The following guest post* is by one of parties who filed a Title IX complaint against Laura Kipnis (Northwestern). The author wishes to remain anonymous.
Thoughts from One of the Title IX Complainants
a guest post by Anonymous
Laura Kipnis is right. Those involved in the Title IX complaints at Northwestern, responding to her essay “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” find themselves in a Kafkaesque situation – but what, exactly, is Kafkaesque about this situation is largely missing from public discourse.
I know, because I am one of the students who filed a complaint against her.
Much has been made of the fact that Kipnis’ essay was critiquing new campus policies limiting faculty-student relationships, particularly, the ways in which she believes students have been infantilized as a result of them. The basis for our complaints, however, was not her politics. The theoretical issues she raises are ones that I believe are complex, vexed, and important to discuss in the university, with the full protection of academic freedom for differing views. They are important and the various resolutions are not obvious. I, too, have questions about prohibitions on faculty-student relationships – not because I think students are too coddled but because I worry they risk pushing predatory relationships underground rather than preventing them. If students could be dissuaded from seeking help, should they need it, because their relationship was shrouded in secrecy, that strikes me as reason to be concerned.
It is true that I think the argument Kipnis offered in her essay was intellectually silly and concretely harmful to individuals in our community, but it is simply false that the basis of the complaints raised against her had to do with the stance she takes on these vexed issues. We filed complaints because in her desire to weigh in on the theoretical debate, Kipnis took factual liberties with the specific issues facing students at Northwestern. Her erroneous representation of a particular case at Northwestern, involving living, breathing, human beings, caused tangible further harm to two women already found to have been sexually harassed by a Northwestern professor. Her callous refusal to correct those factual errors once they had been brought to her attention was a violation of the norms of academic integrity, which are a necessary precursor to academic freedom.
Kipnis’ mentions, by way of illustration, the mess of lawsuits arising out of complaints against a philosophy professor. Lest we be confused by her framing, these complaints were neither related to allegations of improper consensual relationships, nor were they a result of our new, purportedly infantilizing, policies. Rather, each was a complaint of assault, one involving an allegation of rape, brought by two independent students against the same professor. Both were found by the university to have been sexually harassed. Our new policies were an effect, not the cause. Both students were since sued by the professor they accused. Both of the suits against them were dismissed.
Multiple people who were in a position to know Kipnis was mistaken in some of the facts contacted her, urging her to issue corrections. She refused (though, after being contacted directly, The Chronicle of Higher Education did make some). Kipnis believes these errors were minor. I wonder, though, if she would find them so very minor were she one of those women being sued by the same professor found to have harassed them. If she were one of those who tried to bring a confidential complaint of assault forward, through the same brutal process Kipnis felt harmed her, only to find herself unwillingly in the midst of extremely public controversy. What if Kipnis were one of those who, just when she wanted to put the most traumatizing part of her life behind her and move on with her education, had a professor of her own university take to national media to publicly misrepresent what happened to her? And worse still, given precisely that awful legal morass, felt unable to make use of her voice, except through the protected use of university procedures?
I am not one of those students either. Nor am I, like Kipnis, a tenured professor. I am a graduate student who knowingly involved myself in a legally volatile situation because Kipnis, intentionally or not, wrote false things about two students found by our university to be victims. I thought standing up for a fellow student in need was the right thing to do when the university was failing to respond to a complaint that one of these women filed, even to let her know they had received it, for almost two weeks (owing to a conflict of interest given a separate complaint filed against our Title IX coordinator). Kipnis was unwilling to make basic factual corrections, though our faculty handbook enjoins her to accuracy. It was made clear to her she was doing harm to two women who had been harmed enough. These women, though they are living what is, to some of us, an unimaginable nightmare, have exhibited bravery and resilience in pursuit of both their own rights and their educations. Now, Kipnis would have us think she is the victim of an inquisition because she was subjected to the very same brutal process that is the only means available to students to make their concerns “safely” known to the university. And we’re the ones with the sense of vulnerability more befitting of children? Seriously? Yes, this is Kafkaesque.
Kipnis is right about the problems with Title IX systems – across campuses, really. I think she should have been allowed to have the charges in writing. I think she should have been allowed to record her meetings with the investigators. These problems, though, are precisely the same problems that students, much more vulnerable than her, without tenure, and often without access to attorneys at all, face regularly – including the students on the other side of the complaints against her (perhaps Kipnis would like to know there was a point in the process where I advocated on her behalf, before her support person later violated a written confidentiality agreement, because a concern had been raised about a comment he made online and the investigators were considering whether he should then be removed from his role in the process; I informed them, in no uncertain terms, I believed it would be a violation of her rights when he had not yet violated university policy).
Of course, there is the issue of academic freedom, but would academic freedom protect, say, falsifying research data? Making unwanted sexual advances in print? Academic freedom is absolutely fundamental to the integrity of the university – but let’s not pretend that what, exactly, it consists in isn’t genuinely a complicated question. Let’s not pretend that it obviously protects a refusal to make basic factual corrections. Whether or not such a refusal amounts to signaling retaliation is a separate question, but shouldn’t we have the right to ask our university that very question? And if you were still concerned that we may have attempted to silence her views by bartering our complaints in exchange for an apology or a gag-order, you need not fear – that never happened and I do not know if Kipnis genuinely thinks it did, or if again, she may be taking liberties to suit her narrative.
Set the question of what rises to retaliation under law aside for a moment. When a student comes forward to her university to say she’s been raped, but she’s terrified of what coming forward would mean for her future, and when a university responds to let her know that they will protect her – “retaliation is strictly prohibited!” they say – what should she think that means? What would you think it means? Would you think you could be sued for filing a complaint? Would you think that a professor at your institution could take to the stage of national media to misrepresent what happened to you, blithely indifferent to yours pleas that she, at the very least, be responsible to facts, whatever her broader opinion? Would you think that the president of your university’s Faculty Senate could violate a written confidentiality agreement by discussing a complaint you filed on the floor of the faculty senate while it was still being investigated? Would you want to come forward, risking your well-being, career, and your future, if any and all of these things could happen without repercussion? Of course not, because no reasonable person would.
Some, of course, will still think I’m a witch-hunting, freedom-hating, harbinger of a new McCarthyism and that Kipnis is fighting on the frontlines of liberty (if only Rosa Parks had so many powerful men on her side). That’s their right, though I think they would be mistaken. Please consider, though, the other woman who filed a complaint against Kipnis. In virtue of her being my colleague and a friend, I know that she has claimed to have been assaulted by a professor. She knows what happened to her, and she will never recant her story, but nonetheless, she regrets coming forward. She regards it as nothing less than a life and career ruining decision. Hold these two facts together in your mind: she believes she was assaulted, and she regrets having ever told another soul. This is the world we live in. It’s not melodramatic; it’s heartbreaking.