Northwestern professor’s column on professor-student relationships sparks student backlash

Olivia Exstrum, Campus Editor

In the wake of alleged sexual misconduct between a Northwestern professor and students, an opinion piece written by Communication Prof. Laura Kipnis has prompted strong student reactions, including a letter against the article’s sentiments penned and signed by student representatives from several groups on campus.

Kipnis’ piece, titled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” and published Friday in The Chronicle of Higher Education, criticized university policies that prohibit romantic and sexual relationships between professors and students, arguing the policies give students an inaccurate sense of vulnerability.

“It’s been barely a year since the Great Prohibition took effect in my own workplace,” Kipnis, a Radio, Television and Film professor, wrote. “Before that, students and professors could date whomever we wanted; the next day we were off-limits to one another — verboten, traife, dangerous (and perhaps, therefore, all the more alluring).”

In January 2014, NU rolled out a new policy that explicitly prohibits romantic relationships between faculty and undergraduate students, reasoning that students are inherently less powerful than faculty members and such relationships carry a “risk of coercion.”

In the article, Kipnis discussed the alleged 2012 sexual assault of a then-Medill freshman by philosophy Prof. Peter Ludlow, and referred to the student’s claims as “melodrama.” As of Monday evening, the article had received more than 480 comments.

In response to Kipnis’ remarks about the alleged assault, the public letter signed by more than 40 students says she “spits in the face of survivors of rape and sexual assault everywhere.”

“Kipnis’ full-throated support of sexual encounters between faculty and their students is anathema to the safe culture of healthy sexuality towards which the Northwestern community ought to aspire,” students wrote. “Professor Kipnis does not speak for us.”

Students from organizations including Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault, Rainbow Alliance, College Feminists and the Asian Pacific American Coalition signed the letter on Monday.

Communication junior Zoe Pressman, an RTVF major who signed the letter, said she found the article “absurd, offensive and all over the place.”

“Where she mocked students who came to her privately to express discomfort … she mocked them for coming forward and being too vulnerable,” she told The Daily. “Then she flipped it around and belittled some of her friends for not speaking up about their personal sexual harassment.”

In an email to The Daily on Monday, Kipnis said she hopes her article sparks discussion.

“I completely understand that not everyone’s going to agree with my point of view,” she wrote.

In the article, Kipnis mentions two separate instances in which two students — one male and one female — requested to not watch assigned films because they would be mentally or emotionally triggering. Kipnis wrote that many students are “cocooned from uncomfortable feelings.”

Communication senior Noa Wiener, who told The Daily she believes she was the female student mentioned in the story, said she had been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder about a month prior to the incident and approached Kipnis with her concerns. Wiener took Kipnis’ class “RTVF 379: Secrets and Lies” in Spring Quarter 2014.

“At the time she seemed really understanding,” Wiener said, “but she apparently used it in an article a year later to mock me for it … It’s really hard to read about a private conversation you had with a professor in a mocking tone about something that’s hard to deal with anyway.”

Wiener said she was going to take another class with Kipnis, but plans to drop it. She said she also plans to talk to her adviser about the article and possibly file a formal complaint against Kipnis. Although there is a possibility the student mentioned wasn’t her, Wiener said, she believes the article is still unacceptable.

“Something should be done about it because I think this could be a thing other professors could point to and say, ‘Look what this professor said, it’s fine, it’s just a silly taboo,’” she said. “I would like to see some sort of repercussions just so she understands the effect something like this has on her students and her class.”

Other students voiced their individual opinions on social media, such as philosophy Ph.D. student Kathryn Pogin. In a public comment on the Title IX at Northwestern University Facebook page, Pogin addressed Kipnis’ comments regarding the alleged assault. Pogin said in the comment she also sent her comments to Kipnis and editors at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“The sense of panic I feel comes from seeing professors in my own discipline shuffle from one institution to the next after being involved in harassment scandals that are covered up, swept under the rug, and quickly forgotten,” she wrote. “It comes from knowing victims who have been driven out of their departments and out of their chosen career paths because try as they might justice will not be served to them.”

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