A Reader’s Critique of Kipnis

We got a huge amount of feedback in response to my post yesterday about the Laura Kipnis story out of Northwestern, one of which I already published Tuesday afternoon. They ranged the gamut from hearty agreement to strenuous disagreement, with at least a few stuck in the sort of fatuous new-speak that I ridiculed in my original post. What was most interesting though is something one almost always finds in these sorts of cases, which is that people on either side of the issue were focusing on very different things, if not addressing very different questions.

So for instance, those who agreed with what I wrote were focusing on generational conflict, attempts to shoehorn Title IX law into a broader war to bludgeon opponents in a sort of campus culture war, while those who disagreed zeroing in on ways in which Kipnis seemed to poo-poo accusations which if proven count as criminal behavior under current law. What makes big debates so hard to get a handle on is that we’re usually arguing not just over the facts and ‘what’s right’ but often even more so over which facts or questions even matter.

We received the following email from a professor at a major American university …

Let me give this disclaimer … [various non-relevant but personally identifying details redacted] I will say that our university is currently looking into our workplace environment to consider whether or not it has a discriminatory effect on women. That whole situation has meant that I am pretty familiar with state law and university rules on this topic. I’m not sending this from my work email because I want to make very clear that this is my personal opinion and in no way reflects the opinion of others in my department or my university. I am also married to a graduate student at my university, but not in my department. We’ve each made clear to keep our professional lives at arms length. Disclaimer over.)

Introductory note: I’m a male professor at a land grant university, about a decade and a half younger than Kipnis. This means my situation is different than Kipnis’s, because of gender, age, and the fact that as a public school we have slightly different rules regarding sexual harassment and sexual relationships on campus (because you have to throw relevant state law into the mix). But I think that I am still in a position to offer a commentary on l’affaire Kipnis and previous posts on TPM about it. I think there are three main things to consider.

First: I think it’s worth taking a closer look at the initial piece Kipnis wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Casting it as a diatribe against “sexual paranoia” undersells what she does in the article. It essentially dismisses sexual harassment as a concept. Kipnis writes that in her day “sleeping with professors was more or less part of the curriculum” and suggests that female students seduced their professors as a form of empowerment. Romantic relationships that went poorly were embarrassments, not traumatic. It provided an education in “not taking power too seriously,” which was a good life lesson.

Maybe this is a generational thing, but this kind of characterization of faculty-student relations is naive, if not risible. Professors do, in fact, wield a tremendous amount of power over their students, especially their graduate students. Most graduate students, then and now, lack guaranteed funding; their stipends can vary year to year. (And the stipends themselves leave nearly all graduate students below the poverty line.) And the job market, then and now, is horrendous, especially in the humanities. In an environment of such scarce resources, professors, individually and collectively, can hold the professional fate of these students in their hands. Fellowships and recommendation letters matter. Suggesting that we should “not take power too seriously” in this kind of situation is almost willfully blind. Similarly, it strains credulity to think that romantic or sexual relationships that go poorly might have had a deleterious effect on some students’ career prospects. And what about those students who elected, for any number of reasons, not to sleep with their professors? Might they have worried, fairly or unfairly, that they weren’t getting the career boost that a colleague of theirs who was dating a professor might have (hypothetically) gotten? Might this have put pressure on them to date or sleep with professors? There’s even the cherry on top of this sundae, where other professors in the department (and in the broader profession) might think that male Professor A is only putting female student B up for a job or fellowship because they are involved with each other.

Kipnis’s scenario where sleeping with professors is almost part of the curriculum is almost a textbook variation of one type of a “hostile workplace environment,” where questions of sex and power can disrupt the ability of faculty and students to conduct their business normally. It’s one of the reasons why we have written our laws about sexual harassment the way that we have. Reading Kipnis’s piece, one gets the impression that it doesn’t count as sexual harassment unless the professor says, “Sleep with me or else I won’t give you a fellowship” (or some such). And if you believe that…well, you might think that political corruption only happens when a mobster gives Mayor Quimby a sack of money with a dollar sign written on it. Otherwise, no harm no foul; nothing to see here.

Second: it’s worth looking more closely at the article’s discussion of a “date” gone wrong between a professor and an undergraduate student that led to an accusation of sexual assault and multiple lawsuits. (One part of the the Title IX complaint against Kipnis centered around a tweet that “dating is not the same as rape.”) The short version of the story: 20 year old student and philosophy professor go to see some art exhibits together, then take a few bar hops where he buys her alcohol (again, she’s underage) and she drinks until (in her account) she’s drifting in and out of consciousness. (The accused professor disputes that part of her account dealing with her degree of inebriation.) They go to his place, in his bedroom. According to the student, when she wakes up, he has his arms around her and is groping her. This is, by nearly every standard of conduct at American colleges and universities and by state law in many places, sexual assault, *regardless*of whether the night began as a date. Having sexual relations with someone who is drifting in and out of consciousness—and therefore is inherently unable to give consent—constitutes assault. (To be clear: the professor concurred that they had slept together in his bed, over the covers, but denied groping her.)

Even if you look skeptically at the “Great Prohibition” Kipnis decries—the rule that Northwestern faculty cannot date students—it seems to me that this incident isn’t just an example of “sexual paranoia” on campus. It’s an allegation of criminal behavior. Because I’m pretty sure that having sexual relationships with an unconscious person (be that person male or female) is always illegal, regardless of if the individuals involved are professors, students, or in another line of work. Talking about these encounters as “dates gone bad” runs counter to nearly every current discussion about sexual consent. You can get a better, more incisive understanding of consent from Amy Schumur’s “Football Town Nights.” Again, the student’s claims about falling in and out of consciousness are in dispute, but Kipnis fails to address the fact that if the student’s story is true, the professor broke the law. One might disagree on whether other aspects of Kipnis’s piece rises to Title IX-worthy behavior, but it really doesn’t take much imagination to see parts of it as an apology for sexual assault. YMMV. I suspect that many people have a lot less sympathy for Kipnis because of this.

Third: the university might not have had much choice in opening a Title IX investigation. Under Obama’s Department of Education, universities have a lot less leeway in deciding when a accusation of a Title IX violation deserves a preliminary investigation of the kind Kipnis endured. And *that’s a good thing*. Universities have proven, again and again and again, that they have every incentive to bury Title IX violations, including accusations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. So now they have to go forward with pretty much everything. Limiting universities’ discretion in these does mean that some cases may be dismissed immediately. But my own experience as an academic—where I’ve seen cases of sexual harassment silently swept under the carpet—suggests that maybe universities don’t deserve that leeway. Certainly Kipnis’s initial Chronicle essay shows that she has an incomplete understanding of current laws surrounding sexual harassment and sexual assault. In a roundabout way, her Chronicle essay shows why Northwestern should have looked into her case. Not because her actions represented a clear violation of Title IX (the dismissal of the case suggests that they didn’t), but because professors like her—and she’s not alone in her views on sexual harassment and assault—maybe shouldn’t be trusted to make sure their universities follow the law.

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