A story today in the Chronicle of Higher Education dovetails with David’s excellent, five-part dissection of Morty Schapiro’s Wall Street Journal op-ed on campus speech and protests (starting here).

Laura Kipnis, a Northwestern professor of media, wrote a February article for the Chronicle entitled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” in which she discussed Northwestern’s newly-instituted prohibition on student-faculty dating in the context of a lawsuit between an undergraduate and a philosophy professor over a failed date:

An undergraduate sued my own university, alleging that a philosophy professor had engaged in “unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances” and that the university punished him insufficiently for it. The details that emerged in news reports and legal papers were murky and contested, and the suit was eventually thrown out of court…

The aftermath has been a score of back-and-forth lawsuits. After trying to get a financial settlement from the professor, the student filed a Title IX suit against the university: She wants her tuition reimbursed, compensation for emotional distress, and other damages. Because the professor wasn’t terminated, when she runs into him it triggers her PTSD, she says. (The university claims that it appropriately sanctioned the professor, denying him a raise and a named chair.) She’s also suing the professor for gender violence. He sued the university for gender discrimination (he says he wasn’t allowed to present evidence disproving the student’s allegations)—this suit was thrown out; so was the student’s lawsuit against the university. The professor sued for defamation various colleagues, administrators, and a former grad student whom, according to his complaint, he had previously dated; a judge dismissed those suits this month…
What a mess. And what a slippery slope…

In her new article, she writes about how that original article led to: 1) a march on Morty’s office by mattress-carrying students:

When I first heard that students at my university had staged a protest over an essay I’d written in The Chronicle Review about sexual politics on campus — and that they were carrying mattresses and pillows — I was a bit nonplussed. For one thing, mattresses had become a symbol of student-on-student sexual-assault allegations, and I’d been writing about the new consensual-relations codes governing professor-student dating. Also, I’d been writing as a feminist. And I hadn’t sexually assaulted anyone. The whole thing seemed symbolically incoherent.

2) Title IX complaints against Kipnis by two students;

Things seemed less amusing when I received an email from my university’s Title IX coordinator informing me that two students had filed Title IX complaints against me on the basis of the essay and “subsequent public statements” (which turned out to be a tweet) … I was being charged with retaliation, it said, though it failed to explain how an essay that mentioned no one by name could be construed as retaliatory, or how a publication fell under the province of Title IX, which, as I understood it, dealt with sexual misconduct and gender discrimination.

3) an investigation by an outside law firm of undisclosed charges against her;

I wouldn’t be informed about the substance of the complaints until I met with the investigators. Apparently the idea was that they’d tell me the charges, and then, while I was collecting my wits, interrogate me about them…

A week later I heard from the investigators. For reasons I wasn’t privy to, the university had hired an outside law firm, based in another Midwestern city an hour-and-a-half flight away, to conduct the investigation; a team of two lawyers had been appointed, and they wanted to schedule “an initial interview” the following week…

I replied that I wanted to know the charges before agreeing to a meeting. They told me, cordially, that they wanted to set up a meeting during which they would inform me of the charges and pose questions.

4) a Huffington Post article criticizing both Kipnis and Morty’s op-ed:

I’d been asked to keep the charges confidential, but this became moot when, shortly before my campus meeting with the investigators, a graduate student published an article on a well-trafficked site excoriating me and the essay, and announcing that two students had filed Title IX retaliation complaints against me. She didn’t identify her source for this information or specify her own relationship to the situation, though she seemed well versed on all the inside details; in fact, she knew more about the process than I did.

It wasn’t me alone on the chopping block. She also excoriated our university’s president for his op-ed essay on academic freedom, which, she charged, was really a veiled commentary on the pending Title IX charges against me and thus subverted the process by issuing a covert advance verdict in my favor. (He’d obliquely mentioned the controversy over the essay, among other campus free-speech issues.) She didn’t seem particularly concerned that she herself was subverting the process by charging that the process had been subverted, and by revealing the complaints in the first place.

Here’s her conclusion:

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… Self-censorship naturally prevails [and] 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.

You can mock academic culture all you want, and I’ve done a fair amount of it myself, but I also believe that unconstrained intellectual debate — once the ideal of university life, now on life support — is essential to a functioning democratic society. And that should concern us all. I also find it beyond depressing to witness young women on campuses — including aspiring intellectuals! — trying to induce university powers to shield them from the umbrages of life and calling it feminism.

As of this writing, I have yet to hear the verdict on my case, though it’s well past the 60-day time frame. In the meantime, new Title IX complaints have been filed against the faculty-support person who accompanied me to the session with the investigators. As a member of the Faculty Senate, whose bylaws include the protection of academic freedom — and believing the process he’d witnessed was a clear violation of academic freedom — he’d spoken in general terms about the situation at a senate meeting. Shortly thereafter, as the attorneys investigating my case informed me by phone, retaliation complaints were filed against him for speaking publicly about the matter (even though the complaints against me had already been revealed in the graduate student’s article), and he could no longer act as my support person. Another team of lawyers from the same firm has been appointed to conduct a new investigation.

A week or so earlier, the investigators had phoned to let me know that a “mediated resolution” was possible in my case if I wished to pursue that option. I asked what that meant — an image of me and the complainants in a conference room hugging came to mind. I didn’t like the visual. The students were willing to drop their complaints in exchange for a public apology from me, the investigators said. I tried to stifle a laugh. I asked if that was all. No, they also wanted me to agree not to write about the case.

I understand that by writing these sentences, I’m risking more retaliation complaints, though I’m unclear what penalties may be in store (I suspect it’s buried somewhere in those links). But I refuse to believe that students get to dictate what professors can or can’t write about, or what we’re allowed to discuss at our Faculty Senate meetings. I don’t believe discussing Title IX cases should be verboten in the first place — the secrecy of the process invites McCarthyist abuses and overreach.

Implicit in Kipnis’s criticism of Northwestern’s policies, its handling of the complaint against her, and subsequent developments is a critique similar to that presented in the EphBlog series. To be sure, Kipnis credits Morty for writing his op-ed, but it’s clear that she does not believe his actions demonstrate a commitment to free speech, nor that the culture fostered at Northwestern (or elsewhere in academia) is a good one.

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