n 2011, the Obama administration issued a consequential letter to all colleges and universities that received federal money. Its now-infamous “Dear Colleague” missive reinterpreted Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 in requiring that schools investigate and hear all sexual-discrimination and sexual-assault claims using a “preponderance-of-evidence” standard. Under this standard, campus tribunals were directed (at risk of losing federal funds) to find students or professors guilty even if the evidence of wrongdoing was only marginally greater than the evidence against it. Colleges and universities have since complied faithfully with the new rules, unjustly upending more than a few lives in the process.
Perhaps the best-known person to be ensnared by Title IX harassment is Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis, author of a highly charged and much-discussed 2001 polemic entitled Against Love. Her 2015 essay, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, described the hysteria surrounding sexual misconduct at universities. Remarkably, the piece itself triggered Title IX complaints from two Northwestern students. There can be no better marker of a system that has commenced to eat its own than a tenured feminist professor finding herself under investigation for having written a critique of the sexual culture on her campus.
Kipnis’s new book, Unwanted Advances, is a guide to the new dispensation. It operates on three levels. First, it is a memoir of Kipnis’s own “Title IX inquisition.” Second, it functions as a work of investigative journalism, chiefly through its account of the accusations against Northwestern’s Peter Ludlow, who had to resign after two dubious Title IX complaints. Finally, it provides a searing critique of the Title IX culture that permeates higher education today.
One of the complaints against Kipnis came from a Ph.D. student who had previously filed a complaint against Ludlow, and who considered the fact that Kipnis mentioned her case in the Chronicle an act of retaliation. (This student, Kipnis later discovered, had filed at least six Title IX complaints during her time at Northwestern.) The second complaint came from a student who simply wished to support campus accusers.
Northwestern hired an outside law firm to investigate and in the process plunged Kipnis into “an underground world of secret tribunals and capricious, medieval rules.” She, like all subjects of Title IX complaints, could have no legal representation. The investigators refused to inform her of the charges she faced before meeting her in person. She wasn’t permitted to record the hours-long interrogation to which she was subjected. And she was even ordered not to publicly reveal the existence of the investigation. “The reasons for these various interdictions were never explained, which is par for the course in every Title IX investigation I’ve since heard about,” Kipnis writes. “You have no idea what your rights are; you have no idea what the procedures are; you have no idea if what you might say will later be used to hang you.” Kipnis was eventually exonerated; even the lawyers investigating her, she suggests, recognized the absurdity of the case. (They allowed her to see their lengthy investigation report, though she couldn’t take notes or photocopy the document.)
The usual defendant in a Title IX tribunal, however, is not someone like Kipnis, but instead a male undergraduate. A 20-year-old student who is “scared sh**less” (in the words of one lawyer who has represented several accused male students) is unlikely to produce a sophisticated recollection of what transpired in the tribunal.
The Obama administration justified its aggressive Title IX policies by claiming there was an epidemic of campus sex crimes. Federally required data collected from colleges list a few thousand allegations of campus rape each year. But a 2011 guidance document from the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) suggested that hundreds of thousands of female undergraduates are sexual-assault victims each year. Kipnis credibly casts doubt on the OCR figure, noting that it contradicts the more general decline in nationwide violent crime and appears to depend on a substantial expansion of what constitutes sexual assault.
Obama-administration rhetoric implied that the vast majority of these undetected sex criminals are undergraduates. So perhaps the most surprising aspect of Unwanted Advances is its revelation of how many Title IX charges have been brought against faculty members since 2011. Professors mostly remained silent as the federal government implemented its new policies—which have, to date, been continued by the Trump administration. But as Kipnis shows, weakening students’ rights will ultimately harm the rights of faculty as well.
Peter Ludlow can attest to that. Ludlow, who gave Kipnis his entire case file, clearly had terrible judgment. He had invited a student (Kipnis calls her Eunice Cho) to a downtown social event and then allowed her to stay in his apartment overnight. And he dated the graduate student (Kipnis calls her Nola Hartley) who emerged as Northwestern’s serial Title IX complainant. The Ludlow case received extensive media coverage, and it was easy to see how people could presume Ludlow guilty (I did).
