In Case You Missed It: Title IX and Northwestern University

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-mark3Back in February, Northwestern University professor, Laura Kipnis, wrote an article titled Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.

The article touches on a few sensitive topics — revolving around the impact that the current environment has on professors and their students. Sensitive enough that I’m going to let the article speak for itself.

Shortly thereafter, she received a notice from the university that she was under investigation for two Title IX complaints resulting from the article. She wrote about this experience in My Title IX Inquisition. Which is currently available on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website, though it looks like it may soon be locked as premium content.

If you’ve been following this at all, you’ve also seen that she has been cleared from these complaints.

Seeing this, I couldn’t help but remember my post two weeks about on the Kennesaw State Advisor Incident. As Bob Dylan would say, the times they are a changin’. Ten years ago, the incident at KSU would not have made it to the internet. Without the video, that story loses much of it’s impact. Before 2011’s Dear Colleague letter, Kipnis’ article would not have prompted in investigation.

As someone who believes a core purpose of college is to challenge ideas, it’s important to me that professors feel comfortable voicing their thoughts and opinions — and if they choose, exploring them in a public forum.

It is also important to me that we as higher education professionals (and as a country) do better when it comes to sexual misconduct.

I think Northwestern dropped the ball on this one. Kipnis wrote an article that may offend some readers. Upon reading the article, a few students at that university felt attacked, and they (rightfully) submitted a complaint. As lack of reporting is a common issue with sexual misconduct, it’s a good thing that these individuals felt comfortable submitting the complaint. But then, according to Kipnis’ article, the university decided it was ill equipped to investigate this case — essentially freeing themselves of the consequences of the decision.

Anything related to sexual misconduct seems to get a lot of press and is a topic that should be taken seriously. My concern here, as other sexual misconduct cases come out, universities will choose to hire outside investigators as a means of mitigating the risk of damaging their image. This effectively works around the whole purpose of the Title IX investigator (a role required of all institutions receiving federal aid — a stand alone position at larger institutions), creating an under-utilized administrator at a time when administration bloat is a concern among law makers, the people who get to decide how — and the extent to which — higher education is funded.

As colleges and universities are held responsible for more, I sense that we’re in for situations where institutional values are put in tension of one another. In this case, it’s the want to fulfill their Title IX obligations with the urge to supporting academic freedom for professors.

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