No one expects the Spanish Inquisition, but everyone who lives or works at a college probably should. A Northwestern University professor recently lamented the "intellectually embarrassing" atmosphere of moral panic concerning sex and rape on campus in a column for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Several students who didn't appreciate her opinion—perhaps it triggered them—responded by filing formal complaints against her with the university's Title IX coordinator.
Has it truly come to this? Will academics be subjected to heresy trials for daring to challenge their students' immature, unhealthy, and increasingly dictatorial views about sex and consent?
That seems to be the case for Laura Kipnis, an author and professor of media studies at NU. Her column for The Chronicle documented the cultural and administrative changes made at NU in recent years, ostensibly for the purpose of combatting sexism. Kipnis is not a fan of the changes, which she claims are anti-feminist, infantilizing, and contributing to a culture of fear:
The feminism I identified with as a student stressed independence and resilience. In the intervening years, the climate of sanctimony about student vulnerability has grown too thick to penetrate; no one dares question it lest you're labeled antifeminist. Or worse, a sex criminal. I asked someone on our Faculty Senate if there'd been any pushback when the administration presented the new consensual-relations policy (though by then it was a fait accompli—the senate's role was "advisory").
"I don't quite know how to characterize the willingness of my supposed feminist colleagues to hand over the rights of faculty—women as well as men—to administrators and attorneys in the name of protection from unwanted sexual advances," he said. "I suppose the word would be 'zeal.'" His own view was that the existing sexual-harassment policy already protected students from coercion and a hostile environment; the new rules infantilized students and presumed the guilt of professors. When I asked if I could quote him, he begged for anonymity, fearing vilification from his colleagues.
"Begging for anonymity" was apparently the wise course of action, because Kipnis's article caused quite a stir on campus. Students marched in protest and started a petition demanding that the administration condemn the professor's "toxic ideas… because they have no place here."
Even worse, at least two students filed complaints against Kipnis, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education:
Two students have lodged complaints against Ms. Kipnis, in part for alleged inaccuracies in her essay, with the university's Title IX coordinator.
The Title IX coordinator's job is to handle sexual assault and harassment cases, so the implication here is that merely disagreeing with a student is akin to creating a hostile work environment.
I reached out to Kipnis to learn more about the complaints against her; she declined comment for unspecified reasons, though I imagine she might be required to keep quiet about the matter until it's settled.
Drexel University provides another example of the overzealousness of the Victorian morality police. Last month, Professor Lisa McElroy sent her students an email containing a link to a suggested reading. Unfortunately for her, she copy + pasted a porn link by mistake. That's a mortifying thing to do—it's not a crime, or shouldn't be. And yet the university's Title IX coordinator had little choice but to investigate the matter. McElroy was placed on leave pending the results of that process.
In an excellent post titled "The Tyranny of Title IX," Above the Law's Tamara Tabo questions whether McElroy's mistake could have possibly created a hostile sexual environment for her students:
Lisa McElroy probably did not intend to create a hostile environment for anyone. She may not have actually offended most of her students. Common sense and compassion will probably lead to a quiet resolution to the case. I hope so.
But what if Lisa McElroy were a man? Would observers be as quick to give the benefit of the doubt? If a male professor foisted anal-bead porn on an unsuspecting class of students, would we wonder, even if just a little bit longer, if he meant to do it? Would we be as forgiving, even if we concluded that the porn link was a terrible mistake? Would people argue that he created a hostile environment for his female students, no matter what?
There is a terrible irony that laws and policies created to prevent gender discrimination can treat members of one gender differently and unfairly.
As a university employee, my personal experience with Title IX has been discouraging, frustrating, alienating. I have been recruited to join complaints against male colleagues, most recently against someone with whom I was friends outside of our workplace. I have, when I refused to be a complainant, been interviewed as a witness. I have, when interviewed as a witness, been grilled over a multitude of conversations and social interactions that took place away from campus, in the company of adults, that I never expected that I would one day have to explain in a formal setting.
These occurrences should alarm everyone who cares about the state of intellectual discourse on college campuses. I expect micro-aggressed students will soon be shouting "burn the witch!" at professors who offend them—or would be, if they possessed any self-awareness and were sufficiently educated to appreciate the reference.