RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There's a war of ideas happening on college campuses these days. A university has an obligation to protect students from sexual assault. Professors have a right to free speech. A recent case at Northwestern University has illustrated how high the stakes are when the two ideas clash. It started when Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education back in February. In it, she pushes back against rules at the school regulating romantic relationships between teachers and students. The response to the essay was intense. Two graduate students filed complaints against her. And the school opened a Title IX investigation. Laura Kipnis was cleared in that investigation a couple of weeks ago and spoke to us about the experience. I asked her to tell us about the original essay, which took issue with Northwestern's restrictions on student-teacher relationships.
LAURA KIPNIS: I'm a feminist, and I think women have been fighting to be treated as consenting adults for, you know, God knows how long - 150 years at least. And this seemed to take consent away from people who are consenting adults and place it in the hands of university administrators. You know, I came of age after the sexual revolution and before HIV-AIDS, and we didn't think of sex as so much of an injury as maybe like a form of freedom, as a type of experimentation. And I see a really different attitude in my students. I think the kind of sex education they get or maybe it's part of the cultural climate - I think they see sex much more as a potential harm, as a potential injury. I mean, it's not as though they're not out there experimenting. But there is a climate of, I think, a kind of panic. And it seems to also have something to do with this problem or question of intergenerational relations. You know, it's as if almost all relations are potentially incestuous. So I was just curious about that. And I talked about the use of this word survivor in this new climate of sexual assault. And, you know, it's a term that got appropriated from, you know, Holocaust survivors to talk about incest - survivors of people who had experienced incest. And so the transmission of this language, you know, as a cultural critic. That was something that interested me.
MARTIN: So the piece stirred up a whole lot of response. Students at Northwestern staged a protest, started a petition calling for the school president to publicly denounce your essay. Two graduate students then took another step, actually filed complaints with Northwestern's Title IX coordinator. Title IX being that provision of federal law dealing with gender discrimination on campus. So this really elevated it to a completely different level.
KIPNIS: It was a crazy thing to get this letter from the Title IX officer because, you know, I was befuddled. I had no idea Title IX could cover such things as a publication. And, in fact, I don't think it does. I think it was an attempt to stretch Title IX past the issues it's meant to deal with.
MARTIN: We should clarify that the Title IX complaint wasn't levied against you because of the gist of your argument or that you put this idea out there about professor-student relationships. It was that you used a specific example - a case of a couple of students who had alleged sexual misconduct against them. And so it was that characterization of that case that they cited in the Title IX complaint. I guess the point people are pushing you on, though, is that the essay may have implied that there's not a problem with sexual misconduct on campus. Are you arguing that that debate in our culture, the problem in general has been overblown?
KIPNIS: Well, I disagree with you that the complaints against me didn't have to do with the point of view of the article. It's true, I did talk about a case that had been ongoing on campus. But I actually didn't talk about the substance of the case in the article. But to say that I'm not concerned about harassment and assault is - I don't know - it's a complete mischaracterization. I mean, of course, I do care about it. But I also think one of the things that's happened in the current climate is that what is defined as assault or rape, the boundaries have really stretched and so that sexual episodes that might once have been considered ambivalent sex are now getting re-construed as assault. And these very murky situations are being presented to Title IX officers to deal with, like mutual drunkenness or someone having later, you know, re-characterized something that was, you know, a murky situation into something that was clear-cut assault. And they're making these judgments in these secret sorts of tribunals where the rules of evidence are in question; there is no procedure. People who are accused of far worse things than I was - you know, students accused of sexual assault don't have lawyers. They don't know what the rules of evidence are. And so I think the whole process just has to be more transparent than it is.
MARTIN: I know you're arguing there's excessive regulation of sexual behavior. And you don't think that's a good idea. But is there no roll for some governance of conduct? I mean, between professors and students, you can argue that it's sexual liberation. You have to give women agency. But is that really worth the risk of creating a kind of instability that romantic relationships in school settings - like in work settings - can trigger?
KIPNIS: Well, again, I think you're overstating what my position is or what the argument was. I mean, I'm certainly not arguing against any form of regulation. And I think there is a real role for Title IX. And, you know anything, to do with say quid pro quo harassment, you know, professors saying I'll give you a better grade if you sleep with me - I mean, that kind of thing, I think those people should be fired. But, you know, the situation I was in was writing about these codes, and I might have been taking somewhat contrarian position. But, you know, we still are supposed to have free speech and academic freedom to talk about ideas that might be controversial.
