There is an interesting controversy at Northwestern concerning an allegation of sexual assault brought against philosophy Prof. Peter Ludlow. While the school investigated the allegation and disciplined Ludlow, it did not find sufficient evidence to terminate him. That decision is the basis of a Title IX lawsuit which prohibits sex discrimination by higher education institutions receiving federal funding. The case will raise the question of how far a court will go in countering the conclusions of a university investigation. In this case, the university responded but the student disagrees with its conclusions. The question is whether such a disagreement amounts to a form of discrimination.
The unnamed student says that she went with Ludlow to an art show in Chicago in February 2012 and that he sexually assaulted her. The student claims that Ludlow bought her alcohol and that she asked repeatedly to be taken back to Evanston and that Ludlow alleged refused. She says that she woke up the next morning in Ludlow’s bed after losing consciousness. It is not clear why she could not go to Evanston on her own after Ludlow allegedly refused to take her. They continued to two different art galleries and two or more bars. The student says that she was just trying to get to know a professor better on the trip and that he coerced or forced her to drink alcohol. She says that her blouse was undone the next morning but there is no indication that there was more alleged than fondling. Ludlow apparently told the committee that the student communicated with him after the “date” and that those messages show a lack of coercion or threats. His lawyer insisted that
“We . . . have text messages which show that (the woman) was very friendly with Mr. Ludlow on February 15, 2012-five days after the alleged assault — and that she, in fact, asked him to meet with her in person, and then came to a conference he was attending, asking him to talk to her. At that time, Mr. Ludlow told her, as he had in the past, that he did not want to be romantically involved with her.”
Joan Slavin, at Northwestern’s Office of Sexual Harassment Prevention, concluded in a letter to the victim that Ludlow
“initiated kissing, French kissing, rubbing your back, and sleeping with his arms on and around you on the night of February 10-11 2012,. I do not find that Respondent touched your breasts or buttocks. I find that you were incapacitated due to heavy consumption of alcohol purchased for you by Respondent, and were therefore unable to offer meaningful consent to this physical touching that night. I also find that Respondent told you he thought you were attractive, discussed his desire to have a romantic and sexual relationship with you, and shared other personal information of a sexual nature, all of which was unwelcome to you [and] Respondent’s conduct toward you violated the University’s Policy on Sexual Harassment.”
The university assembled a formal investigatory committee after the allegation was raised and six faculty members found that Ludlow made “unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances” toward the student. The panel unanimously voted to deny him a raise during the 2012-13 school year, rescinded his appointment to an endowed professorship, and prohibit any contact with the student. The stripping of an endowed chair is considered as heavy punishment in academia.
The punishment clearly appears to support the view of inappropriate advances as opposed to sexual assault. Notably, no criminal charges were brought against Ludlow. However, there is a report that a political science professor helped the student file a police report one year after the alleged assault.
The student has charged that the investigation and discipline was insufficient and shows “deliberate indifference and retaliation” to a complaint by a student. That is a bit hard to square with the response of a full investigation. One can certainly disagree with the failure to seek termination, but it would be hard to call the response a sign of indifference. The school has also noted that it extended assistance to the student from the Dean of Students’ office, Counseling and Psychological Services and Center for Awareness, Response and Education, and other offices.
(For full disclosure, Northwestern is my law school alma mater — I went to University of Chicago as an undergraduate). The student also claims that she will “continue to suffer humiliation, mental and emotional anguish, anxiety, and distress as a result of the hostile educational environment created by Defendant and its deliberate indifference.” That again seems difficult to square with the relatively tough discipline meted out by the Committee in the removal of the chair and other steps. The problem is that we do not know the precise findings of fact and what is known is a conflict of these two accounts. If there was a sexual assault, this should be both a disciplinary and criminal matter. If a committee believed that an attempted rape or a sexual assault had occurred, there would seem no option but termination.
Notably, a report states that the University enacted a prohibition on consensual faculty-student relationship in January, indicating that such relationship were not barred at the time of the incident. Most schools allow for consensual relationships if a student is not in a professor’s class. Faculty has also called for additional changes to allow an accuser to be informed of findings and sanctions as well as putting such findings into a professor’s official finding. Notably, Ludlow is currently a candidate for a job at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey but that school’s spokesman says that the case “was not brought to our attention by either the candidate or his employer.” (It is a strange omission since any search of his name will bring up a large number of sites discussing the case). It would be highly troubling to me for a candidate to interview for a position and not reveal such an allegation if it arose before or during such consideration.
The original complaint stated that the committee recommended that Ludlow be fired but the University did not act on its recommendation. However, a report says that her counsel is moving to amend the complaint to show that no recommendation of termination was formally issued by the Committee.
It is a case that could help define the responsibility of a university in such cases where the accused vehemently denies the allegations and the Committee finds sexual harassment but not sexual assault. The fact that such relationship are allowed between professors and students makes the matter all the more difficult from an evidentiary standpoint. The new change will bring clarity to that aspect of future controversies.
Northwestern is seeking the dismissal of the case.