Lilla Again: Campus Politics

*A shorter version of this blog post was published as a Letter to the Editor on The Chronicle of Higher Education site.

(The New York Times photograph of students protesting Mike Pence, May, 2017 Notre Dame graduation; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/31/us/parents-students-summer.html?mcubz=3)&_r=0)

A few days ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a long piece by Columbia University Humanities professor Mark Lilla.  This piece, “How Colleges are Strangling Liberalism,” is adapted from Lilla’s recently published book, titled The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.  As The Chronicle has done with other authors (*see this Gender Shrapnel post), here they have had the author write a “Chronicle Review” piece about his own book.  The timing of the publication of the piece, nine days after the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, coupled with the subtitle of the article, “An obsession with identity has made students less likely to engage with a world beyond themselves,” seems intended to fan the flames of our national debate about white supremacy and to blame the left for its visible resurgence.

Full disclosure: I addressed Mark Lilla’s ideas in the Gender Shrapnel Blog back in November of 2016, soon after the election (another propitious moment to fan flames), when The New York Times ran Lilla’s piece, titled “The End of Identity Liberalism.”  The November blog post I wrote takes issue with Lilla’s refusal to learn the lessons of the interdisciplinary programs he scorns.  His inability to recognize why “identity politics” is an exclusive and offensive term cripples his argument.  The term comes to life only when people who aren’t cis, white males start having a political voice. In the second paragraph of his piece in The Chronicle, Lilla writes, “All of us liberals involved in higher education need to take a long look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we contributed to putting the country in this situation.”  This would have been a good moment for Lilla to make clear what he means by “all of us liberals.”  Who are “us liberals,” and what do we have in common?  How does the author define “liberalism” itself?

Lilla accuses 1980s liberals who espoused a “politics of identity” of “losing a sense of what we share as citizens and what binds us as a nation.”  I was in high school and college in the Reagan 80s, and, like many of my peers, I was concerned about and involved in protests of nuclear armament, apartheid—in South Africa and in the United States–, U.S. support of right-wing fascist dictatorships in Latin America, and the nation’s continued failure to support and elect women leaders of all backgrounds.  In other words, I did not feel “bound” to my nation because so many people were disenfranchised from participation in the voice and governance of the nation.

Lilla says, “What was astonishing during the Reagan years, though, was the development of an explicit left-wing identity politics that became the de facto creed of two generations of liberal politicians, professors, school teachers, journalists, movement activists, and officials of the Democratic Party.  This has been disastrous for liberalism’s prospects in our country, especially in the face of an increasingly radicalized right.”  My sense of this argument is that Lilla is encouraging a seemingly all-embracing left (would that it were more so) to silence its recognition of the existence of different groups (often formed from a shared group identity; often formed in response to visible and invisible systems of oppression) so as not to galvanize the forces of the right, so as not to unleash the dangerous forces of the right.  Is this silence, or this inaction, not just another form of oppression, in this case, as posited by Lilla, an oppression of the left that he recommends being imposed by the left?  Lilla says that the only way to “meaningfully assist them” (with “them” being “minorities”; ah, the haughtiness of this tone, the distance established) is “to win elections.”  Yes, absolutely, winning elections is essential, of course.  But multi-pronged approaches to problems, approaches that draw upon a variety of people’s different strengths, also work.  I believe the function of higher education is to develop this variety of skills, analytical approaches, and ability to collaborate so that our students become citizens who are interested in the world and able to effect change no matter where they land.  Also significant is our need to understand affective approaches to the polis—understanding our changing selves, engaging in dialogue with many others, and working together towards viable solutions.  I envision Venn diagrams of groups that often exist apart but certainly find interlocking areas of affinity, agreement, and action.

Martha S. Jones’ response to Lilla, “What Mark Lilla Gets Wrong About Students,” published in the August 24, 2017, edition of The Chronicle, appropriately takes issue with Lilla’s overgeneralized characterizations of today’s generation of college students.  While Lilla states in general terms that our students are obsessed with their own identities and are unable to engage with the broader world, Jones gives concrete examples of students who have watched the gathering clouds of racism and done something about them.  I would like to add to Jones’ examples.  At the small university where I teach (which Lilla might see as “detached socially and geographically from the rest of the country”), many students understand their own changing mores and priorities and figure out how to contribute in small and large ways to the local community and the larger political realm.  Many don’t assume one, blanket national identity, but rather work to understand the many groups that make up the United States and the positive and negative effects our nation’s leaders have had on the world.  Many of the students recognize their own wealth and privilege (or lack thereof, in some cases) and labor to alleviate, to the extent they can, the challenges of everyday living for people in our community—transportation, food supplies, safety, education, and literacy.