MARTIN: Do you think that that is changing? I mean, has this whole episode made you rethink how you talk about these tough issues publicly or whether you engage in this kind of debate at all?
KIPNIS: I think it hasn't so much on me, but I have tenure. I think for the 50 percent of academics who now don't have tenure or are in tenure-stream jobs, I think it definitely has a censoring or self-censoring effect on what's going to be said, particularly on this kind of subject.
MARTIN: Laura Kipnis, professor at Northwestern University. She joined us on the line from Chicago. Thank you so much.
KIPNIS: Thank you, Rachel.
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In March 2015, news reached Laura Kipnis, a high-profile professor who teaches film-making at Northwestern University, Illinois, that a group of students had staged a protest against her in response to an essay she had written in a journal called the Chronicle of Higher Education. She was, to say the least, nonplussed. For one thing, the students had carried with them mattresses and pillows, items that since 2014 have been a symbol of student-on-student assault. (This is due to Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University student who spent a year dragging a mattress around as a piece of performance art to protest over the university’s ruling in a sexual assault complaint she filed against another student.) Why, Kipnis wondered, had they done this? Her essay was about new codes in American universities prohibiting professor-student relationships, not sexual assault. For another, part of her argument with these new rules was that in addition to infantilising students, they would only heighten the accusatory atmosphere on campus. When the students spoke of their “visceral reaction” to her article and demanded that the authorities protect them from her “terrifying” ideas, they appeared to her only to be proving her point on both counts.
The president of Northwestern, Morton Schapiro, said that he would “consider” the students’ petition. At this, Kipnis was amused, not indignant. Yes, it was preposterous. But why had she written the piece if not to provoke a reaction? In the company of her colleagues, among whom she detected a certain jealousy of her new-found notoriety (the story was reported nationwide), she found herself shamelessly dropping the protest into conversation. Her pride, however, dimmed somewhat when soon afterward she received an email informing her that two graduate students had filed a formal complaint against her on the basis of her essay, and that the university had retained a team of investigators to handle the case. This complaint had been made under the aegis of Title IX, a federal statute originally implemented in 1972 to address gender discrimination in universities, but which has since extended, thanks to the US Department of Education’s office of civil rights, into such areas as gender identity and sexual violence. As such, it could ultimately have led to her being fired.
Sexual harassment: records show how University of California faculty target students
Kipnis, who is 60, is a well-known liberal feminist and cultural thinker, tough and rather funny, whose tone on the page – she writes quite a lot of journalism – suggests an eyebrow permanently raised. She began her career as a video artist, and has published, down the years, a series of witty, contrarian, much talked about books. Against Love: A Polemic was an indictment of our idealism in the matter of relationships; How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behaviour pondered the behaviour of, among others, Linda Tripp – who exposed Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky – and the discredited memoirist James Frey. Naturally, she was not inclined to take the complaints against her lying down, and once the investigation was over – it lasted 72 days, at the end of which she was exonerated of her spurious crimes – she wrote a second essay, this one about the opaque Title IX process. No professor had ever gone public in this way about a Title IX case, and something of a storm ensued, one consequence of which was that her email inbox was soon flooded with messages from students and lecturers who had been similarly treated. Thus she entered what she calls in her disquieting new book, a “netherworld of… rigged investigations and closed door hearings”.
Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, which gathers all that she learned about this netherworld together, is a slim but caustic volume the imminent publication of which, Kipnis believes, is likely to test the limits of what can and can’t be said about the current situation in many, if not most, American universities – though in fact the reckoning has already begun.
“The other week, I gave a talk at Wellesley [a private, liberal women’s arts college in Massachusetts],” she says, when we talk on Skype (sitting at her desk, she is by turns thoughtful, angry and, sometimes, slightly gleeful). “When I was there, it went fine. There was a great discussion, and I went out to dinner with a group of students. But a group of women made a video denouncing me before I even arrived – they attacked me for being a white feminist – and afterwards six faculty members at Wellesley wrote an email [to their colleagues] saying, in effect, that I shouldn’t have been invited to speak and that students need to be protected from views that are injurious to them.” The letter in question was posted on the website of Fire (the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education). As ridiculous as it is, it makes for sobering reading. Among other things, its signatories lament the fact that so-called controversial speakers negatively impact students by forcing them to “invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments”.
