They told me that if I voted for Mitt Romney, campus witch hunts would leave professors afraid to write about feminism. And they were right!
Barack Obama is the president, of course, not Mitt. But Obama’s Department of Education has taken such a broad view of the federal Title IX antidiscrimination law (“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”) that we have reached the ultimate in absurdity: Feminist students silencing feminist professors in the name of equality.
Feminist professor Laura Kipnis of Northwestern University published an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education in February, decrying “sexual paranoia” on campus and the way virtually any classroom mention of sex was being subjected to an odd sort of neo-Victorian prudery: “Students were being encouraged to regard themselves as such exquisitely sensitive creatures that an errant classroom remark could impede their education, as such hothouse flowers that an unfunny joke was likely to create lasting trauma. … In the post-Title IX landscape, sexual panic rules. Slippery slopes abound.”
This article sat poorly with campus activists, who in response reported her for sexual harassment, on the theory that this article (and a follow-up tweet — yes, that’s right, a tweet) somehow might have created a hostile environment for female students, which would violate Title IX as interpreted by the Education Department. Because, you see, female students, according to feminists, are too fragile to face disagreement. And they’ll demonstrate this fragility by subjecting you to Stalinist persecution if you challenge them, apparently.
At least, that’s what happened to Kipnis, who describes what she calls her Title IX inquisition in a lengthy essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education on Friday.The university’s investigators wouldn’t tell her who made the charges or even, for some time, what the charges were, which is typical of these Kafkaesque proceedings. While Kipnis was allowed to bring a faculty “support person” to her hearing, “support person” was not allowed to speak. After the hearing, a Title IX complaint was filed against the speechless “support person.”
My advice to potential faculty hires — or student applicants — at Northwestern: Go somewhere else. As law professor Jonathan Adler notes in The Washington Post,Northwestern threw academic freedom “under the bus.”
The good news is that Kipnis’ experience has generated a national wave of outrage. Even feminist website Jezebel wrote: “As feminist student activists fight to expand their circle of vulnerability in collegiate life, Title IX has gone from a law designed to protect college students from sexual misconduct and discrimination to a means by which professors are put on trial for their tweets.”
In New York magazine, Jonathan Chait observed: “I highly doubt that the inquiry against Kipnis will result in any important formal sanction. … But the slim possibility of actual administrative punishment is not the problem her story reveals. The problem is that a major body of progressive campus thought believes her publication of a dissenting column merits punishment.”
And at Reason,Robby Soave pointed out that bureaucrats whose power comes from an outrageously expansive reading of Title IX have expanded that interpretation to include a claim that “criticizing Title IX violates Title IX.”
Title IX, as its simple language provides, was intended to open up colleges to women, not to empower a Stalinist bureaucracy to torment people who don’t toe the feminist line. Congress needs to haul some Department of Education bureaucrats up for hearings, then rewrite Title IX to make clear that it doesn’t grant the kind of sweeping powers over academic expression that educrats have seized. Despite what they might think at the Department of Education, 1984 was written as a cautionary tale — not an instruction manual.