Loco Parentis: Another Look at “Unwanted Advances” by Laura Kipnis


Somewhere around 1970, I walked by a wall on a college campus that had been plastered with a huge poster of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. Below, someone had splashed the words “loco parentis.” That was exactly how we students felt in those days about college and university power over our lives. Then, it was the administrators, wielders of the “in loco parentis” concept, who were our enemies. Faculty were our allies in our fight to be fully adult, to make our own decisions—and mistakes.

Faculty, in fact, were more than allies. Aside from being our teachers, they were our friends, our neighbors and, yes, sometimes even our lovers. We were part of a single community, one that did not extend to administrators—or not very far (those who had been faculty were admitted; the rest were merely tolerated).

There were power dynamics within our community. Faculty did hold sway over grading and various perks, but all of those were seen as fleeting. Sometimes, there were stand-offs. I remember a fellow undergraduate who, when told by the professor that anyone who smoked in the classroom would automatically fail, lit up a cigarette. He smoked throughout the semester and accepted his F graciously (though his work had been of a high level). Both he and the professor made their points.

Sometimes, sex was used inappropriately, as it is throughout American culture. This was a major problem at the time, just as it is now.

That professors could be as human and even abusive as anyone else, however, was an accepted part of the landscape of that earlier time. Fellow students, after all, could be as bad—or worse. So could the people we encountered elsewhere (bosses, anyone?). We all wanted to change the world, but singling out professors as our oppressors seemed self-defeating to most of my friends and to me. Our teachers, for the most part, were on our side. We knew this. There was real safety among them on our university and college campuses.

Yes, ours was a privileged environment.

We appreciated that, and knew that, and also knew that not even privilege kept out tragedy. But our professors mourned when we did, mourned with us—not for us and not because of us. Once a semester, if not more frequently during my undergraduate years, a student I knew at least slightly died, many in auto accidents, one murdered, others for a variety of reasons. Rape happened, but most of the incidents I recall were off campus. It was our professors who helped us through grief and pain, not paid professionals on the college staff but caring members of our community, people we interacted with daily.

Life could be hellish even for the privileged young in the late sixties and early seventies (remember Vietnam, anyone? Not every middle-class white boy got a deferment). Worse, possibly, if you were black, Hispanic, a woman, a person with a disability, from a class under-represented at your college or even from a distant region or country. What we had that others in American culture did not, however, was a non-judgmental (outside of their professorial duties) body that, for the most part, gave us unquestioning support. Telling us when we were wrong, sure, but never turning away from us.

This was most apparent in the aftermath of the Kent State (and then Jackson State) killings in the spring of 1970.

It is hard, today, to imagine or even remember the breadth and depth of the horrified response on American college campuses to those killings. Even at Utica College, the unheralded, conservative school I was then attending, we students insisted that life not go on as usual. Classes were cancelled—basically because we refused to attend. An emergency session of the Faculty Senate ended with full support for the students.

Such a thing could not happen today.

The wedges pounded between faculty and students have split the trunk of the tree they together once grew. The wedges, and the sledgehammers that drive them, were created for a number of reasons, some of them even laudable, some (like the attempt by the right, led by David Horowitz, to demonize the faculty for purely political reasons) not so much so. The effect, the often unforeseen consequence, has been to make the faculty into the enemy of the students, who now see themselves protected, instead, by the administrators who, in my day, were the ones seen as oppressors. Who, today, serve the agenda of the neoliberal university and not (though they claim otherwise) the wellness of the college community.

What, particularly, happened?

Perhaps it started during my time in college when Congress passed and President Nixon signed the Education Amendments of 1972. Their Title IX states that:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

Wonderful. At least I thought so, and every person I knew thought so—including my professors.

We had no idea what this would become. Forty years later, “Title IX” sounds less like progress than like the title of a horror movies. Perhaps it has done some good in erasing some sexual discrimination and predatory behavior (I don’t know) but, today, it is used as a jackhammer to break up the cement that once held faculty and students—our real college communities—together.

Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University who began her own Title IX nightmare by penning an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, writes about what she then experienced:

Perhaps you’re wondering how an essay falls under the purview of Title IX, the federal statute meant to address gender discrimination and funding for women’s sports? I was wondering that myself, and continued to wonder during the seventy-two-day “investigation” that followed. I’ll have plenty more to say about the Title IX process, but the answer, in brief, is that the culture of sexual paranoia I’d been writing about isn’t confined to the sexual sphere. It’s fundamentally altering the intellectual climate in higher education as a whole, to the point where ideas are construed as threats— writing an essay became “creating a chilling environment,” according to my accusers— and freedoms most of us used to take for granted are being whittled away or disappearing altogether. Sexual paranoia has converted the Title IX bureaucracy into an insatiable behemoth, bloated by its own federal power grab, though protests are few because— what are you, in favor of rape culture or something? Also, paranoia is a formula for intellectual rigidity, and its inroads on campus are so effectively dumbing down the place that the traditional ideal of the university— as a refuge for complexity, a setting for the free exchange of ideas— is getting buried under an avalanche of platitudes and fear.

