Tenure, Kipnis and the PC University

Some coincidences are less coincidental than others are. Northwestern University recently investigated professor Laura Kipnis, regarding complaints that an essay of hers had violated students’ legal rights. Meanwhile, a committee of the Wisconsin state legislature voted to let the University of Wisconsin choose, as a matter of policy, whether its professors would enjoy the protections of tenure, removing that guarantee from state law, where it has been established for many years.

At no point do the two sagas intersect. The universities are in different states. One is private; the other is public. No actor in either story has even a walk-on part in the other.

The Public’s Rising Contempt

There’s a connection, however. Northwestern’s bizarre, egregious treatment of Kipnis strengthens the case against the credentials-industrial complex that MTC and other critics have been making for years: zealots, frauds, and cowards are turning the citadels of academic freedom into indoctrination camps.

The Kipnis story didn’t cause, but strongly reinforces, growing popular contempt for higher education and its denizens, whose vast self-regard rests on academic ideals they do so much more to flout than uphold. That contempt, in turn, makes it possible, even irresistible, for politicians to curtail prerogatives that serve academics’ private interests but no longer advance the public interest in ways voters can discern or believe.

The Wisconsin professors defending tenure are saying all the right things. (Despite being a little hysterical: tenure protects academics throughout the country without being enshrined in state law. Wisconsin has been the exception.) “Work in higher education, and in education more generally, depends upon the ability to have critical conversations,” said one. “I can’t stay where I can’t speak,” another declares. “And believe me, I cannot speak without tenure.”

Noble Words, Ignoble Deeds

The president of Northwestern University, Morton Schapiro, also says the right things. “Freedom of speech doesn’t amount to much unless it is tested,” hewrotein March. “And if the First Amendment doesn’t matter on college campuses, where self-expression is so deeply valued, why expect it to matter elsewhere?”

Despite the noble words, the deeds have been contemptible. In February, Kipnis published an essay, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It argued that restrictive university codes of sexual conduct amounted to “feminism hijacked by melodrama” about “helpless victims and powerful predators.”

Evidence justifying her lament that students “were being encouraged to regard themselves as … exquisitely sensitive creatures” came within days. Campus protesters denounced the Kipnis article, which one found “terrifying.” A public letteraccused her of “spit[ting] in the face of survivors of rape and sexual assault everywhere.” A petition, claiming that the essay had “caused tremendous hurt,” called on Northwestern to issue “a swift, official condemnation of the sentiments expressed by Professor Kipnis in her inflammatory article and we demand that in the future, this sort of response comes automatically.”

Northwestern did not officially condemn the article. It did, however, open an investigation after two graduate students formally complained that Kipnis had violated Title IX, the 1972 legislation prohibiting colleges from discriminating based on sex. In a follow-up Chronicle essay, Kipnis reported learning—eventually; the outside lawyers investigating her case did not reveal the charges against her until after she had asked repeatedly over several days—that one student alleged her article had had “a ‘chilling effect’ on students’ ability to report sexual misconduct.” The other, mentioned in passing and not by name in the first essay in connection with a sexual misconduct claim already filed, asserted that Kipnis had retaliated against her and created a “hostile environment,” compounding the initial act of gender-based discrimination, and thereby committing a new one. The charges were based on the essay and a single tweet by Kipnis.

A Clown-Show Inquisition

Denunciations of what Kipnis called her “Title IX Inquisition” were ferocious. Liberal blogger Josh Marshall denounced the “Kipnis clown show.” (Having earned a Ph.D., Marshall is familiar with circus life.) Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor, argued that since the case against Kipnis was “ludicrous on its face,” Northwestern should have “dismiss[ed] it as quickly and decisively as possible.”

The university’s official position was that its only option was to pursue a case against Kipnis. “Northwestern University is firmly committed both to academic freedom and to free speech,” it said in a statement, “but it is also required to investigate and respond to allegations made by complainants that particular actions or statements might violate Title IX.” (Emphasis added.) The U.S. Department of Education’s determination to make Title IX a vehicle for policing campus sexual behavior is indeed a big part of the problem, but doesn’t sustain the claim that universities have no choice but to run kangaroo courts. When federal policies are unpopular on campus, like sending military recruiters during the days of don’t-ask-don’t tell, the universities’ posture is righteous disdain, not meek acquiescence.

Treating Her Fairly 

After Northwestern determined there was no basis for pursuing the Title IX case against Kipnis, one particularly obtuse blogger (a philosophy professor at another university) argued that the investigation she had been “demonizing” turned out to have treated her fairly. This assessment ignores the obvious fact that undergoing the investigative process was a punishment. Despite its president’s platitudes about valuing self-expression, Northwestern’s risk-averse faculty members will inevitably self-censor rather than increase their exposure to such investigations.

