the political and cultural battles being waged on campuses today. No understanding of the current state of higher education is complete without reckoning with Kipnis’ arguments.

Schools: Northwestern University