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Northwestern Professor: Faculty Now Fear Students Demanding ‘Safe Spaces’

A Northwestern University professor was accused of retaliation and investigated after students claimed an article she had written had a “chilling effect” on students’s ability to report sexual misconduct.

Writing on Friday in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Laura Kipnis describes an academic climate in which professors lay awake at night in fear of losing their careers over a single careless word or missed trigger warning. A new academic culture is rising in which hurt feelings are considered evidence of an attack. This hypersensitivity is being abetted by an expanding process of Title IX charges which allow anyone with an agenda or a grudge to go on the offensive against the faculty:

As I understand it, any Title IX charge that’s filed has to be investigated, which effectively empowers anyone on campus to individually decide, and expand, what Title IX covers. Anyone with a grudge, a political agenda, or a desire for attention can quite easily leverage the system.

And there are a lot of grudges these days. The reality is that the more colleges devote themselves to creating “safe spaces” — that new watchword — for students, the more dangerous those campuses become for professors. It’s astounding how aggressive students’ assertions of vulnerability have gotten in the past few years. Emotional discomfort is regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated.

Most academics I know — this includes feminists, progressives, minorities, and those who identify as gay or queer — now live in fear of some classroom incident spiraling into professional disaster. After the essay appeared, I was deluged with emails from professors applauding what I’d written because they were too frightened to say such things publicly themselves. My inbox became a clearinghouse for reports about student accusations and sensitivities, and the collective terror of sparking them, especially when it comes to the dreaded subject of trigger warnings, since pretty much anything might be a “trigger” to someone, given the new climate of emotional peril on campuses.

I learned that professors around the country now routinely avoid discussing subjects in classes that might raise hackles. A well-known sociologist wrote that he no longer lectures on abortion. Someone who’d written a book about incest in her own family described being confronted in class by a student furious with her for discussing the book. A tenured professor on my campus wrote about lying awake at night worrying that some stray remark of hers might lead to student complaints, social-media campaigns, eventual job loss, and her being unable to support her child.

The fear being described is not theoretical. Kipnis herself is now the target of two Title IX complaints based on a previous essay titled, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.” Contained in the article were two paragraphs about a student who had filed a Title IX lawsuit against the university over an incident in which a professor allegedly fondled her (he denies it).

The point of Kipnis’s two paragraphs wasn’t to attack the student or the professor (neither of whom were named) but to suggest Title IX was infantilizing women and being used as a blunt instrument by university administrators. Nevertheless, students at Northwestern did not respond well to what Kipnis had written. Some of them marched on the university president’s office demanding he condemn the article.

Noise and protest are certainly one legitimate way to respond to ideas one does not like, but two individuals took it beyond that. They filed Title IX complaints against Kipnis claiming that her words had chilled the environment on campus. The university hired an outside law firm to investigate the claims.

In Kipnis’s recounting, a Title IX investigation is a Kafka-esque experience. It was never clear to her what the process was or how it would be judged. Could an adverse judgment trump her right to academic freedom as a tenured professor? She didn’t know, and there was no one who seemed willing to explain it to her beyond forwarding her a few web links. She was told she definitely could not have an attorney but could have a “support person” with her. (Later, she was told her support person also had a Title IX complaint filed against them, so Kipnis would need to find a new support person.)

Kipnis was unable to get a copy of the accusations against her in writing. Initially, the attorneys sent to investigate her said they would inform her of the accusations and interview her at one meeting, leaving her no time to prepare a response. She eventually got the attorneys to agree to inform her of the charges by video conference. What she learned was that both charges had been filed by grad students. One had no connection to anything she’d written and was filing the complaint on behalf of the university. The other was one of the people Kipnis had mentioned (not by name) in her essay. This person filed the accusations because of the essay but also based on a single tweet Kipnis had written after the essay was published, which mentioned no one in particular.

The outcome of the process is still pending for Kipnis. She wrote the current essay in the belief that no Title IX process can trump her rights to free speech and adds that if the current essay spawns more Title IX complaints, she will probably write about those too.

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