Letter to the Editor: Redeeming Laura Kipnis

Raff Donelson

In her article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Communication Prof. Laura Kipnis got carried away. Her ignorant comments about the “melodramatic” Peter Ludlow affair as well as slights against former students and current staff may have gotten many of us carried away too. But Kipnis had a point beyond all this, in fact, a few points that deserve our attention.

Kipnis is right to question the trope of the all-mighty professor versus the powerless student.  Is there a power differential? In many cases, certainly. Is that omnipresent or without exception? No. There are cases when students harangue and even harass professors due to the power that students wield.  Such cases are made possible, in part, by the fact that people have different dimensions of their identities. We are not just teachers and students, but also male and female, gender-conforming and not, white and nonwhite, of the 1 percent and less well-off. When different dimensions of identity intersect, some professors are, on the whole, less empowered than some students “in their charge.” We overlook this fact by focusing too narrowly on the all-powerful professor trope.

Kipnis is also right to question colleges’ attempts to insulate students from anything offensive, disturbing or inappropriate. Kipnis emphasizes that this manner of educating young adults inaptly prepares them for the world beyond college. She is not saying because the world is unfair, colleges should follow suit. Instead, she urges administrations to treat students like the rational, self-determining people they are.

Finally, Kipnis is right about a point she made in passing. The problem of sexual assault is decidedly more prevalent among students than between students and their professors. The point in raising this is not to belittle instances of student-professor sexual assault; rather, the point is to suggest that administrations that develop policies about student-professor sex but do little about rampant sexual assault in, say, fraternities are being disingenuous. Deeply enough, this point made in passing might be the most significant of all. In crafting certain new prohibitions, we’re throwing water on a Bunsen burner while the city around us goes up in flames.

The professor-student power difference is not the most significant power difference facing students. Professor-student sexual assault is not the biggest threat to students’ safety. And inappropriateness is not the biggest barrier to students’ education.

Raff Donelson

J.D. candidate ’16, School of Law

Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy ’16, The Graduate School