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UD liked Northwestern. She didn’t love it (she loved her graduate school, the University of Chicago), but she liked it. In Erich Heller, for instance, she found not merely a compelling teacher, but a compelling human being.

As Geoffrey Stone points out here, NU has been making an ass of itself, in the matter of free speech, for some time now. He discusses two recent cases, including that of Laura Kipnis.

Laura Kipnis wrote a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which she raised important questions about the regulation of student-faculty relationships, the meaning of consent, the procedural irregularities that frequently taint the efforts of colleges and universities to address such issues, and the messy and destructive lawsuits that often follow.

Kipnis’ article is a serious, provocative, and valuable contribution to the ongoing debate about these often difficult and vexing issues. Among other things, Kipnis charged that some of the recently enacted campus codes dealing with such matters have had the effect of infantilizing women students. This, she reasoned, is not a good thing.

In response to this essay, several students at Northwestern staged a protest demanding “a swift, official condemnation” of the article because they had been made to feel uncomfortable by her thoughts on the subject. One woman student went so far as to describe the essay as “terrifying.” Shortly thereafter, a women student who had filed sexual assault charges against a professor at Northwestern filed a Title IX (sex discrimination/sexual harassment) complaint against Kipnis because of the publication.

As Kipnis traces in a powerful new article published this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, for the past several months she has been subjected to a star-chamber proceeding in which outside investigators retained by Northwestern University have sought to determine whether her initial essay somehow constituted unlawful retaliation, “intimidation, threats, coercion, or discrimination” against the student who had previously filed the sexual assault charge against the faculty member at Northwestern.

As anyone who has read Kipnis’ initial article can discern, the accusation is ludicrous on its face. An essay that takes aim at the substantive values and procedures employed by universities in their efforts to regulate sexual relationships on campus is not, and cannot rationally be taken to be, an act of discrimination, retaliation, or harassment directed against any particular student who may have filed such a complaint.

What Northwestern should have done in the face of such a complaint was to dismiss it as quickly and decisively as possible and to reaffirm the fundamental right of members of the university community to write, speak, argue, and complain openly and vigorously about matters of public concern. Instead, Northwestern put Kipnis through months of “investigation” for doing nothing more than writing an interesting and provocative article in a journal of considerable repute.

It was only after Kipnis went public in her second article this week that Northwestern finally informed her that the charges against her were unfounded. As evidenced in both of these situations, it seems, not surprisingly, that the best way to get universities to stand up for academic freedom is to call them out publicly on their lack of commitment to the principles for which they are supposed to stand.

As Stone suggests, NU should be ashamed. It should replace whoever is running its Title IX office.


Update: Same idea.

Samuel Bagenstos, a University of Michigan Law Professor who, until 2011, served as the number two official in Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, says Northwestern wasn’t compelled to go as far as it did. “Federal law requires a prompt and equitable resolution of the complaint,” he says. “They do have to look into it. The question is, what does looking into it mean?”

In the Kipnis case, he says, “ All you would have to do was read her article, read the Tweet, and maybe talk to the people who filed the complaint to understand that there’s no conceivable way that even if everything in the complaint were true, there’s no way that was a violation of Title IX.”

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2 Responses to ““[Laura Kipnis] was accused … of writing an article that upset some students. Turning that into a federal case is beyond the pale.””

  1. david foster Says:

    Kipnis, quoted in yesterday’s WSJ:

    ” A tenured professor on my campus wrote about lying awake at night worrying that some stray remark of hers might lead to student complaints, social-media campaigns, eventual job loss, and her being unable to support her child. I’d thought she was exaggerating, but that was before I learned about the Title IX complaints against me.”

  2. Jack/OH Says:

    I guess I really don’t get it. If I had Professor X stirring up things at Jack/OH University, I’d be scouring my campus for someone to debate Professor X. If there were no one at my school (time and expertise restrictions, e. g.), I’d want to look at profs with regional reputations who’d be up to debate.

    That can’t be any costlier, and likely far more institutionally salubrious, than hiring lawyers to hose down the deviationist comrade.

    david foster, thanks. No further explanation needed.

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