Unwanted Advances

Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus

[Amazon Link]

Not that it matters, but Pun Salad was on-hand when the Obama Administration issued its famous/infamous Title IX "Dear Colleague" letter back in 2011, announced by VP Biden himself in the Memorial Union Building at the University Near Here. Looking back at what I wrote that day, I seem to have been mostly accurate ("aggrieved parties will have significantly more avenues to pursue their gripes"), but woefully blind at predicting what would come in the following years. This book by Laura Kipnis (a professor in the Department of Radio/TV/Film at Northwestern University) is a handy, microscopic, look at the (predictable? regrettable? tragicomic? outrageous?) results as it played out at Northwestern and elswhere.

What's the best adjective to use to describe the process by which universities adjudicate and punish accusations of sexual misbehavior among their employees and students? Kafkaesque? Orwellian? McCarthyite? (Maybe "Kipnitian" will take hold.) Which historical trials offer the best parallels? Salem witches? Spanish Inquisition?

Professor Kipnis bills herself (on page one) as a "left-wing feminist", but defies that stereotype forming in your head by having a sense of humor (or it could be irony—as she says, also on page one, she likes irony). Whatever, she writes clearly and honestly about her observations, and there's very little ideology, other than her clear devotion to truth, rights, and justice. (That sounds corny. It's not meant to be.)

One of her primary observations: feminism used to be, and still claims to be, about female equality, that claims of delicate femininity needing special protections are bunkum. Yet, this feminism was "hijacked by melodrama" in higher ed; there, women are seen as helpless waifs in the sway of powerful males. Often they don't see themselves as victims until weeks, months, even years later! When it's been explained to them.

Kipnis tells the story of Philosophy prof Peter Ludlow, under fire from two accusers (both pseudonymous in the book). She was Ludlow's "faculty support person" at Northwestern's conclave. At first, she thought Ludlow probably was guilty, or at least guilty enough to be shitcanned; she came around to think that charges were unmerited. Yet, Ludlow resigned his position before Northwestern could fire him. Kipnis demolishes the charges against Ludlow in both cases; they were based on contestable (and sometimes changing) stories; they were often contradicted by the concurrent actions of the accusers. What Ludlow had was lousy judgment, in the sense of Algren's Third Rule of Life: "Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own."

Kipnis had her own woes. She wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe". Which echoed a lot of themes in this book but—oops—caused Title IX complaints to be brought up against her. Chilling effect, you see. And (surprise, surprise) this very book has generated its own lawsuit, from the graduate student pseudonymed "Nola Hartley" therein. Here's hoping Professor Kipnis comes out alive and well on the other end.

Finally, I very much appreciated Professor Kipnis's reaction to being lectured on "confidentiality" and "conduct befitting a professor". It's about the same as I had when I (and other UNH employees) were "asked" by our superiors to sign a public document averring to “Never commit, condone, nor remain silent about violence against women.”

Professor Kipnis's response is one I didn't myself have the guts to make at the time: "Kiss my ass."