Something is rotten with the state of academia.
So says Laura Kipnis, a tenured professor of film studies at Northwestern University. She should know. Two years ago Kipnis was investigated by university bureaucrats for writing an essay that allegedly created a “hostile educational environment.”
The irony, of course, is that Kipnis, 60, is herself an unreconstructed feminist and political progressive. The Left had turned on one of its own.
The Kafkaesque inquisition lasted 72 days. During that time, investigators refused to provide Kipnis with a written record of the charges against her and later filed new charges against her faculty adviser for speaking out in her defense. Eventually she was cleared of any wrongdoing, but only after she broke her silence in a second essay exposing the university’s mistreatment of her and perhaps embarrassing Northwestern into dropping the charges.
In Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, published this week, Kipnis takes aim at all those who perpetuate the myth that female students (a majority on most campuses) lack sexual agency and are victims of unrelenting micro-aggressions from course material, class discussions, and offhand comments made off campus. She also has sharp words for the sexual bureaucrats who police (with almost prurient interest) sexual relations on campus.
A short and highly readable book, Unwanted Advances is a devastating indictment of the current campus hysteria and the secret campus tribunals empowered to adjudicate everything from attempted humor to criminal sexual assault. Although Kipnis recounts the details of her own ordeal, this is not a bitter or angry book. It is, rather, an irreverent and, at times, humorous account of the far Left’s attempt to stamp out intellectual apostasy.
Kipnis tells her story, and that of a Northwestern colleague who was also charged with harassment, with wit and ironic amusement. She blithely refers to the investigators on her case as “my midwestern Torquemadas.” She writes that watching her colleague’s dismissal hearing “was like watching someone be burned at the stake in slow motion, except this execution was catered.”
So, who or what is to blame for this current state of campus affairs?
The cultural roots of our anti-intellectual rot run deep and are, perhaps, too complex ever to fully disentangle. But we can, according to Kipnis, easily identify at least one culprit: the current Title IX–enforcement regime.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 threatens to withhold federal funding from educational institutions that discriminate on the basis of sex. The law itself is a simple non-discrimination directive. In the hands of federal bureaucrats and college administrators, however, it has morphed into a tool to suppress speech and score political points against the so-called patriarchy.
It was six years ago this week that the Obama administration’s Department of Education released the now infamous Dear Colleague letter. The document was issued as a “guidance” to explain how the department intended to enforce the law. It has no independent force of law. Nevertheless, it has been used to pressure colleges and universities (or to give them political cover, depending on your perspective) to establish expansive bureaucracies to root out all forms of alleged gender-based “misconduct” and to institute procedures, lacking even basic due-process protections, for dealing with the accused.
Less well known are two other Obama-era interpretive documents: the Blueprint for Colleges and Universities (Departments of Justice and Education, 2013) and the Justice Department’s “Findings Letter” (2016). These missives interpreted Title IX to prohibit “offensive” sexual or gender-based speech, “regardless of whether it causes a hostile environment or is quid pro quo.” In other words, even if only the most unreasonable member of a university community is offended by expressed viewpoints involving sex or gender, the Justice and Education Departments say that Title IX compels an educational institution to investigate; it does not matter whether the speech in question is protected by the First Amendment or by the university’s promise to safeguard free expression.
Think Laura Kipnis is the only victim of this radical interpretation of Title IX? Think again. Kipnis mentions at least two professors brought up on Title IX charges for publicly defending accused colleagues. Kipnis mentions a host of others, but there are too many to include in what is essentially a personal narrative.
Take, for example, the strange case of Dennis Gouws, a tenured professor of English at Springfield College in Massachusetts. In 2005, Gouws was asked by his department to teach a new course, Men in Literature. The College also offers a course called Women and Literature.
Gouws taught Men in Literature for eight semesters since 2005. In 2015, Anne Herzog, the college’s dean of arts, sciences, and professional studies, wrote to inform him that a student had complained about the course. Herzog requested that Gouws revise the syllabus. Gouws refused.
Last week, Herzog sent Gouws another letter, this time informing him that he had been “placed on ‘official warning status’” for, essentially, refusing to cooperate with her investigation. Although Springfield College has not invoked Title IX in its attempt to fire Gouws, Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars has noted that the college’s actions are rooted in the spurious notion, perpetuated by the Education and Justice Departments during the Obama years, that legitimate academic speech can create an unlawful hostile environment. “A moment has arrived in American higher education,” writes Wood, “when the fear of complaints from students that a male bias lurks somewhere in a course is sufficient reason for slashing the course from the curriculum.”
Students too have been charged for making intellectual arguments that some regard as “triggering.” A recently filed lawsuit alleges that Yale University punished a student for writing a paper condemning rape. Peter Berkowitz reports in the Wall Street Journal that the student used the crime of rape to illustrate Socrates’ concept of the tripartite soul, as described in Plato’s Republic. Apparently offended by the argument that rape is “an irrational act” in which the soul’s “appetitive” and “spirited” parts overwhelm “reason,” the teaching assistant who graded the paper reported the student to the school’s Title IX officer. As a penance for his thought crime, the student was forced to attend sensitivity training at the university’s mental-health center.
Last month, before Laura Kipnis gave a speech at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, three students posted a video pre-buttal to her arguments. After Kipnis left campus, six Wellesley professors from the college’s Committee for Ethnicity, Race, and Equity issued a statement condemning her and proposing that henceforth the college prohibit speakers whose views cause “distress” to “dozens” of students.
To be sure, stories of political correctness at our nation’s college campuses have been commonplace since at least the mid 1980s. But as Kipnis makes clear in Unwanted Advances, when campus bureaucrats use contorted interpretations of Title IX to threaten academic careers, the stakes are higher than ever. Perhaps it is time for the Trump administration to issue a “guidance” or two of its own.
— Jennifer C. Braceras, a writer in Boston, is a former Commissioner of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.