There are, she thinks, few better ways to subjugate women than to convince them that assault lies around every corner
The bigger question, though, is why anyone would think Kipnis worthy – in this instance at least – of the word “controversial”. Read Unwanted Advances and it is the unconstitutional processes of Title IX and all who sail in it that seem controversial, not her. Has she supporters, too? “Yes, and I think the book will embolden people to make their own cases public, which can only be a good thing. I’m all for transparency. No one knows how much of this is happening.”
She hesitates. “But you do end up making strange bedfellows. The people supporting free speech now are the conservatives. It’s incomprehensible to me, but it’s the so-called liberals on campus, the students who think of themselves as activists, who are becoming increasingly authoritarian. So I’m trying to step carefully. It’s not like you want to make certain allies, particularly the men’s rights people.”
Did she tell Northwestern she was writing her book? Has the clearing of her name left her untouchable, or does she still fear reprisals? “Funnily enough, I just wrote notes to the president and to my dean, and sent them copies. My dean knew the book was coming out; I just wanted to give them a heads-up there is likely to be a wave of publicity. To answer your second question, though, I think it’s all very much in contention. There are different forces and factions in contestation. I am, I hope, somewhat insulated by having tenure. But I also can’t know what is going to happen to me. I guess you weigh the risks. My feeling in life is that you don’t want to act more fearfully than you have to.”
Her book is shot through with irony, a mode she feels to be more productive than anger. But this isn’t to say that the investigation into her conduct didn’t leave her feeling incredibly anxious. “I didn’t really think I would end up getting fired. But it did wake me up in the middle of the night. All that stuff Kafka wrote about is true: the inner sense of guilt that even an innocent person can feel. I would imagine myself in this interrogation situation – which, by the way, is pretty much what happened.”
Kipnis’s original essay was provoked by an email she received about a year before, informing her that relationships – dating, romantic or sexual – between undergraduates and faculty members at Northwestern were now banned. The same email informed her that relationships between graduates and staff, though not forbidden, were also problematic, and had to be reported to department chairs. “It annoyed me,” she says. The language was neutral, but it seemed clear that it was mostly women this code was meant to protect. She thought of all those she knew who are married to former students, or who are the children of such couples, and wondered where this left them. It seemed to her this was part of a process that was transforming the “professoriate” into a sexually suspicious class: “would-be harassers all, sexual predators in waiting”. It was also of a piece with a wider mood. Another recent directive from Northwestern to its staff suggested they avoid making “unnecessary references to parts of the body”.
On-campus attitudes to sex are, by Kipnis’s account, growing ever more sharply contradictory. As in the wider world, sexuality is often on public display. But people are also ready to be offended, and students ready to sue: hence the cautionary “dear colleague” emails. And into this mess has stepped officialdom, in the form of Title IX, whose guidelines are at once so vague and so all-encompassing that Kipnis could be accused of “creating a hostile environment on campus” simply for having written an essay.
Universities are, she says, “bludgeoned into compliance” with Title IX because failure to do otherwise may lead to the withdrawal of federal funding. Those deemed insufficiently vigilant may also find themselves on the receiving end of an Office for Civil Rights (OCR) investigation, which can last four years, and cost up to $350,000 (Princeton and Harvard have, for instance, faced three such investigations; she believes there are some 300 currently under way across the US). Thus, the authorities seem to be unwilling to object to the relatively low standard of proof demanded in Title IX cases. Many colleges don’t even allow the accused person to present a defence. The “survivor” – this is a commonly used word in these cases – must always be believed.
The ostensible grounds for the Title IX complaints against Kipnis were that in her essay she had written four paragraphs about Peter Ludlow, a popular Northwestern philosophy professor who had been accused twice of sexual misconduct with students. At that point, she had never met Ludlow. Everything she included in the piece was based on publicly available information. Nevertheless, her accusers regarded her statements about him as, to use Title IX parlance, “retaliatory”. They had filed their complaints, they said, on behalf of the two women who had accused Ludlow of sexual misconduct, as well as on behalf of “the university community” that had found Kipnis’s piece “chilling”.
