Attending the disgraced philosophy professor Peter Ludlow’s dismissal hearing was like watching someone being burned at the stake in slow motion, except this execution was catered — the university provided lavish spreads of food and snacks, and the atmosphere was surprisingly cordial. The five Northwestern faculty members empaneled to hear the case were striving to make clear that they were neutral and not prejudging anything, which meant pleasant chitchat at breaks or in the ladies’ room, mostly about the food. We were, after all, in the Midwest. Even the university lawyers were pleasant. The whole thing dragged on for over a month, which meant a lot of chitchat and a lot of calories. I was tense, and overate.
Torch the miscreant, resanctify the community. It was the campus equivalent of a purification ritual, and purifying communities is no small-scale operation these days: In addition to the five-person faculty panel, there were three outside lawyers, at least two in-house lawyers, another lawyer hired by the university to advise the faculty panel, a rotating cast of staff and administrators, and a court reporter taking everything down on a little machine. Ludlow had his lawyer (and on one occasion, two). And there was me.
One of Ludlow’s lawyers had contacted me a few weeks earlier to ask if I’d be willing to act as Ludlow’s "faculty support person" at the hearing. I was surprised by the request: Ludlow and I didn’t know each other, but he was such a pariah on campus I suspect there was no one else to tap. And even though we hadn’t met, our situations were already somewhat intertwined.
Let me explain. After I wrote an essay for The Chronicle Review in February 2015 that briefly mentioned Ludlow’s sexual-misconduct case, students marched to the president’s office with a petition against me; a short time later, two grad students filed Title IX complaints, charging that I’d created a hostile environment on campus, among other allegations. I’d argued that the new codes banning professor-student dating infantilized students — this wasn’t feminism, it was paternalism, I said — and vastly increased the power of administrators over our lives. As if seeking to prove my point, here were students demanding that campus administrators protect them from someone’s ideas.
Also, the story just kept unfolding. After I wrote a second essay for The Chronicle Review detailing the 72-day "investigation" of me that ensued, I was deluged with desperate emails from professors and students around the country with stories about their Title IX tribunals. 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. Including merely speaking about sex. My inbox became a clearinghouse for depressing and infuriating tales of overblown charges, capricious verdicts, and frightening bureaucratic excess. I was introduced to an astonishing netherworld of sexual finger-pointing, rigged investigations, closed-door hearings, and Title IX officers run amok. This was a world I’d previously known nothing about, because no one on campus knows anything about it. Why? Because campus bureaucrats have shrouded the process in demands for confidentiality and threats that speaking about it can lead to job loss or expulsion.
So when Ludlow’s lawyer called, of course I said yes — I was being offered a front-row seat at a witch trial.
The case against Ludlow, in brief, was this. An undergrad who’d previously taken a class with him emailed him about an art event she was going to and said he should go, too. He agreed and offered to introduce her to some curators he knew for a journalism assignment she was working on. Ludlow and the student, whom I’ll call Eunice Cho, spent the evening going to gallery openings and bars, then ended up sleeping together, clothed, on top of the comforter, in a bed at his apartment. They agree that they didn’t have sex, but Cho would charge that Ludlow had forced her to drink liquor she didn’t want and had then groped her, both at a bar and at his apartment, which led to her trying to kill herself a few days later. Cho filed a Title IX complaint; then hired a lawyer and sued both Ludlow and the university for monetary damages. Ludlow countersued for defamation.
When Cho’s lawsuits went public, a graduate student I’ll call Nola Hartley came forward. Ludlow and Hartley had had what was, at the time, a consensual three-month relationship some two years earlier. Hartley now charged that Ludlow had raped her on one occasion when she was asleep in his bed after drinking too much, though she didn’t actually remember it happening. (They had sex on another occasion, she acknowledged, but that was consensual.) Hartley had also decided, in retrospect, that the entire relationship with Ludlow had never been consensual. She was 25 at the time, well over the age of consent.
Ludlow denied all these charges. Cho had come on to him that evening, he said, and he’d told her to "chill." He and Hartley had only ever had consensual sex, and had sex throughout their relationship — he’d been in love with her and wanted to marry her and had hoped to stay friends after their breakup, which had been initiated by her. They were in the same department but in different areas, and he’d never been her teacher. (Hartley was now claiming that Ludlow had indeed been her teacher, though she’d never actually taken any classes with him.)
