As feminist student activists fight to expand their circle of vulnerability in collegiate life, Title IX has gone from a law designed to protect college students from sexual misconduct and discrimination to a means by which professors are put on trial for their tweets.

Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis found herself entangled in one such trial after two female graduate students filed Title IX charges against her because of an essay and a tweet she authored. Kipnis was then plunged into a secretive and labyrinthine bureaucratic process that she believes threatens her academic freedom.

The trouble for Kipnis started a few months ago when she published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the growing sexual paranoia on college campuses. Though Kipnis primarily focused on conduct between professors and students, her essay did feature a cutting indictment of the current activism around consent and sex on campus: “women have spent the past century and a half demanding to be treated as consenting adults,” Kipnis writes, “now a cohort on campuses [is] demanding to relinquish those rights, which I believe is a disastrous move for feminism.”

Student activists at Northwestern protested Kipnis’ essay by carrying around mattresses in the style of Emma Sulkowicz, which Kipnis regarded as “symbolically incoherent,” given that Sulkowicz’s mattress had come to symbolize student-on-student sexual assault and that Kipnis’ essay was primarily about sex between students and teachers. Further, Kipnis hadn’t assaulted anyone. Nevertheless, the students, with mattresses in tow, went to Northwestern’s president with a petition demanding swift and official condemnation of Kipnis essay.

Of the protest, Kipnis writes, “the new [consent] codes infantilized students while vastly increasing the power of university administrators over all our lives, and here were students demanding to be protected by university higher-ups from the affront of someone’s ideas, which seemed to prove my point.”

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Though the President said he would consider the petition, Kipnis assumed that academic freedom would prevail.

But Kipnis was wrong.

After the petition was circulated and mattresses dragged to the University President’s office, two students filed Title IX complaints against Kipnis. Kipnis was informed of the complaints through email but was not told what she had done or to whom she had allegedly done it. Here’s Kipnis :

I wrote back to the Title IX coordinator asking for clarification: When would I learn the specifics of these complaints, which, I pointed out, appeared to violate my academic freedom? And what about my rights — was I entitled to a lawyer? I received a polite response with a link to another website. No, I could not have an attorney present during the investigation, unless I’d been charged with sexual violence. I was, however, allowed to have a “support person” from the university community there, though that person couldn’t speak. I wouldn’t be informed about the substance of the complaints until I met with the investigators.

Kipnis refused to meet with investigators until she learned what the charges were about. The investigators were attorneys from outside law firm hired by Northwestern. The attorneys agreed to tell Kipnis about the nature of the complaints over Skype and agreed not to ask her any questions.

Here’s Kipnis again:

Both complainants were graduate students. One turned out to have nothing whatsoever to do with the essay. She was bringing charges on behalf of the university community as well as on behalf of two students I’d mentioned — not by name — because the essay had a “chilling effect” on students’ ability to report sexual misconduct. I’d also made deliberate mistakes, she charged (a few small errors that hadn’t been caught in fact-checking were later corrected by the editors), and had violated the nonretaliation provision of the faculty handbook.

The second complainant was someone Kipnis mentioned, not by name, in connection with lawsuit brought by a Northwestern professor who had two sexual harassment investigations brought against him. The professor is suing Northwestern for defamation and one of the students for defamation. Kipnis mentioned these lawsuits in her essay.

The complaint charged Kipnis mention of the lawsuit was retaliatory and created a hostile environment, though Kipnis points out that she said nothing disparaging. Additionally, the complaint charged that Kipnis omitted information that student believes should have included about her. “This seemed paradoxical — should I have written more?” Kipnis writes, “And is what I didn’t write really the business of Title IX? She also charged that something I’d tweeted to someone else regarding the essay had actually referred to her. (It hadn’t.)“

The Title IX creep that’s happening to Kipnis doesn’t just stop with her. Kipnis was allowed to bring a ‘support person’ , who was not allowed to speak, to her meeting with the Title IX investigators. A Title IX complaint was then filed against the support person. Certainly, such blithe use of a provision to expand the sphere of victimhood seems counter productive to the goal of protecting those who were directly victimized by sexual misconduct or discrimination.

For the rest of the insane and increasingly paradoxical twists to Kipnis’ ordeal (which is still ongoing), including the Title IX investigators asking Kipnis if she would like to file her own retaliation claim against the students, read her dispatch here. It is a stunning example of feminism devouring itself.

Image: Olivia Exstrum/Daily Northwestern


Contact the author at natasha.vargas-cooper@jezebel.com.