That’s from her Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (Harper).

The scuttlebutt on this new Kipnis book is that, in it, everyone will find something to hate. The author doesn’t mince words and in no sense is trying to bring people together, to create one happy campus family by papering over its differences. She’s trying, instead, to force audiences within college and university communities to stop avoiding grappling with very real problems—not just of predatory sexual behavior but of alcohol abuse and a system of Title IX enforcement that is out of control. Like B. F. Skinner used to do (much to the detriment of his own reputation), she pokes people hard in order to generate responses, to get people talking and examining what they had just been walking by in ignorance or avoidance.

She succeeds in that, admirably. She shows just why we no longer have campus communities where there is any feeling at all of safety. She writes:

rampant accusation is the new norm on today’s campus; the place is a secret cornucopia of accusation, especially when it comes to sex. Including merely speaking about sex…. And those in the know are too terrified to speak out because the complaints typically arrive with demands for confidentiality and threats that speaking about the complaints will result in potential job loss or expulsion.

The rise of the corporate university over the past several generations has only made it easier for Title IX to become a tool for the powerful who want to cut to pieces the remaining shreds of faculty power:

Encouraging students’ sense of fragility is swelling the ranks of potentially jobless professors while bolstering the power of administrations over faculty. As more of us get charged with newly invented crimes, more administrators get hired to adjudicate them, administrators whose powers blossom the more malfeasance they can invent to ferret out. Which means that in a situation already prone to projection and fantasy—teaching—faculty are sitting ducks for accusations made by emotionally troubled students.

This is a forceful accusation and a needed warning. Who, one should ask, is taking advantage of whom? Kipnis goes on:

The reality is that a set of incomprehensible directives, issued by a branch of the federal government, are being wielded in wildly idiosyncratic ways, according to the whims and biases of individual Title IX officers operating with no public scrutiny or accountability. Some of them are also all too willing to tread on academic and creative freedom as they see fit. Not long ago I spoke to a creative writing teacher who’d been grilled by his campus’s Title IX officer about why he’d taught poems with sexual content in a writing workshop. I also read the lengthy self-defense he prepared, which included a defense not just of his teaching methods, but of Walt Whitman, a previous era’s sexual renegade and, according to many, America’s greatest poet. (Whitman had come up in the investigation; it wasn’t clear if the investigators knew of him.)

Not to sound like a doom-monger, but this is the face of something gone incredibly wrong in higher education.

And she is right.

Something has gone incredibly wrong.

Toward the end, Kipnis relates the story Jessica Wilson in relation to a Title IX case dealt with extensively in her book:

Wilson’s boyfriend (now husband) had been a junior professor in the same department when she was a grad student, and she hadn’t suffered any particular consequences. “In fact, I think I held most of the power in that relationship. Still do,” she said, laughing. They’d been married thirteen years. Of course, her then-boyfriend had been a mentor to her, she told the faculty panel, because they were all in an intellectual community together. Mentorship isn’t a top-down enterprise, she said; it’s a community held together by a lot of late-night socializing and drinking and gabbing.

Such communities are being blown apart nationwide, and Title IX, especially in the hands of the bureaucrats now commanding our universities, is one of the explosives.

Agree with Kipnis or not, her book is well worth reading. There is much more to it than I have described here, though it is a slight volume. If nothing else, whether we agree or not with everything Kipnis says (I tend to agree), this book can help us understand the tragedy that has been unfolding around us, now, for 45 years in what were once our campus communities.

Loco parentis, indeed.

8 thoughts on “Loco Parentis: Another Look at “Unwanted Advances” by Laura Kipnis

  1. Great essay! I think the something that happened was deliberate. It wasn’t just David Horowitz, but it came from an initial right wing effort to steer higher education toward more service of ruling class interests. Along the way, the channeling push spread out to include liberals and many other stripes of interested parties. I also think a lot, maybe a majority, of today’s students would welcome a return to the kind of situation you describe circa 1970.

