A philosophy professor and a journalism student are involved in an unusual he-said she-said sex case at Northwestern. The student filed a federal Title IX lawsuit last month, alleging that professor Peter Ludlow sexually assaulted her two years ago and that the school took no disciplinary action, despite finding that he had engaged in “unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances” (but not rape). Later, the young woman sued Ludlow himself. In fact, according to the university, Ludlow was denied a raise and an endowed chair, and was warned against one-on-one social contact with undergraduates and prohibited to drink alcohol with them–but was permitted to continue teaching with full privileges. Brenda Slavin, the head of Northwestern’s Office of Sexual Harassment Prevention who investigated the case, has said that, contrary to the plaintiff’s claim, his dismissal was never considered or recommended. Ludlow is currently scheduled to take a new job at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, where officials were apparently unaware of the harassment charges when they made him the offer.
The conflict escalated when the student’s complaint was picked up by the local media, galvanizing feminist outrage. (Adding fuel to the fire, several news outlets wrongly reported that Ludlow had been accused of rape; in fact, the charge of sexual assault referred to allegations that he had groped the young woman’s breasts and buttocks.) Some Northwestern students mobilized against Ludlow, planning a sit-in and walk-out during his March 4 class; after Ludlow canceled the class, the activists held a protest in front of a dean’s office, and three of them met with university officials. On March 5, the announcement was made that Ludlow would not teach for the rest of the academic year. Even Brian Leiter, a strongly liberal philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, who emphasizes his belief that sexual harassment in the field is a shamefully neglected “scourge,” has expressed concern over this triumph of “vigilante justice.”
‘Furiously Making Out’
As often in such cases, the facts are not easy to sort out. (The student’s complaint and the university’s response can be found here; Ludlow’s response to her lawsuit against him is here.) What’s not in dispute is that on February 10, 2012, the professor and the young woman–then a 19-year-old freshman who had been in Ludlow’s class the previous semester–spent an evening in Chicago where they went to three art shows, had dinner at a restaurant, drank at several bars, and ended up spending the night at Ludlow’s condo apartment in Chicago on the same bed.
Not surprisingly, their accounts differ considerably on the specifics. The student claims that she emailed Ludlow to tell him about an art exhibition that she thought he would find interesting, and he invited her to accompany him; Ludlow claims (via his attorney) that she invited him to the exhibition and he suggested going to the other two art shows afterward. According to the student, Ludlow plied her with alcohol even though she tried to refuse and repeatedly told him she was underage; according to Ludlow, she drank of her own volition, and he believed her to be 22 years old based on an online profile. The young woman claims that she asked Ludlow to take her home but he insisted on taking her to his place instead; Ludlow insists that they stopped by his condo so that she could pick up a video camera she had dropped off earlier, and he let her stay the night after she told him it was too late for her to take a cab back to her place. The young woman claims that over the course of the evening, Ludlow repeatedly propositioned her, kissed her and groped her–even “furiously making out with her” on the elevator ride to his apartment–and that she begged him to stop but was too intoxicated to stop him or get away. She also claims that she passed out and woke up in bed with Ludlow, with his arms around her. Ludlow responds that she was the one who repeatedly made advances and propositioned him, and that they “fell asleep on his bed fully clothed and on top of the sheets.”
Ludlow’s attorney, Kristin Case, has released a statement saying that she is “in possession of communications” which show that, in the days after the alleged assault, the plaintiff repeatedly made friendly contact with Ludlow by text message and the social media and even asked him to meet with her. According to Case, the young woman came to a conference Ludlow was attending, spoke to him again and made another attempt to initiate a relationship, which Ludlow turned down.
Regardless of who is telling the truth, it seems fairly obvious that Ludlow, at the very least, behaved recklessly and unprofessionally–and that even the actions to which he admitted merited a reprimand. What’s less clear is how the university came to the conclusion that he had engaged in unwelcome advances but not (as the young woman claimed) sexual assault.
According to the documents, Slavin reviewed the allegations and found that Ludlow had indeed kissed the student, rubbed her back, put his arms around her while they lay on his bed, and told her he wanted to have a sexual and romantic relationship–but did not find that he had groped her or “made out with her” against her will. In his response, Ludlow claims (via his attorney) that there was no investigation at all, and that Slavin declined to interview witnesses at the bar who could corroborate his account or to review security camera footage from the elevator where the “making out” allegedly occurred. Did Slavin simply split the difference between “he said” and “she said,” arbitrarily finding the less serious charges to be true and dismissing the more serious ones? (It should be noted that, according to Northwestern, Ludlow appealed the sanctions and a four-person faculty committee upheld them, without recommending further penalties.)
A report from NBC’s Chicago affiliate, NBC5, asserts that the plaintiff’s account was backed by another professor, Jacqueline Stevens. But that’s a somewhat misleading claim, since Stevens’s knowledge of the events comes solely from the plaintiff herself–and, if one reads the article carefully, it becomes clear that Stevens did not talk to the student until a year after the incident, when the young woman was enrolled in her class. (Stevens, as a list of her articles indicates, is strongly connected to academic feminist politics.)
Stevens’s involvement relates to another murky aspect of the story: the involvement, or non-involvement, of the police. The NBC5 report says, citing an unidentified “source,” that the student originally went to the Northwestern campus police in Evanston, Ill., but was told she would have to make the report in Chicago, where the assault allegedly took place; however, she decided not to go to the Chicago police “because of confidentiality concerns” and went to a local counseling service instead. In the spring of 2013, after she shared her story with Stevens, Stevens encouraged her to file a police report and accompanied her to a police station in Chicago. What happened after that is unclear; the student’s attorney, Kevin O’Connor, told the campus newspaper, The Northwestern Daily, that “there is not a simple answer to the question of whether or not the student tried to press criminal charges against Ludlow.” There does not appear to be a pending criminal case.
Meanwhile, Ludlow has filed a lawsuit of his own, accusing Sun Times Media, Fox Television Stations, and Cumulus Broadcasting of defamation for reporting that he had been accused of raping the student. His new position at Rutgers, where he was slated to head the university’s Center for Cognitive Science, may be in jeopardy, with a Rutgers spokesman saying that the school is further evaluating his candidacy.
Further developments in the various lawsuits may shed more light on the case. Either way, the story is a stark illustration not only of the complexities of sexual misconduct allegations, but of the dangers of relying on campus star chambers to decide such charges. If the young woman is telling the truth, Ludlow got a slap on the wrist for a sexual assault. If Ludlow is telling the truth, his career may be ruined over a fairly minor instance of poor judgment, thanks to an academic kangaroo court and student zealots acting in the absolute conviction that a sexual assault accusation equals the truth.
(Photo: Northwestern professor Peter Ludlow. Credit: Northwestern.)