Lilla’s characterization of college towns also reveals his own biases, rather than the more nuanced realities that one can seek to see, understand, and engage with: “A thoroughly bourgeois setting without a trace of the demos, apart from the homeless men and women who flock there and whose job it is to keep it real for the residents.”  The tongue-in-cheek tone both contradicts Lilla’s later criticism of “casting an ironic eye” towards democratic politics and caricaturizes real people who experience actual life struggles.  In addition, Lilla says that campus towns “are very pleasant places to live.”  The town where I live is beautiful, but it can also be an unpleasant, and sometimes downright hostile, place for people to live.  (See last week’s post in the Gender Shrapnel Blog.)  Again, Lilla’s unexamined position is from above, and he neglects to distinguish between and among types of colleges and universities and the surrounding towns.  The refusal to engage with the world beyond the Ivory Tower simply reaffirms Lilla’s sense of the Tower itself.  Nevertheless, there are plenty of other ways to exist, teach, and advise in the higher education setting.  Instead of creating a straw man of so-called “identity politics” and this current generation of students, Lilla could get in the trenches and see what kind of actual work is being done.

I hope a collective sigh takes hold of The Chronicle’s audience when it reads Lilla’s sudden decision to incorporate a “she” in his article.  When he asks readers to “imagine a young student entering such an environment today,” the young student is a “she,” and the old master paternalistically mocks the courses the student chooses to take, the groups she chooses to join, the ways in which she will choose to be labeled a “victim.”  The long screed against this fictional “she” includes this assertion: “If our young student accepts the mystical idea that anonymous forces of power shape everything in life, she will be perfectly justified in withdrawing from democratic politics and casting an ironic eye on it.”  Is Trump “an anonymous force of power?”  Are Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler, and Christopher Cantwell “anonymous forces of power?” Is Dylann Roof an “anonymous force of “power”?  How about Brock Turner?  I believe we know the names and faces of those who use power—whether manifested through elected office or violence, or both—for their own gain, and I don’t think we could say that Heather Heyer, for example, chose to withdraw from democratic politics and cast an ironic eye on it.

If Lilla had used concrete examples (for example, here: “Today’s activists and leaders are formed almost exclusively at colleges and universities”) and had avoided sweeping generalizations (e.g. “liberal academics idealize the ‘60s generation”), I might have understood his argument better.  Had he not completely discarded the profound social, political, and legal impact of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, I might have understood his argument better.  Had he not made a sermon out of “reasoned political debate,” and had actually defined what that is, I might have understood his argument better.  Had he provided statistics (for example, about how colleges are “mainly run by liberals”), I might have understood his argument better.  In other words, had Lilla practiced the research and writing prescriptions offered in most higher education curricula, I might have understood his argument better.

I argue that we are not imposing an identity-based education, but that neither are we ignoring that individual and group identities exist and enjoy different levels of voice, visibility, and power, in our curricula, on our campuses, in our political realm.  To interpret contemporary campus politics with nuance, we have to examine our course offerings (have the white dudes really been taken over across the curriculum?), club offerings (I don’t think fraternities have disappeared, have they?), and our towns (real people live and work in these towns; real people struggle in these towns).  Traditional power dynamics still prevail, and they seem both unstudied and reinforced in Lilla’s work.

Does Lilla’s message continue to be broadly publicized because it comforts those who want to believe in a universal “us” and scorns and silences people and movements on the left who are laboring to achieve a working wage, safety from the violence of white supremacist groups, and a sense of fairness in our world?

Witches and Warlocks

This week Fox News removed Bill O’Reilly from its roster (reported on by The New York Times here).  Finally.  After multiple complaints of sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.  (*See the Gender Shrapnel Blog post on Roger Ailes and Fox News here.)  The New York Times reported: “Mr. O’Reilly and his employers came under intense pressure after an article by The New York Times on April 1 revealed how Fox News and its parent company, 21st Century Fox, had repeatedly stood by him even as he and the company reached settlements with five women who had complained about sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior by him. The agreements totaled about $13 million.”  The New York Times reports that O’Reilly was still able to hold a meeting with the Pope this week and will not lose his book contract with Henry Holt.  Bill also keeps the $25 million (figure cited in this The Washington Post piece) that Fox News would have paid him in the upcoming year. I think Bill is doing just fine, in case you were worried.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has featured for several weeks now Laura Kipnis’ article titled “Eyewitness to a Title IX Witch Trial.”  The article, published in The Chronicle’s Review section, has given ample publicity to the publication of Kipnis’ new book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (HarperCollins).  In this blog post, I am addressing only Kipnis’ piece in The Chronicle.  I haven’t yet read the book.  I disagree with the main points of the article, but maybe the book will offer more nuance.

