The Cornell Daily Sun is reporting that Cornell Law School has started a Title IX investigation over a report that some male law students were “ranking women on their appearance.” What is most striking is that this was all done in a private group chat. Men and women have been ranking each other by looks since time immemorial. On October 5, Dean Eduardo M. Peñalver said in an October 5th email to law students that Cornell’s Title IX Office is investigating the matter, adding that “ranking women on their appearance is inherently degrading,” adding that it was “childish and unprofessional.” I agree that it is childish and unprofessional, but I still question the need for a Title IX investigation into the private correspondence of students over the attractiveness of other students.
Peñalver has asked for the matter to be raised in first-year classes and to tell students that “the behavior may well violate” the University’s Policy 6.4. The policy states defines two of the violations in this way:
“Bias activity: An action of mistreatment or incivility (verbal, physical, in written or digital form) taken by an alleged offender/s and motivated in whole or part by an actual or perceived aspect of diversity/identity of the harmed or impacted party. Identity may include, but is not limited to, ability, age, ancestry or ethnicity, color, creed, gender, gender identity or expression, immigration or citizenship status, marital status, national origin, neurodiversity, race, religion, religious practice, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or weight.
. . .
Sexual misconduct: A broad term encompassing any unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature designated as prohibited conduct by the applicable procedures under this policy.”
Both terms are “broad” to a troubling degree. “Incivility” that is motivated even in part “by an actual perceived aspect of diversity/identity” is endlessly flexible as a standard. I have previously objected to both such open ended definitions and the lack of due process often shown by university in adjudicating such claims.
There is no question that such ranking is unprofessional and uncivil. However, that should warrant a visit with the Dean and strong condemnation to the students, who would likely remove the listing. That will not stop students from judging each other on the basis of their appearance.
My greatest concern is the exercise of authority over private chats. If this were a listing that was circulated throughout the student body, that would be another matter. However, if this was a private exchange between law students, the concerns flip over the role of the law school. It could come down to the meaning of a “private chat.” There are chat rooms that are part of a broader circulation on social media and sites. There is no indication of a broad distribution here but that would certainly raise issues of the students’ conduct if it were a law school wide chat room.
What do you think?