The fact that Kipnis has tenure belies Wisconsin professors’ claims about the impossibility of speaking freely without it. Tenure, as understood by one of the country’s most prestigious universities, is no longer a sufficient condition for exercising freedom of speech with confidence there’ll be no professional drawbacks.

But l’affaire Kipnis shows, strangely, that neither is tenure a necessary condition for free speech. In the midst of the controversy, a Northwestern graduate student wrote a Huffington Post article claiming the university was treating Kipnis too leniently, not too harshly. Its preposterous argument about how the school’s “hostile environment” had made it impossible for students to “flourish” led Josh Marshall to suspect it was a parody: an attempt, like the Alan Sokal hoax, to write something so idiotic that readers would quickly realize that even academics aren’t that crazy.

More importantly, as Kipnis argued, the fact of the Huffington Post article demolished its thesis. “If a graduate student can publicly blast her own university’s president, mock his ideas, and fear no repercussions, then clearly the retaliatory power that university employment confers on anyone—from professors to presidents—is nil.”

The First of Many?

What is, then, both necessary and sufficient to speak your mind in the modern academy without risking career turmoil is to affirm, rather than question, the reigning, strengthening political-identity orthodoxies. That reality mocks the pieties about tenure’s societal benefits, created when professors have the confidence to express their ideas boldly and pursue their work freely. And that reality reduces academic tenure to a job-protection racket sustained by tax and tuition payments from people who will never have guaranteed lifetime employment. Until academic life and governance is re-principled, the Wisconsin vote against tenure is likely to be the first of many.


  • William Voegeli

    William Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books and the author of Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State (Encounter Books).

17 thoughts on “Tenure, Kipnis and the PC University

  1. Many economists view tenure as principally a way to advance knowledge. Many types of knowledge advance society even if not commercially viable (most poetry, music, literature, art, philosophy, religious study, astronomy, etc.). In most fields, much has been learned and the time and expense associated with reaching the frontier in a subfield is quite significant, even among the most talented. In many of the above areas a PhD does not confer much opportunity to obtain a tenure-track position. Among those who do, the pre-tenure crucible of publish or perish bends lives, delaying or causing the foregoing of important experiences such as children. If one does not achieve tenure at age 35, say, much of this sometimes arcane knowledge investment is lost. Who will make such a risky investment (as opposed to attending law school and earning much more with less uncertainty) unless the reward is significant? Where the system breaks down is when-as has been the case in the last decade or so- there is no or little money available to give signifcantly higher raises to those who continue to work and produce at high levels. But that is a different issue.

  2. Hi . I’m Justin Weinberg, the person you referred to when you wrote, “one particularly obtuse blogger (a philosophy professor at another university) argued that the investigation she had been ‘demonizing’ turned out to have treated her fairly.”

    Look, I understand that you need some kind of foil, but be careful, will you? I never said that the investigation treated Kipnis fairly.

    What I said is that, from her point of view, the process worked (though it did have its flaws). This, by the way, is exactly what Kipnis herself ended up saying in a subsequent guest post she authored at my site, Daily Nous. She said, “For the record, I don’t think I’m any sort of victim, and I do think the Title IX process worked.”

    She is smart enough not to claim she’s a victim, not simply because she eschews so-called “victimology” but because she knows that answering lawyers’ questions about a student complaint is hardly, despite what you write, “punishment.”

    If I may offer some unsolicited advice: if you have to fabricate opponents’ views and exaggerate what you are complaining about in order to make your point, you may want to reconsider whether you should make that point. You know, for integrity.

  3. We need a concerted effort to dry up the money for the liberal ivory tower. Federal and state student loans and grants need to be statutorily limited for non STEM degrees. You want a degree in gender studies sure but pay for it yourself. Set hard quotas for public university for STEM graduates Move funding from universities to vocational education for those who really shouldn’t be in college.

    About half of all university departments are cancers they need to be cut out.

  4. The victim of a rape (be it a female or a male) experiences an awful violation and deserves our fullest compassion. This must include sensitivity in how one comments on or discusses the subject of rape before such a victim.
    Having said and meant all this, one has to recognize and accept that in our society, and especially on a college campus where young people are formulating their own beliefs and values, not everyone will have exactly the same opinion or gentleness in expressing it. To expect otherwise is to be disappointed. The correct response, in my opinion, is not to cringe and allow oneself to feel diminished but instead to speak up and debate one’s own view vigorously. Yes, even victims can speak up – and they should do so to recover from their trauma.

  5. While I agree completely with your article and think that the whole process (from accusation to kangaroo court) was a travesty, it is hard to feel bad for these professors. They create this monster that is political correctness to the extreme and over-coddled students that can’t handle the slightest inkling of disagreement with the ideas they were force-fed, and then they have the nerve to complain about it when they are the ones be persecuted.

    1. To be fair these monsters were created by their parents. I just finished my first semester of grad school after about a decade and a half out of school. One of my profs had to take a leave of absence because one group of millennials did not finish their project on time and believed that they deserved an extension. When they didn’t get their way they went straight to the administration who of course caved.

