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.