NU student sues prof who questions harassment allegations in new book

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Northwestern University Professor Laura Kipnis in 2003. | Sun-Times library

A Northwestern University graduate student is suing a professor who published her text messages in a new book that raises questions about the student’s sexual-harassment allegations against another professor who has since resigned.

The anonymous philosophy doctoral candidate claims Professor Laura Kipnis “gratuitously discloses private and embarrassing details” of her relationship with ex-Professor Peter Ludlow in Kipnis’ book “Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus,” according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The book is billed as a critique of the Title IX system of sexual misconduct investigations on college campuses and “the chilling effect of this new sexual McCarthyism on higher education,” according to a description on Kipnis’ website. The plaintiff says Kipnis violated her privacy, sharing confidential records to defend Ludlow as a friend and “reframe him as the victim,” the suit says.

Kipnis declined to comment on the suit, as did a spokeswoman for HarperCollins Publishers, which is also listed as a defendant.

Ludlow resigned from Northwestern in November 2015 in the middle of termination proceedings after university officials ruled that he had engaged in “sexual harassment involving two students,” according to the school. The plaintiff was one of those students.

She says that Ludlow took a special interest in her when she started at the school in October 2011, and it developed into a relationship that ended in early 2012 after an incident of “unconsented sex,” the suit says. She reported the misconduct to campus officials after learning that an undergraduate student had made a similar complaint of unwanted sexual advances by Ludlow in February 2012, the suit says.

The undergraduate student who accused Ludlow of harassment later sued Ludlow and the school in 2014 for their handling of the investigation, spurring a series of back-and-forth lawsuits that judges have since dismissed.

Laura Kipnis | Northwestern University

Laura Kipnis | Northwestern University

Kipnis, who teaches in NU’s radio/television/film department, mentioned the undergraduate’s allegations in a February 2015 essay defending relationships between college students and faculty members. Kipnis, who wrote that she hadn’t met Ludlow at that point, dismissed the accusations as “melodrama.”  That prompted another student and the plaintiff in Tuesday’s lawsuit to file a Title IX complaint against Kipnis.

In her “outrage at being the subject of Title IX complaints,” Kipnis retaliated by writing another scathing essay about the campus investigation process that was developed into her book, which “needlessly devotes an entire chapter” to the plaintiff using a “thinly disguised pseudonym,” the suit says.

“Not only did Kipnis use the real name of the Northwestern University professor at issue — Peter Ludlow — but she also published many details about plaintiff’s life, including her physical description, thus identifying her within her academic and professional communities,” the suit says.

Kipnis “shared private text messages between Plaintiff and Ludlow, many of which were printed out of context,” and suggested “it was a consensual dating relationship,” according to the suit, which claims Kipnis is “insinuating that Plaintiff is a liar who fabricated a false claim of rape against Ludlow to seek revenge.”

In an essay adapted from the book, Kipnis describes Ludlow’s hearing as a “Title IX witch trial,” and quipped that, with hundreds of text messages and emails, “this may be the best-documented relationship in history.

“I hadn’t seen the texts from the morning following the night [the plaintiff] would later say Ludlow raped her, in which she apologizes for hurting him — because she’d chosen her other boyfriend over Ludlow, though she asks if she can continue to say she loves him anyway,” Kipnis wrote.

The book’s description says “a trove of revealing documents fell into [Kipnis’] lap, plunging her behind-the-scenes in an especially controversial case.” Kipnis wrote that one of Ludlow’s lawyers asked her to be his “faculty support person” during his Title IX hearing, and she accepted.

“Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus” |

“Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus” |

Shortly after the book’s release last month, Jennifer Lackey, the director of graduate studies at NU’s philosophy department, wrote on Facebook that “the characterization of our student as portrayed in the book is grossly inaccurate.”

“We stand by our student as a person of substantial character and high integrity, in addition to being an extraordinarily talented philosopher,” Lackey wrote.

Kipnis responded to the post: “Every claim in the book is copiously documented; among the documents are some 2,000 texts and emails between the grad student and Peter Ludlow. There is indeed strong evidence for my assertions, which is why I decline to withdraw any of them,” Kipnis wrote.

The student says she fears facing “blacklisting” from academic jobs in the philosophy community. Her four-count suit seeks an unspecified amount of money for invasion of privacy, defamation and emotional distress.

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