Thu, Apr 13, 2017 - Page 14 News List

Book review: Tackling sexual politics in academia

After being investigated by her school for publishing an essay, professor Laura Kipnis produces a provocative book on university policy, free speech and sex on campus

By Jennifer Senior  /  New York Times News Service

Unwanted Advances:
Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus
by Laura Kipnis

Read enough stories about the madness whipping through college campuses right now, and you can’t help but wonder if our institutions of higher learning have put the “loco” in in loco parentis. There was once a time when America’s students and faculty were united in their desire to defend their free-speech prerogatives, but no longer: Universities are now hypervigilant about protecting students from ideas that might be considered offensive or traumatizing, and many students are hyper-assertive in their demands to be protected from them.

I do not want to reduce the turbulence on today’s college campuses to caricature. (Though last month’s flare-up at Middlebury, which turned a planned colloquy into a crime scene, makes for a pretty fat target.) Those who defend trigger warnings, safe spaces and “empathetic correctness” have reasons for doing so, and no one wants vulnerable young people to experience gratuitous suffering.

But it’s also hard to ignore the irony here: Universities are now terrible places to find political heterogeneity. Campus discourse has become the equivalent of the supermarket banana. Only one genetic variety remains.

PROFESSOR UNDER FIRE

Among the educators who recently found herself at the treacherous intersection of free speech and sensitivity politics is Laura Kipnis, a film professor, cultural critic and dedicated provocateur at Northwestern University. Responding to a new campus directive that prevented professors from dating undergraduates, she wrote an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education last February titled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.” Within days of publication, she was brought up on Title IX complaints for creating a “hostile environment.” She spent 72 days in the public stockade for it, until the university cleared her of any wrongdoing.

Publication Notes

Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus

By Laura Kipnis

245 pages

Harper Collins

Paperback: US


Kipnis has now written a book, Unwanted Advances, about feminism, relationship statecraft and the shadow world of Title IX investigations. It is invigorating and irritating, astute and facile, rigorous and flippant, fair-minded and score-settling, practical and hyperbolic, and maybe a dozen other neurotically contradictory things. Above all else, though, Unwanted Advances is necessary. Argue with the author, by all means. But few people have taken on the excesses of university culture with the brio that Kipnis has. Her anger gives her argument the energy of a live cable.

You might be wondering how Kipnis wound up the subject of a Title IX investigation when the law was originally created to address gender discrimination in education. She had the same question, and soon found her answer: In 2011, the Department of Education expanded the Title IX mandate to include policing “sexual misconduct,” an idea so hazily defined it can apparently include publishing an essay — if the content is said to have “a chilling effect” on students’ ability to report sexual malfeasance.

The problems with this development are fairly obvious. “It seemed to pit a federally mandated program against my constitutional rights,” Kipnis notes.

Part of me wishes she’d written a book devoted exclusively to this subject. As soon as Kipnis’ story made news, she became the confessor to students and professors from all over the country who’d been brought up on Title IX charges, too, and what she discovers is disturbing: Subjects generally don’t know (as Kipnis didn’t) what they’re accused of until they sit face to face with investigators; they’re usually discouraged, if not forbidden (as Kipnis was), from bringing in outside counsel or presenting exculpatory evidence unless they’ve been charged with sexual violence.

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