Let me start this post by saying something I'd've thought would be obvious: in attacking some of the things Kipnis says, I'm not thereby attacking all of them. I have many important disagreements with the book, both on general cultural matters and on particular conclusions she draws about cases she discusses. I think that, her protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, the book perpetuates rape culture. I think I made that case in my last post, and I plan to make it again in future ones. But that doesn't mean I think she's wrong about everything.
Several people have taken me to task for defending the Title IX status quo. I have a quick retort: I don't defend the Title IX status quo. One of the several central conclusions of Kipnis's book is that universities' reflexive legalistic instincts contribute to injustices, including injustices against people who are accused of wrongdoing. The way Kipnis tells her story, respondents are often not told what they're being accused of until investigations are complete; they're also, she says, often denied the possibility of legal representation, despite the severity of the matter under investigation. If this is true—and I suspect that it is—it is not just.
Kipnis also insinuates vaguely that these processes are used disproportionately against gay people. (Some of my anonymous commenters have also embraced this talking point.) She quips on p. 23: "Apparently no one has mentioned to [student activists] how many of the professors being caught in these widening nets are, in fact, queer—or suspected of being so, anyway." On p. 24 she admits that she has no way of knowing whether queer faculty are targeted at a disproportionate rate. But since in general, queer people tend to be targeted at a higher rate than others for most negative things, I'm very willing to believe that's happening here too.
The really frustrating thing about the book, in this context, is that Kipnis is imagining that student activists are the ones driving the university administrators to behave in this way, and that this is what they want. She describes, on p. 19, "a new generation of social activists" who, "rather than looking to revitalize the socialist or left-emancipatory traditions, are instead joining arms with campus administrators as the fast track to empowerment." (There's some speculation throughout the book, e.g. on pp. 22 and 29, that because today's students are so deeply attached to their parents, they want administrators to step in and play parenting roles as well. Infantilisation of student activists is a motif that runs wide and deep in this book.) Kipnis paints a picture of student snowflakes and power-hungry campus administrators conspiring giddily together against hapless faculty, revelling in the Title IX wonderland of their shared creation.
Based on my own experiences with student anti-rape activists, university administrators, and discussions around sexual assault policies, Kipnis's picture is deeply misleading. To the extent to which Kipnis's problem is with unfair, opaque, and generally illiberal university policies, student activists are Kipnis's natural allies. These kinds of complaints about universities—that they only care about covering their own asses, that they just want to make the problems go away with as little attention as possible, that they're more interested in maintaining a veneer of normality than they are of making fair and correct decisions—have been talking-points for student activists for years.
As Jennifer Doyle puts it in Campus Sex, Campus Security:
Victims of sexual assault, harassment and intimate partner violence are encouraged to report. A minority file complaints and try to see the process through: doing so takes material and emotional resources. Few will tell you that this process provides resolution. There is no policy adequate to these crises. Victims report because they need help; a campus receives reports because it is bound by law to do so. This asymmetry warps their interaction. (p. 33)Universities' liability-focused approaches don't end up treating anyone humanely—neither complainants nor respondents, faculty nor students. The blunt and secretive process Kipnis describes from the faculty complainant perspective just is the flip side of institutional betrayal suffered by many complainants.
Kipnis writes at times as if what student activists want is for universities to just do something, so long as it's big and invasive, no matter how well it enacts justice or protects students. But this is far from the truth, as some of her own anecdotes demonstrate. For example, on p. 40 she ridicules a lawsuit she describes thus:
Harvard is currently being sued by a female student who said her ex-boyfriend abused her and Harvard hadn't done enough, despite interviewing her six times, the accusee three times, speaking to seventeen other witnesses, and reviewing text and email messages. The woman charges Harvard with showing "deliberate indifference" to her case.The fact that Harvard has done a large number of things—many of them sure to be invasive and re-traumatising to the student, by the way—stands in no tension whatsoever with the allegation that they are being negligent with the case. Only someone with a very simplistic conception of what students are seeking would think it does. (Kipnis writes on p. 30 that "a campus's success in 'combatting sexual assault' is measured in increased accusations"—a strange assertion. I don't know many universities that brag about their high numbers of sexual assault accusations.) My discussions with students at UBC, where we've been having a conversation about sexual assault policies for a couple years now, have also emphasised the importance of noncarceral, survivor-centred care. (I wrote a bit about this last year.)
