Northwestern University – 2015 – 2017

Professor charged with Title IX harassment after critiquing Title IX policy

Evanston, IL

Northwestern University Professor Laura Kipnis published an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2015, titled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” in which she critiqued contemporary feminism and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Kipnis’ article referenced Northwestern University’s investigation of Peter Ludlow, a former professor of philosophy alleged to have had inappropriate relationships with two students. The article resulted in a Title IX harassment charge against Kipnis, for which she was eventually cleared. Additionally, Kipnis’ book Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, which further examined Ludlow’s case, resulted in a graduate student suing Kipnis for allegedly divulging legally protected personal details.

Key Players

Laura Kipnis is the author of Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, a book that examines Northwestern University’s Title IX investigation into former Philosophy Professor Peter Ludlow. In 2015, she contributed a controversial article titled, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Kipnis is a tenured faculty member at Northwestern, where she teaches classes in the School of Communication. According to her faculty biography, she is a “cultural theorist/critic and former video artist. Her present work focuses on the intersections of American politics, psyche, and the body—with detours through love, Marx, gender distress, adultery, scandal, Freud, and the legacy of the avant-garde.” Her critiques of Title IX sexual harassment investigations resulted in a Title IX complaint being levied against her, as well as an ongoing lawsuit concerning her recent book.

Peter Ludlow is a former professor of philosophy at Northwestern. He resigned in November 2015 in the midst of his termination hearings, reports Inside Higher Ed. Northwestern concluded that Ludlow had had an improper relationship with two students. One student claimed that he had inappropriately touched her after forcing her to drink alcohol. Kipnis’ article explains that the student claimed that she “attempted suicide two days later, now has PTSD, and has had to take medical leave.” Several lawsuits from both sides followed, as the student sued for emotional distress and Ludlow sued for gender discrimination. Laura Kipnis supported Ludlow during his dismissal hearings., and his case is the subject of Kipnis’ book.

Further Details

In 2015, Northwestern University Professor Laura Kipnis wrote an article for The Chronicle, titled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” in which she criticized the environment of sexual paranoia that she claims is generated by investigations launched under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. These amendments reformed U.S. education policy by amending the Higher Education Act of 1965, among other laws. Kipnis wrote, “In the post-Title IX landscape, sexual panic rules. Slippery slopes abound. Gropers become rapists and accusers become survivors, opening the door for another panicky conflation: teacher-student sex and incest.” She also wrote, “It’s the fiction of the all-powerful professor embedded in the new campus codes that appalls me. And the kowtowing to the fiction— kowtowing wrapped in a vaguely feminist air of rectitude. If this is feminism, it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama. The melodramatic imagination’s obsession with helpless victims and powerful predators is what’s shaping the conversation of the moment, to the detriment of those whose interests are supposedly being protected, namely students. The result? Students’ sense of vulnerability is skyrocketing.” She continued that, “The climate of sanctimony about student vulnerability has grown impenetrable. No one dares question it lest you’re labelled an anti-feminist, or worse, a sex criminal.”

The article also criticized new policies at Northwestern concerning relationships between students and teachers. Kipnis argued that the graduate student’s lawsuit is an example of how too much power and responsibility is placed in the hands of professors in professor-student relationships. She writes, “What a mess. And what a slippery slope, from alleged fondler to rapist. But here’s the real problem with these charges: This is melodrama. I’m quite sure that professors can be sleazebags. I’m less sure that any professor can force an unwilling student to drink, especially to the point of passing out. With what power? What sorts of repercussions can there possibly be if a student refuses?” Later, she adds, “In fact, it’s just as likely that a student can derail a professor’s career these days as the other way around, which is pretty much what happened in the case of the accused philosophy professor.”

Kipnis’ article sparked protests by Northwestern students, some of whom carried mattresses and pillows to protest the administration’s failure to react or respond to the article. In a petition delivered to the president’s office, protesters demanded that the university condemn the article, reports The Daily Northwestern.

