Seeing the Kipnis articles distributed worldwide makes me wonder if I won’t face a similar backlash as the Northwestern undergraduate. . . . that “chilling effect” the Northwestern graduate student spoke of is real, I can feel that. I read through everything I could to catch up with the Northwestern case, and everything written by or supporting Kipnis. The details of the undergraduate’s case who accused Ludlow are like my case, and I find some silver lining in that, because at least I can take those articles and show people what happened to her is like what happened to me.
That quotation is spliced together from two emails sent to me by a young woman who filed an unsuccessful Title IX complaint for sexual harassment against a professor. When she wrote to me this past June, she was debating whether to speak with me about her experience for my book and whether to try appealing her complaint. I begin this longer, essay-ish version of my letter to the editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, written in response to Kipnis’s “My Title IX Inquisition,” with concrete evidence that, despite the fact that Kipnis was cleared of all responsibility related to the Title IX complaint against her by two graduate students at Northwestern University, her two recent essays in The Chronicle have indeed had a “chilling effect” on the prospect of reporting and discussing sexual harassment and assault. In some neighborhoods, we’d call that “chilling effect” a “hostile environment”—hostile, that is, to those who would come forward with the truth and seek redress for injury done to them.
Now for some background. Last February, when Laura Kipnis published her essay on “Sexual Paranoia” in The Chronicle, I wrote a letter to the editor in response, pointing out a factual error that, I argued then and still believe now, undermined her argument. She referred to a situation on her campus, Northwestern University, in which both an undergraduate and a graduate student had lodged independent complaints of sexual assault against the same philosophy professor. Her point was that codes of sexual conduct on today’s campuses are engendering paranoia among students, leading them, in turn, to file complaints for sexual experiences with professors that either used to be welcome (in the good old days), or that don’t rise to the level of harassment, or both.
Kipnis, though, was confused in “Sexual Paranoia” about the two cases at her school. Bemoaning how a single case involving the professor had spawned a slew of lawsuits between the professor and the student, she fused the two separate cases into one. If, in fact, one student’s complaint had given rise to the number of lawsuits that have mushroomed around the philosophy professor, then Kipnis might have had one example of students’ growing paranoia to use as evidence of her thesis. But that two students had filed separate complaints against the professor and that the lawsuits sprang from both suggests that something other than paranoia was at play. Maybe the students’ similar claims reflected a pattern on the professor’s part, a possibility advanced some time ago by Northwestern’s own director of the Sexual Harassment Prevention Office.
Without consulting or notifying me, The Chronicle gave Kipnis the opportunity to respond to my letter when it was published. She brushed off the factual error I’d identified, maintaining it was irrelevant to her point about sexual paranoia; I believe I’ve just stated here why it’s relevant and did so in the letter to the editor. She also ventured the theory that I had access to more information than she did; all she’d been able to consult, she said, was the public record. None of that is true: everything I wrote about the case in The Chronicle came from the public record, and anyone who had consulted the public record would know as much as I did. In truth, she hadn’t studied the public record thoroughly, if at all.
Kipnis’s second essay, sensationalistically entitled “My Title IX Inquisition,” also includes crucial factual errors that could have been avoided by reference to the public record. These inaccuracies, as well as narration so one-sided as to strain credulity, undermine her claims to martyrdom at the hands of Title IX and to the general loss of academic freedom. The photograph accompanying the “Inquisition” essay—of Title IX pitchforks angrily raised in the air—reinforces the sensationalism of an essay that appears bereft of objectivity. Even so, the essay has occasioned an outpouring of readers’ sympathy for Kipnis’s travails and her perceived oppression, as well as lamentations over the imperilment of academic freedom. From another perspective, however, further scrutiny is warranted.
One factual fudge in Kipnis’s latest essay that seems minute, but that connects significantly with her sweeping statements about the endangerment of academic freedom, concerns her ongoing confusion over who at Northwestern is suing whom and for what. Referring to the philosophy professor’s reaction to being accused of sexual assault, she writes, “This professor subsequently sued university officials and one of the students for defamation, among other things.” In fact, the professor has sued both the undergraduate and the graduate student for defamation and false light invasion of privacy, and he has sued each of them individually on various other counts. Why do such facts matter, however tedious and difficult they may be to sort out? For starters, the professor’s several complaints aimed at two students, not just one, constitute profuse retaliation, the kind that Title IX attempts, but so far lacks the bite, to forestall. What’s more, Kipnis’s blithe reduction of such retaliation may not in itself be retaliatory, but it certainly gives retaliation a pass, if it doesn’t go so far as to aid and abet it.