In the lengthy review article (about her own book), Kipnis recounts at great length the process by which Northwestern University adjudicated a case against philosophy professor Peter Ludlow.  The case has been covered in The Chicago Tribune, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Daily Northwestern.  I’m only familiar with this case through reading these articles and therefore am no expert on it.  I understand that Ludlow was accused by an undergraduate student, who had been Ludlow’s student, of forcing her to drink alcohol and making unwanted sexual advances towards her.  Soon after this became a formal lawsuit, a graduate student (from the same department as Ludlow, but not his student) accused Ludlow of raping her.  These are the two cases at the center of this story.  Northwestern University had no policy prohibiting faculty-student relations (called “dating” by Kipnis in the Chronicle piece).

Kipnis takes issue with Northwestern University’s handling of the case in the lengthy hearings of Ludlow, at which were present the faculty panel and “three outside lawyers, at least two in-house lawyers, another lawyer hired by the university to advise the faculty panel…,” (cited here) along with Ludlow’s lawyer.  Kipnis was there in the role of “faculty support person” to Ludlow.  Her account of the hearings is supplemented by Ludlow’s file of e-mails, text messages, memos, and formal university documents.  I appreciate Kipnis’ detailed account and willingness to question Title IX proceedings that are still woefully inadequate on most college and university campuses.  She believes that the university was trying to respond to unclear Title IX guidelines and that this resulted in the “witch trial” of Peter Ludlow.

Laura Kipnis is implicated in the case as well because her earlier defense of faculty-student “dating” had resulted in a Title IX complaint against her at Northwestern.  Kipnis believes that prohibitions on such behavior are paternalistic and remove sexual agency.  I believe we need to understand this entanglement to analyze well Kipnis’ highly public (and well remunerated) opinion on this case.

I would like to examine the language Kipnis uses in this piece. Kipnis remarks, “So when Ludlow’s lawyer called, of course I said yes—I was being offered a front-row seat at a witch trial.” The “witch trial” analogy seems poorly applied in the case of Ludlow, who has enjoyed great privilege and position for years.  I get that “warlock trial” doesn’t do the trick, but I’d rather go in that direction.  I also don’t completely understand the desire to witness a so-called “witch trial” because I don’t wish the pillory upon people, whether they are innocent or guilty. On the other hand, if Kipnis had made clear that her goal in being present at the hearings was to bear witness in the name of justice surrounding fraught Title IX policies, practices, and procedures, then her participation in, association with, and writings about the case to me would be more convincing.

The conflation of the term “sex” with “sexual harassment and discrimination” and “sexual violence” presents problems that weaken some of Kipnis’ arguments.  “Sex” refers to (1) biological determinations that have been appropriately complicated by gender and sexuality studies and (2) physical contact (often officially referred to as sexual intercourse, with reference to genitalia) between and/or among individuals.  Kipnis states, “I soon learned that rampant accusation is the new norm on American campuses; the place is a secret cornucopia of accusation, especially when it comes to sex” (cited in her 4-2-17 Chronicle piece).  The hyperbolic language (“rampant” and “cornucopia”) belies the realities of sexual assault on college campuses, where 2016 statistics (RAINN statistics here) still tell us that one in five women is sexually assaulted during her time at college or university.  The figures are worse for transgender, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming individuals.  Kipnis uses the bald term ‘sex,’ instead of giving it context in the hierarchical layers of colleges and universities.

Nowhere in this lengthy piece does Kipnis deal with actual statistics that speak to a culture of sexual violence, embedded in power hierarchies, on our college and university campuses.  Kipnis claims that “new codes banning professor-student dating infantilize[d]students—this wasn’t feminism, it was paternalism.”  Kipnis’ foray into questions of feminism and sexual agency is interesting and necessary, but becomes much more complicated when the professor-student relationship is added to the mix.

Professors do wield power.  We design syllabi, determine the flow of class, assign grades, vote for assignment of department awards, and write (or don’t) letters of recommendation. Undergraduate and graduate students can develop a type of hero worship (something I detect in Kipnis’ enraptured tone as she describes Ludlow) that might translate as sexual attraction.  No matter an institution’s lack of policy on “dating” (Kipnis’ oversimplified term), or “fraternization” (a charged term in and of itself often used in the workplace), a professor who gets entangled in a relationship with a student in his class or department is exercising power.  Students in the same department are often nominated for the same awards, scholarships, and grants, and therefore departments breed competition, a competition that takes on a different look and a less fair landscape if a professor is sleeping with one of the students involved.

