BY JOHN K. WILSON
The New Yorker revealed today that Laura Kipnis’ Title IX nightmare, discussed in her recent book, did not end when the book came out. In fact, six graduate students and four professors at Northwestern filed another Title IX complaint against her retaliation because of the book, and the administration investigated her for a month over the charges, asking her 80 questions about her sources and motives for statements in the book, such as “what is the source/are the sources for this information?,” and “How do you respond to the allegation that this detail is not necessary to your argument and that its inclusion is evidence of retaliatory intent on your part?” Kipnis responded by not answering these ridiculous questions.
Books aren’t retaliation. They literally can’t be retaliation because books just sit there and get read. They don’t commit an action. According to Northwestern, “Examples of retaliation could include, but are not limited to: adverse actions relating to someone’s employment; reducing a grade; removing someone from an organization; direct or indirect intimidation, threats, or coercion; or harassment or other forms of discrimination.” Nothing about Kipnis’ book comes anywhere close to anything like that. This doesn’t mean that Kipnis is right or her book is accurate; it simply means that you can’t use anti-retaliation policies to punish people because you don’t like their books.
Northwestern was apparently forced to admit this, but it decided that Kipnis had violated the university’s incredibly vague and dangerous policy on “civility and mutual respect” because she questioned the truth of a graduate student’s account and hoped that “the book will cause a bit of a shit storm.” Northwestern said that these “behaviors could be interpreted as demeaning and/or intimidating.”
No, they can’t. If Kipnis had literally created a storm made of shit and rained feces upon her enemies, that would be demeaning and intimidating. But a reference to a metaphorical shit storm is neither one. And judging the truth of things is a fundamental purpose of a university, not a violation of its rules.
In the end, a dean at Northwestern decided to avoid the shit storm and not find Kipnis guilty on trumped-up charges of lacking “civility.” But the larger question is why Northwestern held an investigation at all over something that did not meet a minimal standard of retaliation.
Now it appears that Northwestern has suddenly decided to change its retaliation policy after dismissing the complaint against Kipnis, with the aim of making it easier to punish anyone like Kipnis accused of retaliation. The new proposed policy is hidden behind a password protection due to Northwestern’s strange policies (which prohibit outsiders from seeing policy proposals), but I was able to obtain the language.
The new policy defines retaliation this way:
“Retaliation: any attempt to seek retribution against an individual or group of individuals who engaged in protected activities. Retaliation can take many forms, as described in Section II below. Action in response to protected activities is retaliatory if (i) it has a materially adverse effect on the working, academic, or other University-controlled environment of an individual; and (ii) it would not have occurred in the absence of the protected activities.”
This is an incredibly broad and poorly-written policy. What does it mean if a definition includes two separate definitions without any indication of whether both or either one must be met? The first line is especially bad: “any attempt to seek retribution” could mean almost anything, including writing books or articles critical of another person, since “retribution” is never defined. If that definition stands by itself, it’s a severe threat to academic freedom.
The second definition of retaliation offered in the policy is also troublesome. It marks a small but important change from Northwestern’s current view of retaliation “defined as an adverse action taken because an individual has engaged in protected activities.” Notice the two differences: before it was an adverse “action” taken “because” of the activity. Now, it will be an adverse “effect” that wouldn’t have happened in the absence of it. Even if the accused didn’t make an action aimed at harming someone, the “effect” is sufficient. And even if it wasn’t caused by an initial complaint, if it somehow happened as a result of it, that’s sufficient.
The new proposed policy at Northwestern is a dramatic danger to academic freedom, one that re-makes “retaliation” in new ways. It appears that Northwestern mostly copied an existing bad policy at Princeton, seeing in it an opportunity to broaden the definition of retaliation.
A policy this bad would be objectionable at any time. But coming in the wake of dubious accusations against Kipnis that should have been immediately dismissed, this new policy seems aimed at encouraging people to use the campus retaliation policy to silence criticism. And that makes it a frightening step. At a moment when Northwestern’s disastrous response to the Kipnis case has brought widespread criticism, the administration ought to be improving its flawed systems, not making them worse.
Users who have liked this post. Please consider sharing on social media and/or making a comment below.