Laura Kipnis’ Northwestern “Inquisition” Is a Case Study in the Dangers of Expanding Institutional Power

The saga that began with cultural critic and Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis’ essay “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” has entered, like so many American stories, a new chapter: legal action. But as Kipnis recounts in her latest dispatch — published, like the original piece, in the Chronicle of Higher Education — the process in which she’s currently enmeshed is not a standard-issue lawsuit. Rather, it’s the process that’s become notorious since campus sexual assault, and universities’ woefully inadequate means of addressing it, came under national scrutiny early last year. Kipnis is currently the subject of an internal investigation by her employer, Northwestern University, under the auspices of the federal statute Title IX.

That an article expressing skepticism of bans on professor-student dating attracted ire is hardly surprising. But the specific form the backlash against Kipnis has taken is unusual; in early March, around 30 student protesters carried mattresses and pillows — a direct reference to Emma Sulkowicz’s recently concluded Mattress Performance project protesting Columbia University’s mishandling of her sexual assault — to deliver a petition to administrators. The petition demanded, in part, “a swift, official condemnation of the sentiments expressed by Professor Kipnis in her inflammatory article and… that in the future, this sort of response comes automatically.”

Though both Northwestern’s Dean of Students Todd Adams and University President Morton Schapiro told student paper The Daily Northwestern they’d consider the petition, no official condemnation came. Shortly afterward, however, Kipnis learned that two students had lodged complaints with the university’s Title IX coordinator, for “retaliation.” What followed was a bureaucratic mess, still technically in progress, that will sound familiar to anyone who’s kept up with the issue. But Kipnis’ story diverges from the usual narrative in that we’re seeing another side of the equation (she’s the accused, not the accuser), and the conflict is over a different offense (an essay and other public statements, not sexual assault).

Reading Kipnis’ account, I was struck by some of the similarities between her horror story and those of survivors. The official record of her hearing was preserved in her investigators’ subjective notes, which she could only attempt to correct after the fact; her “support person” faced repercussions of his own for discussing the case in public; her ruling has yet to come through, even though the 60-day time frame offered by the university has already passed. Such blunders are staples of some of the most highly publicized stories of administrative incompetence, including Sulkowicz’s. 

Kipnis is not, obviously, dealing with the added burden of recovering from an assault or having to share a campus with her assailant. But in both her case and those of the many, many survivors who have come forward over the last year and a half, the source of the flaws in their investigations has been the same: the university charged with conducting the investigations.

Her original essay remains deeply flawed, dismissing far too flippantly the real power dynamics that underlie a professor-student relationship in favor of the dismissive, permissive stance that’s perpetrated said dynamics for far too long. But her experience at Northwestern has wound up illustrating the piece’s more fundamental point: that giving a flawed institution more latitude, and thus more power, will only amplify its flaws and their impact, not fix them.

This is most apparent in the mission creep evidenced by Kipnis’ charges. Her incredulity that her actions may fall under the umbrella of Title IX serves a rhetorical purpose, but it’s entirely deserved. Kipnis stands accused not of overt discrimination or sexual assault, which the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has officially interpreted as falling under the Title IX rubric since 2011, but of damaging students’ ability to report sexual assault and intentionally creating a “hostile environment” by portraying two students inaccurately in her essay.

These are hardly positive outcomes. Yet claiming them as Title IX violations threatens to expand the reach of institutions that have repeatedly proven their interests to be distinct from those of students — and, now, professors. The movement against campus assault began as a means of demonstrating that universities don’t necessarily, or even often, have survivors’ welfare in mind. In Kipnis’ case, it’s morphed into an attempt to enlist one of those same universities against someone who doesn’t hold nearly as much institutional power.

Some form of an internal process for addressing sexual assault is almost certainly necessary; survivors need a means of ensuring they’re not sharing classrooms and dormitories with their assailants, and the courts haven’t exactly proven themselves to be a better alternative. But the Title IX process is not a panacea. We’ve learned that universities can’t be trusted to serve survivors. With Kipnis, we’re learning that they can’t be trusted to act on their behalf, either.