Northwestern Student Sues Over Failure To Fire Professor Accused Of Sexual Assault

220px-Northwestern_University_Seal.svgLudlowThere 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.

30 thoughts on “Northwestern Student Sues Over Failure To Fire Professor Accused Of Sexual Assault”

  1. I had two physics professors, married to two students, had kids with those two students, divorced those two students, married the other student. (Or maybe just lived with them after the divorce.) The kids were great. Called each one dad.


    This was mid 70s.

    I swear, if you listen to them, then young women today are begging to be kept in a kitchen, barefoot, and pregnant, because they are not responsible for anything and will never become adults.

  2. It appears that some commenters do not realize the state of “sexual harassment” in academia– it is a corrupt industry where lawyers hold cushy jobs for doing nothing, but persecuting men for something that is so ridiculously rare that the nonexistent problem does not justify there being sexual harassment deans, offices, or any supporting staff. When one examines the annual report of these former Affirmative Action offices, one see that resolved cases do not find the defendant guilty, but that the charges have been withdrawn, and the student has agreed to withdraw from the school. One example, is one year at Yale, there were eleven reported claims of “sexual harassment,” and all eleven ended in the manner described, vide supra.
    From reading this well-balanced blog post, it is obvious to anyone aware of the extreme bias in any academic “sexual harassment” proceeding, that the only crime this man is guilty of is bad judgment, but absolute innocence is not a defense against the evil of the sexual harassment industry in academia. Basically once a false claim has been lodged, the man is already considered guilty, and everything that is said and has happened is twisted in such a way as to be an indictment of said presumed guilt. The fact that he was not fired, is proof that he was innocent, as any claim is proof of guilt to those that dole out the biased judgment, i.e. were this professor even slightly guilty of any action disallowed by the school’s “sexual harassment” policy, he would have been summarily dismissed with the highest possible sanctions against him.
    The major problem with sexual harassment policies is that they constitute the lower rung of a two-tiered legal system, where legal rights are circumvented– 1st and 14th Amendment protections, notably due process, and equal protection under the law– since the charges are not lodged formally in a court of law, but in a quasi-legal venue, where one does not have the right of innocence until proven guilty, the right to question the plaintiff, the right to a trial by one’s peers, and a higher level of proof necessary to find guilt. According to the EEOC, the body responsible for sexual harassment claims in the workplace, 60+% of the sexual harassment claims filed (by women) in the two years that they actually reported these statistics were false or frivolous. In academia, from what I have seen, the number of false or frivolous claims are near 100%. To make matters worse, and somehow the DoE managed to do so, which in itself is an amazing accomplishment considering how unjust and imbalanced the process already was, by lowering the standard of proof to a preponderance of evidence, since most sexual harassment claims in academia are completely without merit.
    There is an excellent book on the state of the sexual harassment witch hunt which occurs in academia: “Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism (American Intellectual Culture)” by Daphne Patai. One would normally assume that a 14-year-old book by a heterosexual Women’s Studies professor, (Yes, they actually do exist), would be terribly outdated, but, unfortunately, nothing has changed in those years, except for a lowering of the bar. My heart goes out to this guy, as his life has been utterly destroyed over a false accusation.

  3. Try responding to a DUI charge – “I wanted to drive home, but the bartender kept offering me another drink…”

    I think its quite simple – if you are incapable of asserting “no” to something as basic as a drink, you should not be classified an adult and should not be allowed outside without a responsible guardian.

  4. Mike Appleton: I am glad to finally see a man talk with some sense and respect of a student that was most likely not able to give consent. Some men don’t seem to know what the word no means anyway, or that some women are off limits. The fact that she was a student, and he was her professor, should have been reason enough to realize that she was off limits. Even the fact that she accepted the drink, still does not give him permission. In situations like this no matter who the aggressor or who the victim, the tendency is that society looks to the female as if she is the aggressor and has a motive (even if she is innocent). Guilty without proof. He is as guilty as she, if not more, and should lose his position. Her name is already tarnished. If he cannot be taught through legal procedures, that leaves him free to repeat unwanted advances to other students.

