The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Northwestern University is throwing academic freedom under the bus (and wasting money) under the guise of Title IX compliance

Placeholder while article actions load

Laura Kipnis is a professor at Northwestern University.  She’s also a prominent feminist author.  Earlier this year she wrote an article decrying the new sexual politics on college campuses. The article prompted some controversy — and then some. As a consequence of the article, and a subsequent tweet, Kipnis has found herself subject to a Title IX investigation at her own university.

Not one to be cowed, Kipnis writes about her ongoing ordeal in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Here’s a taste, but you should read the whole thing.

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), and that the university would retain an outside investigator to handle the complaints.
I stared at the email, which was under-explanatory in the extreme. 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. . . .
Much of this remains puzzling to me, including how someone can bring charges in someone else’s name, who is allowing intellectual disagreement to be redefined as retaliation, and why a professor can’t write about a legal case that’s been nationally reported, precisely because she’s employed by the university where the events took place. Wouldn’t this mean that academic freedom doesn’t extend to academics discussing matters involving their own workplaces?

So, just to make things clear: Northwestern University is spending thousands of dollars to hire attorneys to investigate a professor for the content of an essay and subsequent tweets because some members of the university community were offended. This should have been an open-and-shut case. In a rational system — particularly one overseen by a university president who purports to support free speech on campus — the complaints would have been read and round-filed. Apparently not at Northwestern. Indeed, the investigation is ongoing. Writes Kipnis:

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. . . .
I understand that by writing these sentences, I’m risking more retaliation complaints, though I’m unclear what penalties may be in store . . . . 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.
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. To my mind, that’s what freedom of expression means, and what’s the good of having a freedom you’re afraid to use?

Of course the university is over-reacting (and betraying academic freedom), but this is not the first time something like this has happened and won’t be the last. This sort of absurdity could be put to an end if either a) the Department of Education were to clarify its guidance on Title IX compliance to make clear that this sort of thing is unnecessary, or b) university administrations were willing to stand up to the federal government over Title IX enforcement. But don’t hold your breath for either.

The first won’t happen because clarifying the existing guidance would reduce the leverage that federal officials currently have over universities. The second won’t happen because the administrative bureaucracies at large research universities are so terrified of any loss (or even delay) of federal money that they will do anything and everything to avoid that risk.

And so, at universities like Northwestern, academic freedom gets thrown under the bus.