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Why Northwestern investigated a professor for writing an essay about "sexual panic"

Northwestern University's library.
Northwestern University's library.
Jaysin Trevino
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The controversy around Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis started with an essay she wrote in February, defending the right of professors to have relationships with students. But it didn't end there.

"When I was in college," Kipnis's piece in the Chronicle Review read, "hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum."

The response to her essay turned into a controversy of its own — this one much broader, as the university investigated whether Kipnis violated Title IX, the federal law used to fight sexual assault on campus.

Kipnis described this experience as Kafkaesque. She wrote in a second essay that she wasn't allowed to know the charges against her before she met with investigators, and she wasn't allowed to record the proceedings. Prominent commentators, including Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine and Josh Marshall at TPM, cited her case as proof that colleges are going overboard and restricting students' and professors' freedom of speech.

The investigation was ultimately resolved Friday in Kipnis's favor, finding no violations.

Her experience struck a nerve because it hit at the intersection of several emotional discussions about the relationship between colleges and their students. And it added to a raging debate about campus culture, sexual assault, and how much students should be protected from trauma and discomfort. For professors who fear that their students are too easily offended — and have too much power to do something about it when they are — her experience is an illustration of a nightmare scenario.

Northwestern has struggled with professor-student relationships

Flickr user Clara S.

(Clara S.)

Kipnis's first essay was provocative. But students didn't file a formal complaint because she defended professor-student relationships in general. Their objection was to a few paragraphs in the middle of the article, where she described and drew conclusions from a tumultuous case at her own university.

In 2014, an undergraduate student sued Northwestern, saying Peter Ludlow, a philosophy professor, got her drunk while she was underage, forced her to come home with him, and then groped her while she slept. (The professor claimed the student insisted on coming home with him and then made sexual advances.) The student argued that the university didn't take appropriate action after she reported the assault, which led to PTSD and a suicide attempt.

After the undergraduate filed her lawsuit, it became known that a graduate student in philosophy also accused Ludlow of sexually assaulting her. The graduate student had, with help from another faculty member, previously filed a Title IX complaint against him, accusing him of "nonconsensual sex."

Before the undergraduate went public with her lawsuit, Northwestern banned relationships between undergraduates and faculty and put new restrictions on relationships between faculty and graduate students. Like high-profile cases of sexual assault and harassment at other universities, the Ludlow case led to protests and petitions on Northwestern's campus.

Ludlow later sued the university and both students, as well as local media outlets, for defamation. (The case was dismissed.)

Kipnis wrote about those lawsuits — and more — in her essay

Kipnis's essay was published as Northwestern was dealing with the long legal aftermath of the Ludlow case. And she wrote both about the larger issue of student-professor relationship, and the Ludlow case specifically.

Responding to Northwestern's 2014 ban on students dating professors, Kipnis argued that everyone needed to lighten up, calling the prohibitions "feminism hijacked by melodrama."

She argued that the bans were just one symptom of a "sexual panic" on campus. College students have become too vulnerable, she wrote, and are demanding that colleges cocoon them from anything potentially upsetting. She cited trigger warnings, which warn students about potentially traumatic material and give them the option not to engage with it, as well as the use of "survivor" to refer to students who say they've been sexually assaulted. She argued that colleges are infantilizing students, particularly women, who are no longer seen as independent adults who can make their own choices and deal with the consequences.

As part of her argument, Kipnis described and discussed the fallout of the Ludlow situation, including these two paragraphs of commentary:

What a mess. And what a slippery slope, from alleged fondler to rapist. But here’s the real problem with these charges: This is melodrama. I’m quite sure that professors can be sleazebags. I’m less sure that any professor can force an unwilling student to drink, especially to the point of passing out. With what power? What sorts of repercussions can there possibly be if the student refuses?

Indeed, these are precisely the sorts of situations already covered by existing sexual-harassment codes, so if students think that professors have such unlimited powers that they can compel someone to drink or retaliate if she doesn’t, then these students have been very badly educated about the nature and limits of institutional power.