In addition, the professor’s defamation suits against two students, as well as several of his colleagues and Northwestern’s President, Morton Schapiro, could themselves be seen as serious threats to academic freedom and free speech. Dare to speak out, he signals through the legal system, and I’ll slap you with another suit. (Incidentally, the professor has also threatened to sue me for a statement I made in a blog post that, to construe as defamatory, would give new meaning to the word stretch.)
I’ll return presently to the issues of retaliation and intimidation, but first I want to make the point that the records involving all the lawsuits in question are public. They are there for consultation by anyone who is willing to do the work. For one reason or another, some of the records have been posted on-line. Records of federal cases, like those involving the professor and the graduate student et alia, can be accessed through PACER, an electronic data base. To find out that the professor has sued the undergraduate, one has to contact the Cook County records office in Chicago and request a search. The defamation suit against the undergraduate is a state, not a federal, case.
The process of requesting Illinois state records that are not yet on-line is laborious, requiring several steps. The people at the circuit court records office don’t particularly like to answer their phone and certainly won’t make the effort anywhere near closing time (4:30). Once they agree to a search, the requester has to send them a check through the mail to cover the cost. Then they report back (by phone) about what they’ve found and ask what the requester is willing to pay to have photocopied. If the requester misses the call and has to return it, another round of phone tag ensues. Once a phone connection occurs and the number of photocopied pages is determined, the requester sends another check to the office to cover the cost of the photocopies, which eventually arrive through snail mail. Yes, this is all a pain, and it takes way more time than seems reasonable. But it’s basic research.
On this score, Kipnis hasn’t done her due diligence. What’s more, she has enjoyed the floor without being challenged by a single contrary voice. Even without the inclusion of a counter-viewpoint, Kipnis often so overstates her case and is given to such melodrama that a careful reader could only suspect an alternative side to the story and possibly a compelling alternative at that. “I’d plummeted into an underground world of secret tribunals and capricious, medieval rules,” she writes of being informed that she was the subject of an as yet unspecified Title IX complaint, “and I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone about it.” Her befuddlement over the vague grounds of the complaint against her and the secrecy of the third-party investigators is understandable. She also makes a good point about being enjoined to confidentiality—presumably to protect Northwestern from bad publicity—when the student complainants didn’t seem bound by the same injunction. Nevertheless, search her essay as I might for evidence of “capricious, medieval rules,” I don’t find any that reaches that level. We must understand capriciousness and medievalism differently.
Asking why an independent investigation of the complaint against her was necessary, she implies that it, too, was part of the “underground world” conspiring against her. But the answer to her question about why a third-party investigation was warranted is fairly obvious in view of the thicket of lawsuits that she herself references without fully understanding: Northwestern couldn’t afford any appearance of bias at this point that might lead to future legal trouble. This and similar questions—like why she was prohibited from recording her conversations with the independent investigators (as if any official investigative body would ever allow such a thing)—bespeak more than the persona of the innocent abroad that Kipnis consistently projects to win the support of her audience. Her lack of awareness seems almost willful. It could be set straight with even a little research into the situation at her home school and a dash of analytical thinking. Can we really believe that she hasn’t a single lawyer friend she could consult about the basics of her situation?
When the third-party investigators directed her to information about Title IX law, she bypassed that avenue too. There were so many links within links in the on-line information, she protests, that she feared they’d “propel me down an informational rabbit hole where I’d learn nothing yet not re-emerge for days.” While I’d be the last person to describe Title IX law as fun and witty reading, it is fairly clearly written and straightforward. Knowing about it, especially if one is being hit with a complaint, might be a good thing. But this, too, requires research.