My main qualm about saying yes to Ludlow’s lawyer was that from what I knew — I’d seen only the publicly available information at that point — I wasn’t convinced that Ludlow shouldn’t be dismissed. You can’t have an undergrad sleep in your bed these days unless you’re supremely reckless, even if there’s no code prohibiting it. (At the time, professor-student dating was, in fact, permitted at our university; professor-grad student relationships still are.) In my own inner courtroom, if Ludlow was guilty of nothing else, he was guilty of being oblivious to current realities, and thinking this put me in an awkward position if I was agreeing to be his support person.
I hadn’t at the time read Cho’s deposition in the civil suit, which includes her physiologically dubious account of jumping into icy Lake Michigan in February, swimming to shore, then walking around for an hour dripping wet before heading back to her dorm — and requiring no medical attention. I hadn’t known about her shifting versions of the evening’s events. I also hadn’t yet read the 2,000 texts and emails between Ludlow and Hartley — in the early, heady days of the romance there were as many as 80 a day; this may be the best-documented relationship in history — with their frequent mutual expressions of love and lasting devotion, and profusion of domestic detail. ("Why did you buy rice milk and soy milk?" she texts at one point — the two were spending frequent nights and mornings together.) I hadn’t seen the texts from the morning following the night Hartley would later say Ludlow raped her, in which she apologizes for hurting him — because she’d chosen her other boyfriend over Ludlow, though she asks if she can continue to say she loves him anyway. In fact, the two continued to see each other and sleep together for another month or so before she settled, finally, on Ludlow’s competitor.
Obviously accusers don’t have to be perfect people to be believed, and I’m aware there are arguments that trauma victims may have fractured memories of events. But when you’re trying to ax someone from a job, certainly some consistency is required.
But at the time, I assumed, along with everyone else, that a professor who’s been accused of sexual misconduct by two different students had to be guilty of something. I kept thinking of Oscar Wilde’s line in The Importance of Being Earnest, when Lady Bracknell says to the adopted Jack: "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."
What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t go into the process as a partisan. I decided that "support" didn’t necessarily entail thinking there was any plausible defense "our" side could mount. In any case, there was no question in my mind about the outcome: 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.
Ludlow and I met for the first time on the morning of the first day of the hearing, and walked together to the designated locale. He’d been banned from campus, and it was the first time he’d been there for maybe a year — it felt weird to be back, he said. A few weeks later, after a particularly exhausting session, we went out for drinks at a Mexican place near campus, and I found myself quoting the Lady Bracknell line to him. It probably wasn’t the kindest thing under the circumstances, but I couldn’t help myself; I found it mordantly funny. He didn’t get angry or annoyed — he had the slightly removed demeanor of someone on a lot of antidepressants, and if I’d been in his position I’d certainly have been gobbling every pharmaceutical I could get my hands on, too. Of course, not having known him prior to the hearing, I didn’t know what his previous, more expansive self might have been like. Hartley often called him "Charmer" in her texts.
The weakness in the university’s case, it seemed to me, was that the most unequivocal charge against Ludlow was buying drinks for an underage student. (Cho was 19 at the time.) But the university hadn’t moved to dismiss him over Cho’s charges — they’d disciplined him, but he still had his job. The university’s Title IX officer decided that Ludlow had made "unwelcome advances" to Cho, despite finding some aspects of her account "fuzzy" and other parts simply untrue.
Still, when push came to shove, both investigators had backpedaled on the most serious allegations: Neither found Ludlow culpable of sexual assault. When I eventually read the two reports, I found them shocking. At every turn, speculation and guesswork became the basis for establishing "a preponderance of evidence," the standard demanded by the Office for Civil Rights in Title IX cases. The reasoning was frequently ludicrous. Potentially exculpatory evidence from Ludlow was ignored. And the gender bias was incredible — exhausted clichés about predatory males and eternally innocent females were apparently sufficient grounds to convene this massive show trial.
Though it was staged as an actual trial, both of Ludlow’s accusers had declined to participate, meaning there was no opportunity for his lawyer to question their stories, meaning the whole thing was, judicially speaking, an elaborate sham. (I later learned that the two had been in touch via an intermediary, a feminist professor at another university, though I don’t know if they conferred about not testifying.) Nevertheless, the case proceeded. Witnesses were sworn in under oath, testified, and were cross-examined; objections were raised and procedural points argued. Exhibits were introduced and numbered. The faculty panel called the shots, at least nominally, under advisement from their counsel, who was of course in the university’s employ. I was never exactly sure what the oaths were for; we’re a private school.