When things go wrong in the relationship (however we choose to define it), and we know they often do, this power piece is at play.  College students are often trying to figure out sexual desires and identities, and, so, yes, questions of power and sexual agency are more than just a little complicated.  If and when students and professors sleep together, structural systems of power become even more apparent.  Kipnis’ use of the term ‘sexual paranoia,’ in this review piece and in the book title itself, trivializes this important developmental stage for 18-22-year-olds and conflates sexual exploration with sexual discrimination and violence.  Kipnis also reduces real concerns about rampant sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation and about rape and sexual violence to one oversimplified, offensive phrase, ‘sexual finger-pointing.’

Kipnis praises Jessica Wilson, a philosophy professor and former student of Ludlow, and Wilson’s character defense of Ludlow at the hearings.  Kipnis writes, “Like a great teacher, Wilson flipped the question [about Wilson’s own account of “unwelcome behavior” from a different former professor] around.  She’d been speaking from her own experience, she pointed out.  Yet didn’t the panelists have to ask whether she was telling the truth?  They hadn’t been there, so how would they know?  And if she were being entirely honest, she herself wasn’t sure if the disturbing thing was a professor trying to kiss her, or simply that she was getting unwanted attention that she ‘wasn’t participating in.’”  Kipnis neglects to make clear that “getting unwanted attention that you’re not participating in” can be or can easily lead to real violation.  In addition, Kipnis replicates sexualization and hero worship in her description of Wilson: “Here was a smart, attractive, successful woman from one of the top philosophy departments in North America who revered Peter Ludlow.”  She later remarks that, after Wilson completed her testimony, “it felt as if there were an erotic current in the room.”

Kipnis also tires of “exhausted clichés about predatory males and eternally innocent females…”  I think it’s fair to say that anyone who follows the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and the major national dailies might find these “clichés” to not be exhausted enough.  Of course it makes sense to get away from the polarized language Kipnis critiques, but college and university campus statistics and the underlying realities of sexual violence on campus are still acutely bad.  The tone Kipnis uses when speaking of the two complainants is condescending at best.  When Kipnis blames herself for not coming to Ludlow’s defense in a particularly tense moment in the hearing, she wonders if she hadn’t done so because she was “so shaken [her]self, so frozen and appalled” that she couldn’t.  This is exactly what happens to many people who have experienced aggression and assault (and to some who have witnessed it), just like the two complainants in this case had claimed themselves.  If the two complainants are deserving of scorn, I would like more information to understand why.

The strength of Kipnis’ article (and, I surmise, her book) lies in the legitimate questioning of the efficacy of legal processes in Title IX hearings on college and university campuses.  She rightly criticizes Northwestern for running hearings soaked with lawyers from all sides, hiring an outside lawyer to advise the university panel, and worrying more about image than justice (Kipnis writes: “Ludlow was bad for the brand.”).  Kipnis also says that she “was being warned off the subject,” and I am certain that was the case.  Universities have many direct and subtle means to silence unpleasant subjects and cases that sully the brand.  My simplified view of the stance that universities adopt is that they support the side that brings the fewest monetary and public relations risks.  Oftentimes this means that complainants are silenced and run off campus, and, on far fewer occasions, it means that alleged perpetrators are.

We should all be wary when a university hires outside counsel to “advise” an internal panel.  The advice provided stems from whatever is in the university’s best interest.  At that point, the university can be considered wholly separate from the complainant and the alleged perpetrator.  Kipnis points to the fraught intervention of universities in their own processes when she writes, “The university was set on getting rid of Ludlow, and the hearing was a formality.  I also knew enough about the procedures to know that the faculty panel’s vote was merely advisory; the provost would make the final call, and it had been the provost’s decision to put the dismissal machinery in motion to begin with.”  Exactly!  This is a profound problem not only because it is evidently unjust, but also because it exploits student, staff, and faculty labor and their potentially sincere belief in the benefits of university adjudicative processes.

No matter where we readers fall on matters of sexual agency and exploitation of professional power, we can certainly question the Big Brand Machine of colleges and universities, whose students and employees have become little more than additional institutional risks.

The Chronicle has featured Laura Kipnis on several occasions and for several weeks running.  It might be a good moment to consider other editorial decisions that take into account real statistics and violations of actual people.