Kipnis made a few factual errors in her essay. She wrote that Ludlow and the graduate student were dating, which the graduate student had not confirmed, and saying that "several" lawsuits from the undergraduate student had been thrown out, when in fact only one was.

The Title IX complaint concerned what Kipnis wrote about the Northwestern case

Sign celebrating Title IX David Sherman/NBA via Getty Images

(David Sherman/NBA)

Northwestern students started a petition calling for the university president to publicly denounce Kipnis's essay. Then two graduate students took their objections further and filed complaints with Northwestern's Title IX coordinator.

Title IX, passed in 1972, forbids gender discrimination in education. It's best known for creating more opportunities for women in sports. But in recent years, it's increasingly being used to hold colleges accountable for how they handle allegations of sexual assault.

Universities are required to investigate Title IX complaints and respond to them — if they don't, the federal Education Department could get involved. Title IX also forbids retaliation against people who report sexual assault, including subjecting them to "adverse action, treatment or conditions."

The complaints against Kipnis argued that her essay, as well as a tweet she wrote about it, was a form of retaliation against the two students who had filed complaints against Ludlow. The complainants and their supporters argued that she dismissed complaints at her own university as unserious and made errors in her writing that diminished the credibility of students who said they had been assaulted.

Northwestern brought in an outside firm to investigate the complaint. The lawyers refused to tell Kipnis the charges against her until they met, and they wouldn't let her record the meeting. People under Title IX investigation can bring a "support person" — in Kipnis's case, another faculty member — but aren't allowed a lawyer.

The lawyers asked her about her fact-checking process, whether she'd spoken with Ludlow, and how she defined "melodrama," according to the Washington Post.

Al Cubbage, Northwestern's spokesman, said he couldn't confirm Kipnis's account of the process, but that "the university is required by federal law to investigate and respond to allegations made by complainants that particular actions or statements might violate Title IX. We are confident that our policies and procedures comply with the law and that they were followed here."

Kipnis said she was cleared of any wrongdoing on Friday. A Title IX complaint filed against the faculty member who served as Kipnis's "support person" during the process was withdrawn.

Kipnis's experience fits into a broader debate about campus culture

Kipnis's experience demonstrates that activists have broad powers to use Title IX to get colleges to address their concerns — complaints, once filed, have to be investigated. And people, including libertarian groups, journalists, and the Harvard law school faculty, have argued that colleges aren't doing enough to protect the rights of the accused in their investigations.

At the same time, some colleges have seen campus debates about limitations on free speech and how much trauma and discomfort students should be exposed to in the classroom. Some students want professors to give them trigger warnings about material that could be potentially upsetting. Protests against commencement speakers are becoming more common. The American Association of University Professors sees these trends as troubling threats to academic freedom.

Kipnis has tenure, and so it's difficult, if not impossible, to fire her for something she wrote. But in her essay, she wrote that she's worried about faculty members who don't — whose numbers are growing:

What’s being lost, along with job security, is the liberty to publish ideas that might go against the grain or to take on risky subjects in the first place. With students increasingly regarded as customers and consumer satisfaction paramount, it’s imperative to avoid creating potential classroom friction with unpopular ideas if you’re on a renewable contract and wish to stay employed. Self-censorship naturally prevails. But even those with tenure fear getting caught up in some horrendous disciplinary process with ad hoc rules and outcomes; pretty much everyone now self-censors accordingly.

Kipnis was cleared of wrongdoing. But by fusing the legal power of Title IX with the emotional debate over the campus culture wars, her experience brought together several trends that are troubling to many professors, free speech advocates, and others. The debate over her essays didn't end with petitions and protests, but extended to potential legal consequences. The fact that those consequences didn't materialize doesn't mean the debate is over.

Correction: A previous version of this article said the graduate student had publicly accused Ludlow of assault, which was not the case.