But however rickety their case, I could see why the university needed Ludlow to go away. For one thing, he’d become a public-relations nightmare. When student activists staged a protest about the university’s handling of sexual-misconduct cases (namely Cho’s), they did it, cannily, at the kickoff for a $3.75-billion university fund-raising campaign optimistically titled "We Will." Big universities are multibillion-dollar international businesses, needless to say, and Ludlow was bad for the brand.
Still, the good news is that it’s not easy getting rid of a tenured professor at a major research university, nor cheap — somewhat reassuring to me for obvious reasons.
At one point during these protracted hearings, something unexpected happened that reminded me of what can be so great about the academy, and what we stand to lose in the wave of sexual paranoia sweeping American campuses. Paranoia is a formula for intellectual rigidity, and from what I’ve seen in the past couple of years, its inroads into higher education are so effectively dumbing down the place that the traditional ideal of the university — as a refuge for complexity, a setting for the free exchange of ideas — is getting buried under an avalanche of platitudes and fear. Especially on the subject of campus sexual politics.
But there are still a few holdouts, and one of them, a feminist philosopher at the University of Toronto named Jessica Wilson, had volunteered to testify as a character witness for Peter Ludlow. (Ludlow wasn’t in the room for this session.)
Wilson had known Ludlow for 15 years, she said, first as his student and then in two departments as a colleague, and spoke movingly about him as a mentor and a person. Being around him had been a sort of "effervescent philosophical situation" for Wilson and her then-boyfriend, also a philosopher, when they were all in the same department. When she and her boyfriend decided to get married, they chose Ludlow as the officiant "because he was the most erudite, witty, wonderful person that I knew." Hearing about Ludlow presiding over a marriage ceremony came as a small shock, I think, to a roomful of people who’d been told he was virtually a predator. Here was a smart, attractive, successful woman from one of the top philosophy departments in North America who revered Peter Ludlow.
"The thing about Peter is that he’s a brilliant scholar, a fantastic teacher and mentor who just creates a fantastic community, a real social community, which is where a lot of philosophy actually happens." She had never heard a single negative comment or even a whisper about Ludlow in 15 years, and she would have, she said, because people came to her about this sort of thing.
Wilson herself was someone who created instant confidence. She was honest, well spoken, deeply intelligent. She also sketched a far more convivial view of professor-student relations than the predatory scene depicted in the Title IX reports. Indeed, Wilson’s boyfriend (now husband of 13 years) had been a junior professor in the same department when she was a grad student, and she hadn’t suffered any particular consequences. "In fact, I think I held most of the power in that relationship. Still do," she said, laughing. Mentorship isn’t a top-down enterprise, she emphasized; it’s a community effort held together by a lot of late-night socializing and drinking.
All of which sharply rebutted Hartley’s portrait of Ludlow, echoed in the Title IX findings, as a manipulative intellectual bully. "That’s just absurd. He is the most tolerant, low-key guy you could ever hope to meet. His basic nature is completely live-and-let-live." When asked if Ludlow was sad and lonely (Hartley’s characterization, repeated in the report), Wilson practically snorted. "He’s one of the most social and socially adept people I’ve ever known." He loved to go out and usually paid for dinner (there was some family money). The entire time they’d known each other, he’d never asked for anything in return.
The university’s lawyers were saying that Ludlow’s buying Hartley dinners was part of a predatory pattern, a plot to exert influence over her. "I’ve never seen anything to indicate that there was any kind of manipulation there," Wilson countered. Describing herself as "crazy feminist," she went on to say that she herself had been sexually harassed — one of her professors had tried to put his tongue down her throat. She’d also been raped and had been the subject of an attempted rape. "I know what it’s like to be a subject of predation and abuse," she said. "I’m very sensitive to those issues. If Peter had a predator bone in his body, I would know it."
The faculty committee was paying close attention; Wilson seemed like someone incapable of bullshit. On the subject of Ludlow’s dating history, she was equally frank. Yes, Ludlow had dated younger women — but her own husband is 12 years younger than she is. "Does that make me a predator?" she asked. Focusing on age differences was ageist, she pointed out. Ludlow was actively pursued by women of all ages because he was charming and magnetic. "My experience is that he had to kind of be pushing women away a lot, as an internationally renowned scholar who’s like the epitome of cool."
Wilson had explained to the faculty panel that much of her own work focused on what she called "inference to the best explanation," which means, as I understood it: How do you know what happened when you yourself didn’t see it happen? This was exactly the question the faculty committee was grappling with, and Wilson took on their dilemma directly — which was where the wonderful part came.