During the investigation into her conduct, Kipnis was told that she could not involve a lawyer, that she could not record her sessions with the investigators Northwestern had employed, and that she would not learn the charges against her until she was sitting in front of these investigators (ie she would have no time to prepare her answers to their questions – though she fought this, and won). I can’t, here, wander too deeply into the chilling labyrinth in which she subsequently found herself – read her book if you want your blood to freeze – but the Kafka-esque nature of it all reached a bizarre climax when, on day 60 of the investigation, her accusers filed yet more Title IX complaints. This time they were against a faculty member who had spoken out about her case, which he saw as a violation of her academic freedom, and against Morton Schapiro, who had written a column for the Wall Street Journal about academic freedom, a piece the accusers regarded as a veiled commentary on the Kipnis case (the president had, in fact, not mentioned it in his article).
And what of Peter Ludlow, whose story she went on to more fully investigate for her book? “I try not to be his defender,” she says. “I want people to make up their own minds about him.” He was, she thinks, certainly foolish. “But he is also unemployed and unemployable as far as I know.” Having resigned from Northwestern before he was pushed, and finding himself effectively blacklisted by other institutions, he is now living in Mexico. Ludlow was accused twice under Title IX, first by an undergraduate Kipnis calls Eunice Cho in her book, and then by a graduate student, Nola Hartley (also a pseudonym). In essence, Cho accused Ludlow of groping her in his apartment, where she had gone of her own volition after they had had a night out together. He denied this, but Northwestern’s Title IX officer chose to believe Cho. Ludlow was duly stripped of his named chair, had his salary cut, and was required to complete a harassment prevention training programme.
But then came Hartley’s accusations. As I read Unwanted Advances, I was inclined to give Cho the benefit of the doubt: as Kipnis is the first to admit, sexual harassment exists in universities, as it does everywhere, and those involved should expect to be disciplined. Hartley’s allegations, however, seemed to be of a different order altogether. She and Ludlow had seemingly been in a relationship: a consensual relationship documented in dozens of fond texts and emails that Kipnis has seen. She was a 25-year-old graduate student, and he was not her supervisor. It wasn’t, moreover, until two years after this relationship ended that she rang her thesis adviser and told her that Ludlow had once had sex with her without her consent (it was this adviser who contacted the university’s Title IX officer).
In her book, Kipnis ruthlessly unpicks Hartley’s story. Among the evidence she uses to do so are emails Hartley sent to Ludlow the morning after the alleged rape, apologising for having hurt him – she was also seeing a man she later married – and telling him that she loved him and would always be in his life; a receipt from the nearby hotel where Ludlow spent the night alone, apparently devastated that Hartley could not bring herself to choose him over his rival; and the fact that the couple remained on good terms for a while after she eventually ended the relationship. Confronted with the same evidence by a Title IX investigator, Hartley changed her story: perhaps she had been wrong about the date of the alleged rape. Nevertheless, the investigator favoured her version of events. She couldn’t rule on the rape – and the police were not involved – but Ludlow had, it could be said, taken advantage of the “unequal power balance between them”. After this, the university began dismissal proceedings. Hartley, by the way, was one of the two students who made Title IX complaints against Kipnis.
My interest in Kipnis’s book was sparked initially by my own history. I was one of a small group of women who fought to bring in a sexual harassment code at my college in the late 1980s, and what I remember is how badly we felt it was needed, and how much resistance there was to the idea that clever people could also be in the habit of pinching bums, or worse. But I am also the product of a student-lecturer relationship: my brother and I, and two of our sisters, would not exist if my father had not twice married those that he taught. I’m sure my father’s behaviour was, knowing both him and the times (I am the eldest, and I was born in 1969), sometimes reprehensible. No doubt he would, and would be expected to, behave differently now. Nevertheless, it seems completely mad to me to try to outlaw relationships between what are, after all, consenting adults. Where else are people expected to meet, if not in the places where they spend most of their time? Imagine if it was decreed that theatre directors could not sleep with actors, that editors were forbidden from having affairs with writers, and that junior teachers were not allowed to fall in love with more senior staff. The very idea is absurd.