    Having such an incident hanging over his head should teach him that all students are not willing to sleep with the professor to get a grade. Unfortunately, Society still tends to blame the female even if she is the victim. He’s innocent of nothing yet the girl will be the one with a questionable reputation.

    Annieofwi: You are right and any professor should be smart enough to realize the consequence.

  5. Annie of Wi,

    She wasn’t a current student of his.

    Of course there are still potentially professional ethics concerns, but nowhere near what would justify the outrage that we are seeing.

    If she’d been going to a random community college in Chicago, there would be no ethical concerns whatsoever (assuming that he didn’t violate her consent, which is what he says).

  6. I am bothered by this case because there was an explicit finding that the student was so drunk that she was incapable of giving “meaningful consent” to her professor’s advances. Intentionally touching another person without that person’s consent is a battery. The fact that he may not have made physical contact with sexual organs is not determinative in my opinion. When are we going to recognize that taking advantage of a person incapacitated by alcohol or drugs is not behavior that should be tolerated under any circumstances?

    It is apparent, of course, that the academic career of Prof. Ludlow is over. Given the fact that he failed to disclose the situation to the hiring people at Rutgers, it is likely that he will not receive an offer from that institution.

  7. Hector, because it’s unethical and for good reason. It’s pretty self explanatory as to why it’s unethical, favoritism being one reason. The professor also puts himself/ herself at risk if the final grade isn’t what the romantic partner expects. I’m sure that the rest of the students aren’t thrilled with the knowledge that their Professor has a “special” interest in a fellow student, again favoritism.

  8. @ RWL, the story says the woman is now a junior at Northwestern. There’s nothing about her being in law school. The incident happened two years ago, so I assume she was a freshman then, likely 18 or 19, which would also explain why the professor bought the alcohol. Bad decisions by the professor thinking with the wrong head have cost him a lot. But, I don’t see how the student prevails against the University under these circumstances. Courts are not going to want to get into the position of micromanaging university decisions.

  9. A kiss of death. There’s no way to judge this without direct knowledge.

  10. I forgot to add: She has no chance in court. The courts will dismiss this case (Courts usually side with colleges and universities when it comes to law and higher education policy).

  11. Prof. JT,

    You’re right on: his career at Northwestern is over. His flight will be departing in matter of weeks (I think he knows this, too.).

    On other hand, this is a grown woman (she has to be at least 22 years of age; and last I checked, Northwestern is one of the top law schools in the country. There is no way that NU will accept someone under 21, unless he/she is a child prodigy or related to O’bama). She is old enough to know not to put herself into a situation like this (she didn’t learn this in her drinking days of undergrad? Some youngsters show up in high school classes intoxicated?).

    Was this a poor attempt of kissing up/brown-nosing gone bad? At my alma mater, students were not only financially paying university employees to change their grades (in the registrar office), but these students were also offering sex, if they didn’t have the money, to ‘get their grade(s) changed.’ The student body of my alma mater was (and still is) 70% female.

  12. The student’s communications with him after the incident are troubling, however his behavior was creepy and stepped over the line, by the mere fact that he involved himself with a student to begin with. She isn’t claiming it was sexual assault, correct? Since there was no policy in place at the time, prohibiting such a relationship, I think that NU was correct in their treatment of him.

    He sounds like a huge jerk.

  13. An indication of sexual assault might come down to a he-said-she-said situation so that might not so easy to prosecute if the accused denies this.

    I wonder if the fact this discipline did not come out in the professor’s employment application with State University of New Jersey had something to do with Northwestern wanting to get rid of him and painted his background record with rosy pictures.

  14. I had a lawyer friend who stopped teaching law when the school he worked at instituted a non-fraternization policy. 🙂

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  16. It is quite shocking that Northwestern did not have a policy already in place outlawing teacher/student relationships. Secondly, the report issued by Ms. Slavin at Northwestern is enough for me to get rid of the creep. Was the victim/plaintiff 21?

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