Using her own philosophical research as the springboard, she said that Ludlow’s having had a relationship with a younger woman wasn’t something that "in an inference to the best explanation" had to be explained by his having Svengali-like power over her. The allegation that he was some kind of weird predator was simply incompatible with what she knew, so there must be an alternative plausible explanation. "What I can tell you, from my experience of Peter, is there’s no inference to the best explanation according to which what’s alleged to have happened, did, in fact, happen."
"But it’s an undisputed fact that the undergraduate student did sleep in Ludlow’s bed," one of the panelists said to Wilson, almost pleadingly.
The dismissal hearing had suddenly become an impromptu philosophy seminar, with the faculty panel turning to Wilson as the guide who might lead them out of their own epistemological wilderness, away from the forest of documents — they each had several thick binders in front of them, containing thousands of pages of photocopies — and the wasteland of the official reports.
"We can do the philosophy on this," she assured the panel. "There are two things I would say. One is pragmatic, the other is principle. Let’s say I wish Peter hadn’t done that [had an undergrad student sleep in his bed], because it was going to invite exactly the kind of rush to judgment that it did, notwithstanding that there was nothing wrong in principle with that happening." This was the pragmatic side of things, she meant.
But as far as principles, the undergrad was an adult, Wilson said. She had free will; she’d engaged in the events of the evening of her own free will — in fact, she had initiated them, according to the transcript Wilson had read. It looked to her like "the arrow of pressure was coming from her at least as much as him, but, again, I wasn’t there." She was being scrupulous about not exceeding the limits of what she called her "epistemic position." From the panelists’ rapt expressions, Wilson’s intellectual crispness must have seemed like a momentary foothold.
"But the second thing that colors my response is just — how can I put this? It’s kind of like the Kantian test, where you say, what if everyone did it? From my epistemic position, I do know that there are predators out there, but I don’t believe Peter is one of them."
"But how do you determine the intent of a relationship that happens between a faculty and a first-year graduate student?" a committee member asked. "On what basis do you determine whether the intent was predatory or romantic?" Wilson acknowledged that it was a huge question. "Part of being in an epistemic position is that we have a responsibility to consider alternative explanations, especially when someone’s life and career are on the line. It’s our responsibility to look very carefully at this kind of allegation and ask yourself: Could there be an alternative explanation?"
One panelist pressed her about the "unwelcome behavior" Wilson had described on the part of her own professor. "Isn’t the student’s view of what happened the most relevant factor in deciding when lines have been crossed?"
Like a great teacher, Wilson flipped the question 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."
At this point the ground momentarily shifted. One of the panelists said, "And in this case the students are participants."
It wasn’t clear if it was a question or a statement, but for an instant the two female students were sexual agents, too, and the university’s case against Ludlow collapsed.
Another panelist quickly countered, "It seems very clear the students feel they have been harmed. That is definitely the message that the university is presenting, at least from the interviews with the investigators: that they feel harmed."
Wilson’s solution, again, was inference to the best explanation. "What’s the best explanation of all of the data? It’s a delicate position. But, I mean — we’re aware of human nature. Sometimes a person’s memories can be distorted. There are psychological and other motivations that need to be brought to bear."
I think she was trying to remind everyone in the room, as delicately as possible, that people don’t always tell the truth, even student accusers.
She added, sympathetically, addressing the panel, "I don’t think your task is an easy one. Basically I just want to put my piece of evidence on the table, which is that I love Peter Ludlow. I’ve known him for 15 years. He’s a great person. He’s a staunch feminist. He cares about women. He supports women. He mentors them. He treated me exactly the same as any male, and all of these considerations weigh quite heavily in my mind because I’ve known him for so long and so intimately."
She was near tears, anguished about the impossibility of rescuing Ludlow from this web of shaky accusations and the phalanx of lawyers gathered to end his career. It was slightly embarrassing: There she was, humanizing the person the process was designed to demonize. But I think the professors were all a little in love with Wilson right then. She was one of us, and she’d risen to the occasion heroically, transforming the hearing into a symposium, and herself into the best sort of mentor. There were no easy platitudes about victims and survivors. She simply had such conviction in the power of thinking to solve problems that it was mesmerizing.
It probably sounds bizarre to say, given the circumstances, but it felt as if there was an erotic current in the room. It reminded me of my own student days, when the excitement of learning made me feel alive in such profoundly creative, intellectual, erotically messy ways — which were indistinguishable from one another, and no one thought it should be otherwise.