      I being gen-x was kind of surprised as I’m not used to this kind of childishness in adults. But this is apparently the norm now at most universities with millennials aka generation sociopath.

      1. Tom T:
        “When they didn’t get their way they went straight to the administration who of course caved.”
        This is the part that I always find so shocking. Not that the administrators cave (I find that annoying, but I see it far too often to be shocked by it.) I am also a Gen X-er. Let me ask you: when you were in college, did you even know who the administrators were? Because I don’t really remember that. Sure, I had a vague sense that so-and-so was the Dean of such-and-such, but I never had any inkling that this meant anything whatsoever to me. I never for a moment imagined that if I had an issue with a grade or a deadline or an assignment, that my questions or comments or outrage (rare-I never felt entitled to be mad at someone for clearly defined course policies and performance expectations) should be directed to anyone other than the instructor.
        I am an administrator now (I know, you probably hate me, but don’t, until you know me better), and I am continually surprised when students ask me if I can “make” the faculty do something-or-other, something that is, I might add, usually within the purview of the student to request, or at least discuss. They would much rather make the end run. They see me as an “advocate”, something I consider a two-edged sword. On the one hand, I am here to facilitate, but I see myself as much as an advocate for faculty, in their educational endeavors, as I am for students. I want people to succeed, and part of that means helping them get over themselves, reality-check their expectations, and advocate for themselves.
        Good luck to you, Tom. Thanks for sharing this. It’s baffling.

  6. Excellent article. As I was finishing my undergrad work I debated going on and getting a doctorate and teaching on a university level. I am glad I didn’t. The struggel for tenure (publish or perish), the focus on research, not teaching, the inane PC mess on university campuses are too much for this old boy.

  7. Kipnis made some excellent points in her original essay, and I am appalled by what followed. I am very glad that she wrote both pieces, and undoubtedly made some significant contributions to the public discourse around millennial expectations for accommodates (and our willingness to provide such) and the enormous potential for abuse of Title IX.
    But I am afraid that the saga makes a different point than the one you advocate here. If she were an assistant professor, she would likely look forward to tenure denial, for any old reason, such as “lack of productivity” or perhaps “lack of collegiality” or perhaps her high-profile extracurriculars such as writing about controversial topics in the CHE would be seen as insufficient commitment to scholarship (grant funding) and teaching (butts in the chair= tuition dollars), and therefore a “downward career trajectory”. If she were an adjunct, she would have been fired on Thursday morning and replaced by lunchtime on Friday, with any one of the teeming hordes of humanities PhDs living off SNAP.
    I am quite ambivalent about tenure, but I think in this case that is what kept her from being unceremoniously sacked, even though it did not protect her from a ridiculous amount of personal strife, professional peril, and communal melodrama.

    1. You get it about Laura Kipnis. And I think you make the argument so well that you ought not to be so ambivalent about tenure.

  8. Who hires the Title IX directors/provosts responsible for these matters? My senses is that while the university recruits and pays for them, the Dept of Education and Dept of Justice are involved somewhere in the approval process. I’d be willing to bet there is a specialized set of search firms that have a roster of govt preapproved candidates ready to go.

    1. The better question is who wants to be a Title IX director/provost? We create these kinds of positions then are surprised to find them filled almost entirely by activists.

      We are surprised to find a revolving door between environmental NGO’s and the EPA. We are surprised to find the same kind of revolving door between the FDA and big pharma.

    2. “the Dept of Education and Dept of Justice are involved somewhere in the approval process.”
      No, it’s not. This is handled entirely at the university level, like any other administrative position.

  9. I could be wrong, but my understanding about what’s happening in Wisconsin is that tenure decisions (whether to give tenure and how strong tenure should be) are being taken out of state law and given to the university governing bodies to determine. That would bring Wisconsin into line with the other 49 states, so I fail to see what the problem is.

  10. What a strange argument. A professor is put through an Orwellian ordeal imposed by the federal government; a craven administration does not do much to back her up. What does this reveal? The problem of tenure! Read the full piece by Laura Kipnis; nowhere does she call for the abolition of what protection tenure has given her. Furthermore, she is perhaps not in the best position to judge her situation had she not had tenure. My guess is she probably would be out of a job — I’ve seen it happen to people without tenure (sometimes people of the far left, I might add).

    In the present case, a professor takes a “rightward” position in public, is put through an ordeal, but keeps her job, with a high likelihood that tenure played a major role in saving her. William Voegeli’s evident disdain for tenure and academia blinds him to this. “Job-protection racket” indeed.

    1. Jonathan you missed the point. Although she may have kept her job, she was punished. Although you may be correct that tenure saved her job, tenure did not protect her from punishment. Similarly, a Marquette Univ. professor was recently fired for criticizing a graduate teaching assistant for her confrontation with a student in her class over gay marriage even though he had tenure.

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