And even in punitive/disciplinary contexts, many of the student activists that Kipnis aligns herself against have also been emphasising the need for fairness and transparency. This is clear to me both in my personal interactions with them and in what I've read of the positions they are staking out. Here, for example, is a passage by Kathryn Pogin, a student activist well-known in both in philosophical circles and in Title IX circles:
People absolutely should have the charges in writing, with whatever complaint is filed against them. … They should be allowed to record all their interactions with any investigator or university administrator. Unfortunately, that’s never going to happen. Universities are not going to allow people to record conversations, because university Title IX processes by and large are constructed not actually to protect students or faculty or staff from discrimination or harassment. They’re designed to protect the university from legal liability. And the more you allow people to record conversations, the more you’re going to catch administrators screwing up how they handle cases. If you look at Title IX coordinators across the country, a huge number of them, their legal background is not in advocating for students, not working in sexual harassment, not working in sexual discrimination. It is protecting corporations from discrimination complaints. … So they’re all coming at this with an eye toward how to protect the university from legal claims. And in order to protect the university from a legal claim, you just have to show that they did not treat it with “deliberate indifference.” So you take some kind of action, no matter how bad the outcome is. Unless you can show that it was deliberately indifferent, it’s really hard to file a Title IX complaint. (PEN campus report, p. 61)This Huffington Post piece from May of 2015 sounds a similar note, explicitly drawing the connection to Kipnis's procedural complaints:
The complainants said they side with Kipnis on a number of issues she raised about the Title IX procedure in her essay. For example, they don’t understand why Kipnis had to jump through hoops to find out the charges against her and couldn’t get them in writing, or why it took two weeks to inform her of the complaint. They were similarly upset that the investigators prohibited recording interviews.This is not just empty rhetoric. Pogin, a Northwestern student activist, told me that during Peter Ludlow's termination procedure she noticed a procedural irregularity that, she thought, might generate a bias against Ludlow. In Kipnis's caricature, this would have been cause for activist celebration. In reality, Pogin wrote to Peter Ludlow's legal team, informing them of the worry—purely in the interests of fairness and transparency. Incidentally, I'm not just taking this on Pogin's word—I've read the email to Ludlow's lawyer.
“I don’t get why they’re so insistent on that, it adds protection for everybody,” the graduate student said, noting she also found errors in the notes taken by investigators.
Kipnis offered a more succinct remark about the control against transparency by investigators: “Secrecy invites abuses.”
I don't know whether that email was among the documents that Ludlow provided Kipnis about his case, but the anecdote cuts between two of her book's central themes. This story confirms the "Title IX procedures are often unfair" narrative, but it disconfirms the "snowflakes run amok" narrative. I think Kipnis was mistaken to tie them so closely together as she does. It is rhetorically effective—it combines genuine instances of injustice with a powerful cultural trope that many people are very ready to believe. But I think it's a very misleading picture.
And again, I want to emphasise, this is not purely academic. This is a misleading picture that is harming victims of sexual misconduct in universities. You don't have to think our colleges and universities are full of hapless student snowflakes manufacturing and inflating sexual assault allegations out of nothing to think Title IX has a lot of problems. Indeed, you shouldn't, because the former is both false and harmful, while the latter is true.
Note: I'm leaving this post, like my previous one, open to commenters, including anonymous ones. I know that some people who might otherwise wish to engage are put off by that kind of thing; if you have a facebook account and prefer to interact only with people putting their names behind their words, I invite you to discuss this post here if you like.