    • Only someone not affected by the discrimination Hank Reichman cites (for women, blacks, sexual minorities…..all those “others” in a largely white, male world) could write what Geoffrey Skoll does: A “majority of today’s students would welcome a return” to the 1970’s. Let’s not forget the long history of exclusion in these nostalgic fantasies!
      Joan W. Scott

      • I think there must be a misunderstanding of my comment. I said that a lot of students today want to return to 1970. That was an empirical observation based on what students write and say to me. When I can, I point out some of their misplaced idealism about the era. Nonetheless, the sense of their yearning is about the main point of the Barlow essay: the relationship between students and teachers vis a vis the administration. They also wish for a time of greater student solidarity and activism. Another point of misunderstanding is about the time frame. Joan Scott said the 1970s, but I said circa 1970. Ironically I was in a class taught by a Joan W. Scott at the time. I cannot be sure it was he same person who wrote the comment. It was a two quarter sequence course on nineteenth century France in the winter and spring quarters of 1970 at the University of Chicago. The Barlow essay refers to the massacres of that spring: Kent State and Jackson State in May. Not insignificantly that spring saw a nation-wide student strike against the war. Many faculty, among them my teacher, did not give letter grades that spring in recognition of the strike. I remember having that sense of solidarity with her and others of my teachers who followed that policy. Moreover, they protested in much the same way we students did. The timing is important both for the issue of solidarity and inclusion, because the year before, in 1969, Marlene Dixon stood with students against the administration which probably led to her non-renewal. The 1970s, in contrast, showed two trends. One was increasing inclusion and diversity on campuses due to laws and regulations like Title IX, and the various administrative policies which mainly represented compromises with student demands of the late 1960s. The other was a diminution of the sense of solidarity. The latter culminated in growing overt divisiveness, which is illustrated by the following memo anonymously written by students and campus workers at a large urban public university, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The points in the memo include the following.
        “2. We see you as walking contradictions. You oppose the so-called “White-Boys Network” on this campus, yet you engage in the same secrecy, back-stabbing, coverup of information, and “protection of your own.” You in effect perpetuate the same administration and system of oppression that you supposedly try to eliminate.
        3. We feel that as women, and as faculty, you have disengaged . . . your main concerns are those of salary, daycare, and “scholarship” . . . We feel these may be important issues, but only to those in your class.
        4. We want to know . . is it fear?
        7. Have you forgotten already what it is like to be oppressed? Have you ever been oppressed by other feminists before? We’re finding we have.” (Anonymous 1992)
        Two further points in Joan Scott’s comment refer to what she infers as my not being affected by discrimination. Everyone is affected by discrimination, but there are some who fight against it. I have fought against it, and continue to do so. As for nostalgia, the era circa 1970 was a difficult and unhappy time of my life. I have absolutely no wish to return to it or the circumstances surrounding it.

  2. I haven’t read Kipnis’s book, so I won’t comment on it, although I do think anyone attempting to assess it must grapple with the sort of critique John Wilson has offered (https://academeblog.org/2017/04/04/the-fight-over-feminism-on-campus/) and confront the troubling passages that he quotes directly.

    That said, my concern is rather with the overly glowing, even utopian, picture that Aaron draws of the academic past. To be sure, the post acknowledges that sex “was a major problem at the time, as it is now,” and “that professors could be as human and even abusive as anyone else.” Still, the picture painted is unduly rosy.

    When I entered Columbia in 1965, in loco parentis was the order of the day. We could entertain a woman in our dorm rooms only a few hours each month, with the door ajar. This was strictly enforced; a friend was suspended for a year when he was caught violating “parietal hours” during freshman orientation. Restrictions were even greater for the women at Barnard across the street; they had a curfew as well. The situation was probably better at large state universities and commuter campuses, but I suspect not too much better. In any event, there were still drunken (and weed-fueled) parties. Although I was not a party animal (I tried at first, failing miserably) I was certainly aware of what went on at our fraternities. And I don’t doubt for a moment that some of the young women at those parties — from Barnard, other neighboring colleges, high schools, or the community — were sometimes abused, assaulted, even raped. And “date rape” had not yet been named, but it certainly existed. Even the debauchery of “spring break” in Florida or elsewhere, with its many tales of drunken sexual misconduct, is nothing new, dating to as early as the 1930s, according to one online “history of spring break.” Time magazine first highlighted spring break in an April 1959 article titled “Beer & the Beach” (“It’s not that we drink so much,” noted one attendee, “it’s that we drink all the time.”). In all this I fail to recall the faculty taking any inordinate interest. It might have been different at small rural colleges, but at most large universities student life was then, as it is now, seen by most of the faculty as largely the business of administrators.

    What was different then was the attitude. In those days, it was, let’s face it, largely “boys will be boys.” Sexual abuse and harassment may well have been as widespread or nearly as widespread then among students as now; it just wasn’t reported or spoken about in public.

