Letter to the Editor: Kipnis misinformation needs to stop

Erik Baker

Alex Daly’s recent op-ed about the way Northwestern students have responded to an essay by Prof. Laura Kipnis contains several crucial inaccuracies that merit clarification.

First, the petition that protesters submitted to university administrators, which remains publicly accessible here, did not, as Daly asserts, call “for the University to take action against Kipnis for her article.” Rather, it asked the university to affirm “its commitment to its own sexual misconduct policy,” which Kipnis’ essay criticized. The efficacy of any university sexual misconduct policy is predicated on student buy-in. We believed that if the university stayed silent while the policy came under highly public fire, it would undermine the system’s legitimacy by signaling a lack of administrative conviction in its wisdom. It is not “censorship” for the university to respond to public criticism.

Never did we call for Prof. Kipnis to be fired. Never did we call for her tenure to be revoked. Never did we call for anything that would materially affect Prof. Kipnis or abrogate her right to free expression in any way. It is one of the many ironies of this controversy that Kipnis and her supporters have castigated student activists for their supposedly self-infantilizing behavior while she herself has resorted to shoddy factual misrepresentations and grossly hyperbolic comparisons to McCarthyism and the Inquisition to insulate herself from criticism of her ideas.

Second, Daly misleadingly collapses the distinction between the student protests and the Title IX complaints that Kipnis discussed in her most recent article. They are simply separate matters. Neither of the complainants helped to draft the petition or organize the mattress protest. Furthermore, it is not the case that, as Daly suggests, the complaints were “leveled because of vehement disagreement” with Kipnis’ original essay.

In contrast to the protest and petition, the Title IX complaints filed against Prof. Kipnis had nothing to do with the argument of the piece. Rather, they were filed because the article included crucial factual inaccuracies about a high-profile sexual assault case described in a personally identifying manner. Among these was the article’s original assertion that the professor in that case had a dating relationship with the graduate student who had accused him of assault, when, in reality, that relationship was merely alleged by the professor in a lawsuit. Kipnis refused to correct this and other inaccuracies herself when asked; this behavior gave the student grounds for charging that Kipnis was acting recklessly to create a hostile environment for the student.

I just want to emphasize this point again: the Title IX complaints were not about the intellectual substance of the piece at all. Prof. Kipnis’ article could have been about what she had for breakfast that morning, and if in a bizarre tangent the article included the same factual errors, the grounds for the complaints would have been largely the same.

Finally, Daly wildly misrepresents the basis for the rescinded Title IX complaint against Prof. Stephen Eisenman. Eisenman did not just “publicly discuss” the case “in an academic setting.” He used his authority as president of the Faculty Senate to breach a confidentiality agreement that he had assented to as Prof. Kipnis’ support person in the Title IX process to misleadingly paint the complaints as a matter of “academic freedom.” Perhaps it is important to engage in ongoing “dialogue” about Kipnis’ argument in her essay, but, once more, the complaints had nothing to do with her argument – and even if they did, it would still be inappropriate and unprofessional of Eisenman to use his power to discuss an ongoing university investigation on the senate floor.

I suppose there is one more inaccuracy in Daly’s piece: his continued use of the word “we” in describing the actions of the students who mobilized last quarter. Let me be very clear: Alex Daly did not “say” or “demand” anything in response to Prof. Kipnis’ article. He did not sign the letter we published in North by Northwestern or respond to the public request that I circulated on social media for help editing and drafting it. If he was truly interested in “public student discourse,” he was welcome to talk to any one of the more than 40 students who did — or even author a letter of his own. Our letter did not “dismiss discussion.” It sparked it, for better or for worse, across the country — and if Daly didn’t engage with it, that is his fault alone.

— Erik Baker, Weinberg junior and Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault member