Wellesley College – March 8, 2017

Campus speaker stirs an uproar

Wellesley, MA

A student group called Sexual Assault Awareness for Everyone (SAAFE) objected to a speech delivered at Wellesley College by Northwestern University Professor Laura Kipnis. Her lecture, titled “Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (Intellectual Freedom Takes a Curtain Call),” occurred without interruption. After the event, the student leaders of SAAFE created a video to refute Kipnis’ beliefs. Wellesley College Sociology Professor Thomas Cushman publicly questioned the intelligence of SAAFE’s leaders and later apologized. A group of Wellesley College professors subsequently argued that campus groups ought to consider more carefully the speakers they invite to campus.

Key People

Laura Kipnis is a professor at Northwestern University who holds controversial opinions on the topics of sexual assault, feminism, and 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 is a critic of feminist culture and believes that academia’s approach to regulating sexual conduct is causing “sexual paranoia” and harming female students.

Thomas Cushman is a sociology professor at Wellesley and director of The Freedom Project. Cushman has described himself as a “natural contrarian” who promotes free expression.

Further Details

Professor Kipnis is the author of “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” an essay in which she strongly criticizes federal rules crafted to combat sexual assault on college campuses. She describes the rules as “draconian” and believes that female students suffer from a “skyrocketing” sense of their own vulnerability.

She was invited to address students as part of The Freedom Project’s “Censorship Awareness Week.” The Freedom Project is an initiative “devoted to the promotion of freedom of expression, pluralism and tolerance on campus and in the greater world,” according to its website. Professor Thomas Cushman, who directs The Freedom Project, works to promote freedom of expression on campus. “The left, in academia, has become increasingly more and more closed to anybody who within their own ranks might dissent from the various orthodoxies,” Cushman told WBUR. “The students are not served by that.” The Freedom Project has received financial support from billionaire and conservative activist Charles Koch.

Other professors at Wellesley believe that Cushman and supporters of The Freedom Project misuse the term “free speech.” Professor Laura Grattan, from the Political Science Department, for example, told WBUR, “To say, ‘Well, this is a matter of free speech,’ or ‘All views need to be heard,’ ignores the fact that some views reinforce institutional and culturally dominant norms and others are still just trying to be heard.”

On March 8, 2017, Kipnis delivered remarks to attentive students and was asked about sexual consent laws during a question-and-answer session. Students applauded after the event and continued debating Kipnis’ views in private conversations, reports WBUR.

Hours prior to Kipnis’ appearance, a student group called Sexual Assault Awareness for Everyone (SAAFE) released a video titled “Shutting Down Bullshit with SAAFE,” in which they responded to Kipnis’ main arguments. In a statement released by SAAFE to The Wellesley News, the students said, “We felt that what she advocates for is directly antithetical to our work, which is grounded in evidence-based scholarship, research and anti-violence advocacy.”

Kipnis responded to the video through social media, saying that the students she met with were “all tough-minded and crazy smart.” In a comment, Cushman replied that Wellesley College’s “students are, indeed, tough-minded and crazy smart. But not the ones that made that video.” His comment drew intense criticism, especially from students involved with SAAFE. “To publicly malign our intelligence as opposed to engaging with the content of our video is unprofessional,” said the three women who appeared in the video. Cushman later apologized in a campus-wide email.

The Commission on Ethnicity, Race and Equity, a group composed of Wellesley College faculty members, responded to the incident by recommending that campus groups “consider whether, in [the invited speakers’] zeal for promoting debate, they might, in fact, stifle productive debate by enabling the bullying of disempowered groups.” They also recommended that the speaker’s qualifications be considered, according to The Wellesley News.


Kipnis’ appearance proceeded without incident

Northwestern University Professor Laura Kipnis delivered her remarks to an attentive audience at Wellesley College. A controversy ensued after the event when students published a video criticizing her remarks.

The administration remained relatively silent on the incident

The assistant director of health education sent a campus-wide email expressing support for the students involved with SAAFE. Additionally, President Paula Johnson sent an email to students saying that “disagreement is… something we should welcome rather than fear.”

The Freedom Project continues to host speakers

The Freedom Project has continued to host speakers on issues including Criminal Justice Reform in the United States, Human Rights in Zimbabwe, and the Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe.

External References:

Laura Kipnis’s Speech (video)

Shutting Down Bullshit with SAAFE (video)

Why Banning Laura Kipnis Would Betray Wellesley’s Academic Mission, The Atlantic

Laura Kipnis’ Talk Sparks Heated Discussion on Campus, The Wellesley News

Wellesley College Freedom Project

At Wellesley, A Provocative Writer Talks Free Speech and Feminism – and Students Talk Back, WBUR

Prepared by Will Haskell ‘18

August 22, 2017