What's a President to Do?: Trampling Title IX and Other Scary Ideas

04/05/2015 03:50 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2015

On March 18th, the president of Northwestern University, Morton Schapiro, wrote an op-ed, bemoaning the Gordian-esque complexities of campus life in the 21st century. Schapiro was responding, in part, to this op-ed written by Laura Kipnis, Northwestern professor of Radio/Television/Film. In her piece, Kipnis opines that menopausal administrators have begun to cultivate an air of moral panic within the hallowed walls of higher learning. These hysterical, hormonally besot women have, according to Kipnis, the undue influence of inculcating to our students an entitled attitude of victimhood. The result is that today's students are so pathetically "vulnerable" that they require their educators cosset them through those formative years. The whole thing is, to Kipnis' mind, embarrassing.

In the wake of Kipnis' op-ed most folks, Schapiro included, have leapt to defend the overarching values of free speech. But, when Northwestern students marched in protest of Kipnis' op-ed (an act itself in the spirit of freedom of expression) Kipnis took to social media to decry their dissent as impinging on her academic liberties. Then, on March 28th, Northwestern's president weighed in, echoing Kipnis' right to academic freedom. I confess, that was a pretty shocking move to me, given that Kipnis' op-ed was in clear violation of Northwestern's faculty handbook, which explains that faculty, while free from institutional censorship, also undertake "special obligations" in virtue of their "special position in the community." Among those obligations, naturally, is a commitment to be accurate "at all times."

But Kipnis' op-ed was alarmingly inaccurate. And immediately after its publication, several individuals reached out to her directly to correct the myriad misrepresentations of fact that she harmfully published as gospel. Kipnis acknowledged these emails, but refused to correct the record, suggesting instead that folks simply agree to disagree. That's a strange response, a bit like telling a math tutor that you "agree to disagree," or a civil engineer who's concerned about the integrity of your bridge, or... you get the point. When someone in a position to know reaches out to let you know that you're off base, one tends to think the appropriate response is anything but Kipnis'.

I know about these correspondences because I'm a member of the department at Northwestern from which Kipnis misleadingly culled her paradigm example of this menacing "sexual paranoia" overtaking the academy. In view of Kipnis' refusal to correct the factual inaccuracies in her piece, and as the misleading narrative propagated by her began to reverberate across multiple media platforms, at least two students filed Title IX retaliation complaints against Kipnis. Because, when a professor writes about your Title IX sexual assault complaint in an erroneous, misleading, and condescending way, that pretty straightforwardly raises questions about retaliation under Title IX. As of the publication of Schapiro's op-ed, though, those complaints had yet even to be assigned investigators. So, here, roughly, is how this unfolded: Kipnis writes a piece in clear violation of the faculty handbook, riddled with falsehoods about students, even as she is discussing the worst thing that has ever happened to these people. And then, while there are two utterly nascent, open Title IX complaints, our university president writes an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal issuing a verdict: Kipnis' piece is protected speech.

Schapiro's op-ed sends a very clear message that Kipnis has nothing to be concerned about with respect to those complaints, which in turn sends a clear message to those students regarding the complete lack of seriousness with which his administration regards their concerns. Frankly, those of us concerned about the integrity of our judicial processes ought to be a little disconcerted with how unilaterally our president has moved to completely stack the decks against these students. One wonders what else the university could possibly do to create a more hostile environment.

How can those students endeavor to flourish on a campus where their own president has publicly taken sides against them? When a student reaches out to an office within the university's administration to confide that they feel they have been harmed, when they agree to open up a formal complaint, they are signaling to the university that they trust those procedures, that they have confidence in the university's integrity, and that they are willing to work within the system to seek redress. This is a confidence that any self-respecting administration should regard as inviolable, as absolutely sacred. It is staggering that Schapiro has so recklessly and entirely undone the legitimacy of that confidence. This is an absolute betrayal.

Schapiro's op-ed has completely prejudiced any investigation into those complaints. In all seriousness, whom could the university ever hire to investigate them in an unbiased way, in view of Schapiro's premature verdict? The reality is that no individual could possibly be asked to stand in opposition to our president in the course of such an investigation. And he knows that.

But here's the thing: the entire conversation surrounding Kipnis' piece is completely and disappointingly missing the point. Because, Kipnis is absolutely free to hold repugnant moral and political views, and it is of course well within her rights to criticize a university policy that she disagrees with. Nobody, anywhere, has at any point said otherwise, to my knowledge. But her piece was wildly factually inaccurate, and in ways that were obviously harmfully misleading, while conveniently serving to further legitimize her agenda. Her view looks immensely more plausible having omitted, glossed over, and misrepresented several key facts on the ground in the discussion of her paradigm example -- facts that, as she labors to point out, she was exceedingly well-placed to get the real scoop on. This is not only intellectually lazy and academically irresponsible, it's professionally reprehensible. And obviously so: It wasn't hard to Google around for a copy of our faculty handbook. So, from where I'm sitting, those "hysterical" students sound pretty reasonable, to me. And isn't it such a shame that their concerns have been so unceremoniously dismissed.