Some reactions to Laura Kipnis, “Eyewitness to a Title IX Witch Trial”

Last month the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) published an excerpt from Unwanted Advances by Northwestern Professor Laura Kipnis. Below are four or so aspects of the excerpt that puzzled me or that I find objectionable, partly in themselves, and partly in light of material that exists elsewhere in the public domain. I’m not going to summarize the details or who the people in question are – so read the excerpt if you want to follow what’s going on.

(1) Purposeful asymmetrical access

First, the excerpt gives the impression that Kipnis enjoyed extremely lopsided, asymmetrical access to the main case study. The excerpt makes it seem that, in addition to court documents and anything already in the public domain on both sides, she only sought out the more personal take of the accused professor. Because this controversy is supposed to be a factual example supporting Kipnis’ broader points about sexual agency, Title IX, and the politics of campus bureaucracy, it may be difficult to believe that, in addition to legal documents and proceedings, only one side was personally consulted. But that is evidently the case.

Outside of the CHE excerpt, Kipnis has presented at least a few different (but overlapping – I’m not trying to imply that they are necessarily contradictory) explanations for why she didn’t even attempt to contact the professor’s accusers. In a public Facebook comment responding to this very concern, she writes,

The students’ accounts–including the various changing versions of their accounts–were already on record. I reported those accounts in the book.

I am perplexed by this explanation, because in addition to court records of his own complaints, the professor’s account was also on the record (paywall). But even the court records Kipnis seems to have access to are lopsided in the professor’s favor, because the graduate student’s side of things is not in fact directly documented in them (the professor’s own suit did not make it past a motion to dismiss, because the court decided that even if the facts as he alleged them were true, he didn’t have a discrimination case – so the facts claimed therein were not adjudicated); rather, her case is merely summarized in university (not court) documents by the very institutions of which Kipnis is rightly skeptical (see, e.g., footnote 1 on page 2 here). But even setting aside the odd claims about what was on the record, the point of getting personal interviews is to find out whether, from the subject’s perspective, the court and other venues really tell the whole story, and attendant to this, to acquire any evidence that for some reason may have not yet come to light. [UPDATE: While the grad student’s side of the story was not previously directly on the official record, now it is. You can read a useful summary, with a link to the primary source material, here.]

In any case, this is a bit different from (but again, not necessarily inconsistent with) what Kipnis says in the book itself. In a footnote (pp. 15-16) to a discussion of a different case, she writes of all her cases,

I didn’t interview the accuser in this case or the other cases I discuss, which would have been impossible – any respondent who gave me the name or contact information for a complainant would be subject to retaliation charges. The privacy constraints are one thing that make Title IX difficult to write about (also so impervious to oversight).

I am perplexed by this explanation, because it leaves out any other means of finding out if an accuser wants to talk. Aren’t accusers interviewed a fair amount (e.g., for the CHE post linked to previously)? Aren’t there ways to, at the very least, communicate a desire to interview someone (to get a fuller picture) without first getting their contact information (e.g., by sending a request through someone else – like a legal team, a department, or a university)?

And finally, this is different from (not contradictory with) a third explanation Kipnis gives in her response to a public letter that the Northwestern Philosophy Graduate Student Association adopted by majority vote.

The graduate student’s story has already been ratified as the official story. It wasn’t my goal to retell that story, I was reporting on what got left out. … I’d also like to remind the Graduate Student Association that [the graduate student] (and a fellow grad student in your department) not long ago brought me up on Title IX complaints for writing eight words about her. To suggest that she or her friends would have been eager to speak to me about her relationship with [the professor]—and I should have sought them out for interviews—is disingenuous at best.

First, where has the graduate student’s story been “ratified as the official story”? One of the central claims of the graduate student was officially determined to lack sufficient evidence, as has been widely reported: the professor was found guilty of harassment, not rape. Of course, lacking sufficient evidence is consistent with the claim being true, but the latter has hardly become the official story.

Presumably, the “eight words” written about the accuser (in an earlier piece – here is a PDF from Kipnis’ website) were also written without consulting her (or the accused), to get her take on whether the words were accurate. In fact, the accuracy of the words is the stated motivation of at least one of the Title IX complainants (described in the Daily Nous), in the first place. Maybe, in the end, the graduate student would not have wanted to talk to Kipnis, but given the plausibility that she might want a say in what is publicly said about her going forward, wouldn’t it have been at least reasonable, and ethical, to try?