Kipnis demonstrates, however, that Ludlow was almost certainly innocent of the allegations against him. Cho’s credibility rested on an almost wholly non-credible claim. Supposedly traumatized after Ludlow allegedly attacked her, she claims to have attempted suicide. She jumped into Lake Michigan, she said, in the middle of the winter, as portions of the lake were freezing into ice—only to hop out once a passerby asked what she was doing. Students in her dorm never knew of the attempt, she said, because afterward she meandered outside (in mid-winter Chicago temperatures) until her clothes dried (without suffering any harmful physical effects). Northwestern’s Title IX investigator never considered what Kipnis labels the “implausibilities” in this suicide claim, or other inconsistencies in Cho’s version of events. In a campus environment where accusers are automatically deemed survivors, and where survivors must always be believed, Title IX investigators generally refrain from asking hard questions of an accuser.
Hartley’s story, it turns out, was no more credible than Cho’s. Ludlow provided Northwestern’s investigators with copious text messages between himself and his second accuser. Those texts suggested that for several months, Hartley had what appeared to be a passionate, consensual affair with Ludlow. She then moved on, in part because she had a boyfriend in Boston. But Hartley, encouraged by feminist academics, revised the history of their affair to claim that Ludlow had once raped her. That he could prove spending the night in question alone in a hotel did little to undermine his accuser’s credibility. A faculty committee investigating the matter sided with Hartley and Cho; Ludlow resigned before Northwestern could fire him, as the university clearly intended to do.
Every college or university that receives federal funding must employ at least one Title IX official. Depending on the procedures at a university, the official can serve as the equivalent of the investigator, the prosecutor, the jury, or the judge—and in some cases, like Northwestern’s, all four. “An innocent person has nothing to hide and should not be worried about sharing the truth,” one Title IX official wrote. Believing that the investigator’s “role is not to enable a responsible party to defend their innocence,” this same official required an accused student to give his version of events before he even knew the specific claim against him. Withholding information from the accused increases the chances of a guilty finding, which too often seems to be the central goal in Title IX tribunals.
Officials like these have accrued enormous power, and largely outside of public view. The OCR, working alongside accusers’ rights organizations, such as Know Your IX, encourages individual accusers to file Title IX complaints against their universities. This allows regional OCR offices to then examine every sexual-assault adjudication at the affected school. These investigations alone, Kipnis estimates, have cost the schools more than $60 million. Once concluded, moreover, resolution agreements between the OCR and the university typically make further demands on schools, such as requirements that they hire more Title IX officials. Harvard University, for example, has 50 Title IX staff on its payroll.
Defenders of the new Title IX regime sometimes dismiss critics as misogynists or rape apologists. But this line of attack carries no weight against Kipnis, who offers an explicitly feminist interpretation of the matter. She contends that weaponizing Title IX has harmed young women, breeding “a generation of students, mostly female students, deploying Title IX to remedy sexual ambivalences or awkward sexual experiences, and to adjudicate relationship disputes post-breakup.” This, she says, undermines “the right for women to be treated as consenting adults in erotic matters” and weakens the call for gender equality.
Kipnis argues that colleges instead should focus on educating male and female students about consent and healthy sexual relations. And they should also address the excessive alcohol use on campus, given the high percentage of college sexual-assault allegations that involve both parties consuming significant amounts of alcohol. There appears to be little chance that any college or university will, on its own, follow this sound advice. Students, Kipnis concedes, are now “demanding more regulation” from administrators—a marked change from previous generations, and among the “weirder” elements of contemporary campus culture. The widespread acceptance of a “rape-culture” narrative has spread what she calls “the rhetoric of emergency.” The growth of what Harvard Law professors Jacob Gersen and Jeannie Suk Gersen have deemed the “sex bureaucracy” means that powerful forces now exist on campus to uphold the status quo.
As Kipnis writes: “It’s far more impossible to have an intellectually honest discussion about sex on campus on an American campus than off these days.” Change, therefore, will have to come from outside—from politicians, alumni and trustees, and judges. All these parties would do well to read Kipnis’s Unwanted Advances. It contains the clarity and knowledge of a witch who survived the hunt.