In her article, Kipnis referenced the case of Peter Ludlow, a Northwestern professor who was investigated for an allegedly inappropriate relationship with an undergraduate student. The university found that Ludlow had violated its sexual harassment policy and imposed sanctions, reports Inside Higher Ed. The student sued the university for allegedly violating Title IX while handling her complaints of sexual assault. Additionally, a Ph.D. candidate accused Ludlow of sexual assault, resulting in a third-party investigation. The investigation found that Ludlow had violated the sexual harassment policy in this case too, but did not find enough evidence to support the graduate student’s claim of assault.

Kipnis did not use any names when discussing Ludlow’s case in her 2015 article for The Chronicle. However, some students at Northwestern were troubled by her description of the situation, particularly her use of the word “dating” to describe the relationship between Ludlow and the graduate student. According to the Huffington Post, these students accused Kipnis of “retaliatory behavior and creating a hostile environment,” prompting the university to open a Title IX investigation into her writing and conduct. Kipnis addressed this investigation in another article in The Chronicle, this one titled “My Title IX Inquisition.” She wrote, “I suspect that most Americans, if pushed, would go to the mat for the First Amendment, which is what academic freedom is modeled on. 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.” Following the investigation, Northwestern University cleared the charges against Kipnis.

The president and provost of Northwestern released a statement in support of both free expression and Title IX. It read, in part, “Northwestern University is firmly committed to free expression and academic freedom, as has been demonstrated on many occasions at Northwestern. The University is dedicated to vigorous inquiry and robust debate, particularly regarding the challenging issues facing society. We are equally committed to creating and maintaining a safe, healthy, and harassment-free environment for all members of our community. We stand behind Title IX and our policies that support this commitment. We believe strongly that if a person comes forward with a complaint under Title IX, that person should be confident that the complaint will be taken seriously and the University will respond appropriately.”

Kipnis further explored the investigation of sexual harassment claims against Peter Ludlow in her book Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus. Angered by the book’s description of her relationship with Ludlow, the graduate student whom Ludlow is alleged to have had a relationship with (identified only as “Jane Doe” in court paperwork) filed a federal lawsuit against both Kipnis and her publisher, HarperCollins. According to the Chicago Tribune, the graduate student’s attorneys allege that Kipnis “deliberately misrepresented the details of Doe’s experiences in her book, published private text messages she obtained through Ludlow, detailed a relationship Doe allegedly had with a married professor at a different school and disclosed information from Northwestern’s Title IX investigation records on Ludlow that should have remained confidential.” The lawsuit alleged that the book portrayed the plaintiff as “lying, manipulative, and litigious,” and that the book could harm the plaintiff’s professional future, reports The Chronicle. The graduate student filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.


Northwestern Administration Cleared Kipnis of Title IX Complaints

Kipnis was cleared of complaints levied against her under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The university investigated students’ claims that Kipnis’ article, titled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” created a hostile environment.

Ongoing Lawsuit against Kipnis and HarperCollins

A graduate student who accused Peter Ludlow of sexual assault has filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing Kipnis and HarperCollins of publicly disclosing private facts, invasion of privacy, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

External References:

New York Times’ Review of “Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus”

Laura Kipnis’s Battle Against Vulnerability, The New Yorker

Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe, The Chronicle of Higher Education

From Title IX ‘Witch Hunt’ to Suit, Inside Higher Education

Laura Kipnis’ Faculty Biography

My Title IX Inquisition, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Students carry mattresses, pillows to protest professor’s controversial article, The Daily Northwestern

Statement by Northwestern University President and Provost Regarding Academic Freedom and Title IX

Laura Kipnis Is Sued Over Portrayal of Graduate Student in Book on Campus ‘Sexual Paranoia,’ The Chronicle of Higher Education

Prepared by Will Haskell ‘18 and Graham Piro ’18

August 22, 2017