A Response to Daily Nous (guest post by Laura Kipnis)

The following is a guest post* by Laura Kipnis, professor in Northwestern University’s School of Communication. Professor Kipnis wrote an opinion piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” in which she argued against certain policies and attitudes regarding sexual relations between faculty and students. In doing so, she referred to two Title IX  cases at Northwestern involving students and a philosophy professor at Northwestern. Two graduate students then filed Title IX complaints against Professor Kipnis, on grounds that her discussion of the cases appeared to constitute retaliation. The university investigated the complaint, a process Professor Kipnis described in a second article for the Chronicle, “My Title IX Inquisition.” These articles were discussed previously at Daily Nous in a post by me and a guest post by one of the complainants. In what follows, Professor Kipnis responds to these posts.

A Response to Daily Nous
by Laura Kipnis

So much has been written about the Title IX complaints against me and the recent Chronicle essay I wrote discussing them that I haven’t tried to keep up, let alone respond to inaccuracies, which have been plentiful. I also generally don’t respond to critics: people are allowed to disagree or say what they want about what I write; I’d rather think about the next article than defend the previous ones. There’s only so much you can control in the world, and what people say about what you write isn’t one of them.

But I do want to correct the misimpression created by “Anonymous” that the Title IX cases against me had to do, primarily, with factual inaccuracies. It’s irritating to read something inaccurate that’s purporting to combat inaccuracy.

I made a few small, insubstantial factual errors—of the sort corrected every day in newspapers like the New York Times—in trying to condense the publically available documents about various lawsuits involving Professor Ludlow down to two paragraphs.

These were the errors I made: I mistakenly referred to a current graduate student as a “former” graduate student, because she was referred to in the past tense in a legal filing: “was a graduate student at the time.”  (I didn’t, at the time, know the name of student in question.) The Chronicle article, which was supposed to be published in March, went online a few days early, on February 27; I’d written about a legal decision as taking place “last month”—i.e. in February—thinking the issue date would be March. This was one of the inaccuracy charges. Another error was my writing that “several” lawsuits by the undergraduate in the Ludlow case had been thrown out. At the time, one suit had been thrown out, one had not been allowed to proceed, and there had also been an unsuccessful attempt to get financial restitution. Another suit was pending an outcome. Keeping track of the status of these various cases was difficult as there was no master chronology available, and I was trying to collate information from different sources. The Chronicle ran a correction stating that one suit had been thrown out, not several.

But other facts are in contention: the professor used the word “dating” to describe his relationship with a graduate student in his defamation suit; I thus used the word “dating” in my piece. The Chronicle later added this clarification: “It would be more accurate to say that he had dated her according to his complaint.”  To be clear, I wasn’t trying to speak to the precise nature of the relationship between the complainant and the professor—which was and is in contention—so much as trying to use the most innocuous word available to characterize the disputed situation.

This speaks to my purpose in writing about the case of the graduate student and the professor, which is at the crux of the Title IX complaints. My intention was not to write about that case. I’ve been accused of conflating the two cases against Ludlow, that of the undergraduate and that of the graduate student. I didn’t. The undergrad’s case had been extensively written about and commented on; that was the case I chose to write about. As far as the graduate student, there were seven words about her in the essay: “a former grad student he previously dated”; this occurs when I list various parties the professor sued for defamation.

Let me explain why I didn’t say more about the case. The only account I had access to was the professor’s. Though all the information I drew on was in the public record, there was also a lot of private (and unverifiable) information about the graduate student’s life that I had no desire to comment on, or further circulate, even though the student wasn’t named. Once again, most of the facts and sexual allegations were—and are—in contention. To write about the complexities of that situation would have taken an article in itself, even if I’d been able to interview both parties involved, which I wasn’t. And I would have had to write both sides of the story, not one. But it also wasn’t my purpose to write a reported piece on this case; I was writing two paragraphs in an essay that took on many additional subjects.

The irony of the Title IX complaints is that the complainants somehow completely misread swathes of my essay that had nothing whatsoever to do with the graduate student’s case—along with a subsequent tweet—as referring to the grad student. The Title IX investigators painstakingly verified that these were misreadings, following a 72 day investigation. Their additional finding was that whatever errors I made in the piece were both minor and unintentional, and more importantly, could not be construed, by a “reasonable person,” as either retaliatory or creating a chilling effect on anyone’s ability to report sexual misconduct.

As to my refusing to correct those errors, this is simply wrong. I never refused, because I wasn’t aware of the errors until the Chronicle got emails from people speaking on behalf of “Anonymous.” Let me explain. I got hundreds of emails after the first Chronicle essay, and it took me weeks to read through them. Also, I have to confess that I simply don’t read emails from angry readers, as the ones to me on behalf of “Anonymous” looked to be. (If you publish on controversial topics you get a certain amount of angry email.) I glance at the first line, then file them—fair notice to all those who plan to email angry things to me about this post.

I understand why the complainants wish I’d written the essay from their perspective rather than my own. And I better understand, after reading through the two 60-page reports on the case—as I was permitted to do once the case was resolved—some of the negative feelings my essays may have provoked. I even understand why, once “My Title IX Inquisition” came out (to generally positive response), the complainants might now want to dial back on the specifics of their charges, which look even more extreme in retrospect. The bottom line is that bringing Title IX complaints over exceedingly minor errors in a publication you disagree with and naming them “retaliation” is an abuse of the process. To then keep on pressing a bad case in public even after it’s been arbitrated and you’ve been told you’re wrong, is worthy of a correction.

For the record, I don’t think I’m any sort of victim, and I do think the Title IX process worked, though after a massive waste of resources. (I’m guessing 75K or more in legal fees, having now seen the reports.) As far as the Ludlow cases, I think the Title IX process was even more flawed there than in my situation—in both cases, according to documents in the public record, rulings were made on the basis of policies that didn’t exist; rulings were made based on facts that weren’t in evidence. The rules of evidence were arbitrary. I can’t comment on the outcomes because I don’t have access to the complete files, but when I wrote that students have the power to derail a professor’s career these days, I meant that the vectors of power have shifted, which is patently true, not that some careers shouldn’t be derailed.

As I wrote in a letter to the Chronicle in April, I wasn’t trying to defend Ludlow’s “dating” career in the original essay. My own opinion is that any professor who dates students these days is risking professional suicide, though that doesn’t change my critique of consensual relations codes. I think there’s also a lot more to say, and say more honestly, about the allures of power and charisma in these kinds of situations. Desire isn’t only the preserve of professors; let’s not forget that students are agents too, and unequal power can be the basis of attraction. Meaning the situations that arise aren’t black and white—not melodramas, in other words (darkness vs. light is one of melodrama’s big motifs). But I actually had other targets in mind than who dates whom or this professor: I was writing about an academic culture that misunderstands power and magnifies students’ sense of vulnerability.

Nothing I’ve learned during this drawn-out process changes my mind about that culture: the effects of this style of thinking are disastrous, personally and intellectually, for students. The extravagant misreading of my original Chronicle essay, as detailed in the reports, convinces me of that more than anything.

[Note to commenters: Comments are moderated, as per the comments policy. See here.]

[Additional note to commenters: speculation as to the veracity of any of the parties involved in the cases under discussion, or about whether any of the relevant events under discussion took place, greatly increases the chances of your comment not being approved.]


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