Interestingly, Kipnis has a reply to the Title IX complainant who wrote about the case for the Daily Nous. There she spends some time explaining why she did not write more than a few words about this particular case:

Let me explain why I didn’t say more about the case. The only account I had access to was the professor’s. Though all the information I drew on was in the public record, there was also a lot of private (and unverifiable) information about the graduate student’s life that I had no desire to comment on, or further circulate, even though the student wasn’t named. Once again, most of the facts and sexual allegations were—and are—in contention. To write about the complexities of that situation would have taken an article in itself, even if I’d been able to interview both parties involved, which I wasn’t. And I would have had to write both sides of the story, not one. But it also wasn’t my purpose to write a reported piece on this case; I was writing two paragraphs in an essay that took on many additional subjects.

I leave it as an exercise for readers to figure out what tensions might exist between this last statement and the refusal to even attempt to contact accusers when writing a (sure to be widely read) book partly about their cases, as well as ways in which one might pull them apart. The main point I want to emphasize is just that, as Kipnis herself recognizes or seems to have at one time recognized, it’s not just non-ideal, but very bad, to write with lopsided access to cases. And it leaves readers in a very epistemologically awkward position, wondering whether the story would be any different if the author had access to the other side’s personal take on things, any new evidence they could provide, whether the access the author did have to the accuser resulted in any unwittingly selective evidence, and so on.

(2) Philosophical Chaos in the Courtroom

Second, there is a long passage about the character witness provided by another philosopher. The witness is said to inspire great confidence, partly because she is “honest.” But isn’t honesty the thing we are supposed to be convinced about?

In this passage, we are also treated to claims about the professor being cool, charming, and pursued by women. Are we supposed to expect that someone with these features is less likely to be guilty of sexual harassment, assault, or rape? What is the relevance of this claim supposed to be to the charges?

Furthermore, Kipnis describes the session with the witness – during which the witness apparently says that she loves the professor – as having an “erotic current”, yet we are to also believe that the existence of 2,000 text messages and “expressions of love and lasting devotion” are decisive pieces of evidence that the professor and the graduate student were dating. Surely context is everything (the philosopher witness was not in fact expressing romantic love, I presume), but Kipnis provides none for the supposed expressions of love and devotion via text.

Perhaps most peculiarly, Kipnis recounts the philosopher giving the following argument: She hasn’t heard any negative comments or whispers about the professor in fifteen years, but had there been anything negative, she would have heard it, “because people came to her about this sort of thing.” First, would it change Kipnis’ – or the court’s – mind if she simply encountered philosophers who have heard negative comments and whispers? But perhaps more importantly: might philosophers not come to a person with negative comments and whispers about a major, influential philosopher who, as Kipnis relates, officiated that person’s wedding(!)?

Finally, Kipnis makes a big deal about the fact that the character witness is also an expert philosopher working on “inference to the best explanation,” who turned the room into a kind of philosophy seminar. Does it similarly count for something that two of the Northwestern philosophy professors who issued a brief public statement in defense of the graduate student (saying that Kipnis’ portrayals are “grossly inaccurate”), are specialists in epistemology, and do significant work on the epistemology of testimony in particular? Swap in the character witness with those two professors, have them utter contrary statements but in the same expert mood (minus the expression of love and admiration for the professor’s coolness and success with women), and does the grad student’s case suddenly become more plausible to Kipnis?

(3) Distinctions and differences

Kipnis sometimes minimizes important distinctions, or exaggerates unimportant ones. For example, she calls the distinction between force and manipulation “splitting hairs.” But isn’t this a perfectly straightforward, and morally important, distinction? Coming up with examples is another exercise for the reader.

On the other hand, the fact that the graduate student and the professor work “in different areas,” and that she has “never actually taken any classes with him,” are distinctions that are apparently supposed to have some significance. But this ignores how graduate programs (at least, graduate programs in philosophy) actually work. A graduate student can work closely with someone who officially specializes in a different area and even without taking any of their classes. In fact, faculty members who are not even one’s advisers can potentially wield enormous influence over one’s career. Were I not writing under a carefully crafted pseudonym, I’d prove it with personal examples. Of course, these things come in degrees, and officially taking classes with someone can create a power dynamic that someone might abuse. But these concerns do not become particularly implausible just because the particular institutional relationships Kipnis mentions are lacking.

(4) Moral and legal evaluation

Fourth and finally, the general moral perspective of the excerpt is odd. Many of the behaviors described, even on the assumption that the accused professor’s story is correct and he didn’t do anything worthy of official sanction, seem to be good evidence that there is something deeply wrong here – for example, having or allowing an undergraduate student spend the night in one’s bed. Here I agree with some of PZ Myers’ (characteristically hyperbolic) commentary. Of course, this kind of disagreement depends upon an overall view of sexuality and power dynamics that Kipnis and her allies probably find prudish and backward.


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