The more I read, however, the more horrified I grew, particularly since where America leads we tend to follow. While we can never know the truth about what happened in the Ludlow case – and plenty of people believe that he got what he deserved, and that Hartley is to be considered a survivor and applauded for her courage – Kipnis includes others that are both far more outlandish and more legally dubious. One involves a student suspended from a college after a woman reported the love bite she’d seen on the neck of a female friend to a Title IX officer (third party complaints are permitted under its rubric). The friend has said repeatedly that her encounter with the suspended student was consensual. Another involves two students who have never, by their own accounts, even touched each other (it is a series of text messages they sent to each other that is being investigated).
Kipnis, though, sees these cases through a feminist prism as much as a legal and moral one – and perhaps this is one reason why some are so eager to attack her. She is saying things that many younger feminists do not want to hear. There are, she thinks, few better ways to subjugate women than to convince them that assault lies around every corner, and she believes, too, that the current climate all but ignores female agency (“he made me get drunk”). Sex – that muddled, confusing thing – is, on American campuses, now more strongly associated with hazard than with freedom, which is something she regrets. It is so different from when she was young. Above all, the concept of “consent” is cloudy, subject to change. “Years later, sex that was consensual can apparently become non-consensual,” she says. “I think that is quite shocking, and that it should be known.”
Where, I ask her, should we look in order to find the roots of all this? How far back do we need to go? She isn’t sure. “I want to insist first that we are not talking about all students,” she says. “I first heard the term ‘snowflake’ from my own, who were using it in a self-mocking way. And in any case, this sensitivity: it’s everywhere. You can look off campus and find it. Our president [Trump] has a permanent demeanour of injury. So it’s hard to say what’s cause and effect. But it’s definitely tied to sex: to this idea of sex as inherently injurious. The ethos of injury creates injury. It’s self-fulfilling.” Perhaps, too, it has something to do with this generation’s closeness to their parents. Somehow, it encourages the idea that university teachers are in loco parentis when, clearly, they are not.
So what, if anything, is to be done? Does she hope that the new administration – I feel odd even thinking about this – will try to push back against Title IX? “No, because I don’t think repealing anything in Washington will change anything much. The infrastructure and the antagonisms are so embedded, and also we have to go back to economics: from the point of view of university presidents, they are in a consumer satisfaction model. Students will sue; they [the presidents] don’t want to be on the wrong side of so-called rape culture. In the end, change will only come from the civil courts.” In other words, when those who have fallen foul of Title IX sue institutions for loss of reputation and livelihood.
In Britain, relationships between academics and students, while considered inadvisable, are not forbidden. But anecdotally, a similar paranoia, albeit in a much milder form, is now in play. Many who teach one-to-one do so with their office doors open. Certain topics are thought best avoided. A friend of mine who was teaching in a British university was admonished for conducting a seminar in his flat after one of the eight students present complained to his superiors. “Yes, and when you said that, I winced,” says Kipnis. “Because [she drops her voice theatrically] what about the last student to leave? It goes back to this predatory, melodramatic caricature of power, and how it might be deployed. I have heard of professors called out for going for coffee with students, even though, in my experience a lot of learning, on both sides, takes place in more informal conversations.”
What advice does she have for those in British institutions who might consider legislating in this area? “I would say that you have to get deeper than regulation. You have to talk about the culture of endangerment. I would advise British colleagues to address this explicitly before it starts worming its way into codes.”
In the end, of course, sexual paranoia on campus is to be feared mostly for its deleterious effect on intellectual life. “This will only lead to the decline of the university,” says Kipnis. “And I feel a bit grim about that.” Has it affected her own teaching? She snorts. “Maybe the sensitive students don’t sign up for my classes. Most of mine want to make films, and they know they don’t have a chance in hell in the industry if they can’t watch a film that has offensive material in it. But yes, there is a certain… self-policing.”
Precious, which in 2009 received six Oscar nominations and whose storyline involves sexual abuse, is one film that, she says, she might not show to students again. However, when it comes to Unwanted Advances, she intends to make no apologies nor issue any trigger warnings. She is ready for the fallout because, she insists, something really is at stake here. As she writes at the beginning of her book, one day people may look back at this officially sanctioned hysteria with the same bemusement that they look back on the Salem witch trials.
Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus is published in the US this week by Harper Collins