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Letter to the Editor: Kipnis book misrepresents grad student, employs irresponsible research

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Several people, including a graduate student in the department of philosophy at Northwestern University, were recently targeted in a book by Radio, Television and Film faculty member Laura Kipnis. In “Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus,” Kipnis constructs a narrative around a series of events — which have been largely centered within our own department — to support her claim that Title IX fosters a sense of sexual paranoia and creates an environment hostile to academic freedom.

In doing so, Kipnis dedicates a chapter of her book to questioning a sexual assault allegation our fellow graduate student brought against a faculty member. Kipnis questions this allegation on the basis of a limited set of evidence, without consulting with our colleague or those close to her to check a number of important details in the case. Moreover, Kipnis reinforces her claims with unsubstantiated speculations. Her construction of the narrative is, as a result, irresponsible. We feel compelled to express how dissonant Kipnis’ retelling of these events is with our first-hand experiences of them and with the people involved in them, and to express our concern for Kipnis’ conduct, both as an author and as a faculty member at NU.

The claims Kipnis makes about our colleague compose an image of her that is often unrecognizable to us. For instance, the conjecture that our colleague’s Title IX filing against a faculty member in our department was motivated by a desire for revenge is implausible to all of us who have gotten to know this compassionate, conscientious and diligent student. Those of us who are close to her know that it was only after much hesitation and deliberation that she gave a confidential statement to the Title IX office, and that she did so because she thought it was her moral obligation in light of an ongoing lawsuit. Moreover, Kipnis’ failure to consult those in a position to give a well-informed report of our colleague’s history and the situation in which she found herself, or to check basic facts about the case, instantiates the very phenomenon Kipnis takes herself to be railing against: one-sided and irresponsible investigations into sexual assault. We take this to be a reckless approach to publicizing material that purports to recount facts of so sensitive a nature.

Kipnis, of course, is interested in the boundaries between freedom of speech and the constraints incurred under Title IX. But one need not be a defender of Title IX in order to be concerned that Kipnis’ public exploration of private information regarding our colleague, not previously part of any public record, may be a violation of our colleague’s privacy. Students have rights not only under Title IX but also under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and some of the material Kipnis discusses appears to be part of our colleague’s educational record. But regardless of whether this amounts to any formal violation of her privacy rights, there are clear reasons to be concerned about broadcasting very private details about an individual’s life without having or seeking her authorization to use that information, or offering the opportunity to comment.

We support free speech and recognize the need for intellectual discourse about difficult and potentially offensive topics. As such, we do not hold that it is never appropriate to divulge personal information about others. However, we believe that there is a way to exercise academic freedom while still offering necessary protections to members of our community. This involves valuing not just academic freedom, but also privacy rights, intellectual integrity and professional standards.

Kipnis has demonstrated a willingness to engage in questionable research methods, the unauthorized exposure of private information and reckless, unfounded speculation about a junior member of the academy. We condemn these practices. It is respectable to critique a system that you think is broken or a cultural attitude you think is harmful, but it is not respectable to do so by mischaracterizing events and individuals to the public without gathering your evidence in a responsible manner. We feel that Kipnis has unfairly portrayed our colleague, as well as a number of other people in her book. We stand by our colleague and we offer her our full support.

Sincerely,
The Northwestern Philosophy Graduate Student Association

The Northwestern philosophy graduate students adopted this letter by majority vote.