    But what about the faculty? Was it really the “non-judgmental . . . body that, for the most part, gave [students] unquestioning support?” Aaron paints an idyllic picture of caring faculty, who were “on our side,” dutifully mentoring their young charges. That was surely true in many cases, as it is today, but not always, especially for female students. This was a time when female professors were few and far between; indeed, the proportion of women faculty in the 1950s, ’60s, and into the ’70s was in many disciplines much lower than it had been earlier in the century. And at the graduate student level the women were largely pioneers. Until the early ’70s you could count the number of female students at prestigious law schools on your fingers. It was only slightly better in Ph.D programs, varying, of course, by discipline. To be sure, most male faculty members at the time treated their female students, undergraduate and graduate, with respect, providing important support to their efforts, Others were indifferent, as too many are today. But it would be naive at best not to acknowledge that more than a handful were discriminatory, even abusive, and that a few did seek to “take advantage” (sometimes, no doubt, succeeding). As late as the 1990s, a senior professor at Berkeley reportedly described a female colleague to a male grad student as “nice tits, no brain.” And there were significant structural barriers hindering women’s academic achievement that cannot be ignored (or described in this comment).

    I can recall as a graduate student at Berkeley in the ’70s hearing many tales of female undergraduates having sexual relations with their graduate T.A.s (and occasionally their professors, but those tales demanded far greater discretion). Much of this was no doubt braggadocio, but the phenomenon was real and I seriously doubt that it was the student who was always the sexual aggressor, as the male tellers of such tales almost always suggested. The situation was then, as it remains today, ripe for abuse; and there were then more abusers than Aaron might care to admit. I’m certain it would not be difficult to find more than a few women of our generation with tales to tell. For one such tale, read Hope Jahren’s best-selling memoir “Lab Girl,” which, among other virtues, reveals some of the challenges young women scientists must face. (Of course, the experiences at this time of African-American, and also Asian and Latino and still even, in some disciplines, Jewish students were often similar or worse.)

    And were the faculty really “on our side” during the period’s student unrest? It’s not so clear, to be frank. At Berkeley, it was the faculty’s vote to accept free speech on campus that brought the student-led Free Speech Movement to victory in 1964. But as my late mentor Reginald Zelnik’s in-depth account of the faculty’s role in that movement has demonstrated, this outcome was hardly foreordained, and much of the faculty came to free speech quite tardily. At Columbia, where I participated in the 1968 student rebellion, the faculty was hardly on the side of the students, much less those who were rebelling. On an individual level they could be and most often were just wonderful, but when it came to politics they clearly wanted to “keep us in our place.” And then there was Cornell, where, as the film “Agents of Change” documents, it was the administration that stood by protesting minority students; much of the faculty demanded “discipline.”

    To be sure, Aaron is correct to emphasize the wedges being driven between segments of the academic community (and only between students and faculty) by the metastasizing administrative machine that has grown up over the past few decades. But it is overly simplistic, if not entirely wrong, to attribute this mainly or even significantly to Title IX, as Kipnis apparently suggests. There is much wrong with the enforcement of Title IX, both by the federal government and the colleges and universities themselves, as the AAUP’s lengthy report on “The History, Uses and Abuses of Title IX” discusses in great detail (https://www.aaup.org/report/history-uses-and-abuses-title-ix). But that doesn’t mean that the sexual discrimination and genuine harassment the law addresses are not — and were not in the past — vexing problems demanding attention.

    To be sure, over the past 30-40 years, much of what has happened in higher education can be labeled as “decline” or “retreat,” as those of us who blog here tirelessly repeat. But this shouldn’t lead us to think that the past was all hunky-dory. Ibram Kendi, who will be a keynote speaker at the AAUP annual conference in June, recently published an op-ed in the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/21/opinion/sunday/racial-progress-is-real-but-so-is-racist-progress.html) in which he argued that racial progress is always accompanied by the “progress” or evolution of racism. A similar argument can be made about sexual discrimination and harassment.

    There are lessons to be learned from and models to be found in our past, but let’s not idealize that past. Nostalgia is a soporific, not a weapon.

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    • Hank, I knew I risked that kind of reaction as I wrote. What I am trying to do, however, is contrast today with the past, not idealize the past. I do mention that things weren’t perfect, but not enough, apparently. I don’t do more simply because I want to draw a clear distinction between one time and another without muddying the water too much. That said, I am glad to see your comment here, for you are certainly right.

    • Two small corrections to my comment:
      1) In the third-to-last paragraph, the parenthetical phrase should read “and NOT only between students and faculty.”
      2) The crude comment from the Berkeley professor was made, I now recall, in the 1980s not the 1990s.

  3. Thank you, Professor Barlow, for this thoughtful essay. It deserves to be widely disseminated and I hope for the sake of our Country and Higher Education it becomes so.

  4. Pingback: What I’m reading 11 Apr 2017 through 15 Apr 2017 | Morgan's Log

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