Time and again, Kipnis wants the freedom to express herself without the responsibility of doing her homework. But academic freedom, far from being a ticket to say whatever you think or whatever you fancy, is predicated on intellectual rigor that backs up thought. Opinions that rest on shaky facts or no facts at all are merely feelings, and feelings aren’t thoughts. “What’s being lost,” she laments, “is the liberty to publish ideas that might go against the grain or to take on risky subjects in the first place.” But another interpretation of what’s being lost is the expression of ideas with intellectual integrity.
Over and again, Kipnis also angles for sympathy for her plight and permission to complain about it without considering how she’s affecting other people in exactly the same way she feels mistreated. By belittling students with the courage to bring forward complaints of sexual assault, she inhibits them and others who might do the same. (Anyone who even scratches the surface of professor-on-student sexual harassment and assault knows that reporting is a mammoth obstacle to addressing the problem.)
Since publishing her essay, Kipnis has learned that she’s been cleared of the complaints against her, including her participation in a “hostile environment.” In view of what she says in the essay, she might consider her vindication a lucky break. (We should remember, moreover, that the investigative body in this case was a law firm on Northwestern’s payroll.) When she writes that she couldn’t imagine how her “essay had created a ‘chilling effect’ on campus,” she seems deaf to her own language, which, by characterizing these students as “paranoid,” urges students with legitimate complaints to remain silent, as countless numbers of them have done over the past decades. Justin Weinberg comments in a post on The Daily Nous, a philosophy blog site, “Kipnis has turned her story about her refusal to correct her confused and possibly misleading account of a Title IX complaint allegedly involving rape into a sweeping epic about her time on the front lines of the heroic battle defending academic freedom.”
The Chronicle followed up the publication of Kipnis’s essay later the same day with various tweets about the injustice of her situation and the sorry state of intellectual freedom in the very academy that should champion it. These weren’t just any tweets. They were tweets by celebrities and pundits, including the likes of New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum (“What’s happening to Laura Kipnis is Oleanna-level bananas.”), conservative political analyst and editor Erick Erickson (“This is insane. It’s like the French Revolution on college campuses. The guillotine hasn’t come out yet. Yet.”), and Adam Serwer, the national editor for BuzzFeed News, whose tweet is especially telling: “disagree w/ many of Kipnis’ points,” he writes, “but the idea that an essay you don’t like constitutes a Title IX violation is nuts.”
Disappointingly, Serwer buys into Kipnis’s portrayal of her situation, which boils down to her allegation that she’s being cited for a Title IX violation because somebody disliked “Sexual Paranoia.” While I’m sure the two students in question didn’t like the essay, they had better reasons for filing complaints. At the end of “My Title IX Inquisition,” Kipnis ventures that the prohibition against her speaking about the complaints against her “invites McCarthyist abuses and overreach.” She continues, “For the record, my saying this isn’t retaliation. It’s intellectual disagreement. If more complaints are brought, I suppose I’ll write another essay about them.” But charging someone with even a whiff of McCarthyism savors of bullying, and holding yet another demeaning essay over the heads of those who would file a complaint against her certainly appears to threaten retaliation.
In response to my letter in The Chronicle that takes her “Inquisition” essay to task, Kipnis says the same thing about me. “When people don’t like what you’re saying,” she writes, “a favored tactic is endlessly disputing the details.” Turning a deaf ear to details that subvert her own arguments is the favored tactic of someone who finds research and thinking bothersome.
In the bundle of tweets that The Chronicle posted in response to Kipnis’s “Inquisition” essay, a lone voice offers the perspective that is sorely missing in what ought to be a dialogue, but has declined into a monotonous rant. It’s from a relative non-celeb, Aaron Bady, a blogger at The New Inquiry and a postdoctoral student at UT Austin. “When students go through a university disciplinary procedure,” he writes, “it’s the same Kafkaesque process Kipnis describes.” Bady’s observation applies all the more to students brave enough to come forward with a complaint of sexual assault or harassment. Typically—and ironically—they suffer far more anguish than the accused and are subjected to substantially more pressure. They have no institutional power, they tend unjustly to be disbelieved, and they are forced by administrators, investigators, and attorneys to review and relive their experience repeatedly as they stagger toward some form of restitution that can never adequately make up for what they’ve lost. Dismissing them as “paranoid” isn’t an act of academic freedom. It’s a chilling abuse of power.