The hearings plodded on and on and were nowhere near concluding when Ludlow told me he was thinking of pulling the plug and resigning. As his faculty adviser, I advised him against it, but he didn’t foresee a positive outcome; also he was bleeding money on lawyers who were no match for the university’s, numerically or otherwise. His lead lawyer turned out to be terrible at cross-examination and squandered every opportunity to construct an alternate narrative to the university’s case. He hammered at trivial points, asked multiple-part questions, and repeated himself so often that the panelists started interrupting, telling him to move on. Everyone in the room was exasperated with him.
Whatever case Ludlow might have presented wasn’t getting made. His lawyer told me that the faculty panel refused to hear any testimony regarding the students’ credibility. There had also been an ugly exchange with the faculty panel’s counsel, who could be exceedingly unpleasant, at one point chewing Ludlow out so viciously (over whether he could switch counsel midway through the proceedings) that he was reduced nearly to tears in front of a roomful of people. I’d never seen anything like it in all my years in academe, and it’s not like academic aggression is unknown.
I’ve had a sense of self-recrimination ever since about not having stood up and objected to the lawyer’s tirade. I have this idea that you’re supposed to stand up to bullies — that’s what comes of forcing us all to read To Kill a Mockingbird as children — but I was so shaken myself, so frozen and appalled, that I didn’t. That evening, I wrote an email to the faculty panel’s chair protesting what had happened, but got no reply.
Soon after, Ludlow resigned and moved to Mexico. I think he just wanted to leave on his own terms.
Six months later, in April 2016, Ludlow reached what he called a "settlement" with Eunice Cho in the still pending back-and-forth lawsuits. Cho dropped her gender-violence suit against him. Ludlow dropped his defamation suit against her, and he paid her, as he put it to me on the phone, "zero dollars."
Along with a statement on the settlement, Ludlow released the letter Cho had sent to the faculty panel in the dismissal hearing explaining why she had declined to participate. It was an exceedingly odd letter. After reflection, Cho wrote, she’d decided that she didn’t trust Northwestern’s "ends, means, or motives," and that the university did "not now have my support in its effort to terminate Professor Ludlow." The "contentious litigation" between herself and Ludlow had become "a significant fire that has grown to engulf everyone and everything with any connection to the people or events involved."
Also, she’d had an epiphany: Northwestern hadn’t operated or conducted itself in good faith, and its "inner machinations" had been driven by a singular motive: protection and preservation of the institution at all costs. She herself needed to re-examine "this long road in which Northwestern somehow had input into my decision-making," adding that Northwestern had "opted to play both ends against the middle, and so it will now find itself alone." She asked the faculty panel to consider a "peaceful, restorative, universal resolution."
To call this letter convoluted is an understatement, since if the findings in her case had been faulty, the fault lay in Northwestern’s Title IX officer believing Cho’s story. Besides, I had a hard time grasping what Cho could possibly hold Northwestern responsible for. As far as I could see, the university had merely tried to stay in compliance with the incoherent directives on Title IX issued by the Education Department, even if that meant trying to fire a professor by using as evidence the statements of a student who’d already cast doubt on the reliability of her own statements.
I’d have liked to know how many hundreds of thousands of dollars it had cost Ludlow to get to this "resolution," but I didn’t have the heart to ask. And the costly show trial — what was the tab for that? If I’d been king of the university, I’d have taken the lawyers’ fees and other expenses and just rolled them into a severance deal — Ludlow could have lived for a year in Mexico on the catering budget alone, and hung the confidentiality agreement he’d most likely have had to sign on his tiny living-room wall.
At one point there had, in fact, been a severance offer under negotiation, which was withdrawn after students got word and marched against any settlement. Which meant that Ludlow, unlike other accused professors and students, could talk about his case with anyone he wished. His parting wave — he had nothing to lose by that point — was bestowing on me all the files from his investigation: the Title IX reports and thousands of pages of background material. It’s an unprecedented behind-the-scenes view of just how haphazard and, frankly, incompetent the kangaroo-court system that reigns on American campuses can be. Reading through it was appalling, and believe me, I’m not unjaded when it comes to institutional power.
As you’ve probably gathered, going through a Title IX investigation — though my situation was nothing compared with what others have been through (I still have a job, at least for the moment) — and learning what I’ve learned has made me a little mad and possibly a little dangerous: transformed from a harmless ironist into an aspiring whistle-blower. It’s just these sorts of unintended consequences that a more psychologically shrewd band of zealots could have predicted. High-flown terms like "due process" now spout from my cynic’s lips, as though democratic principles still matter and something should be done to save higher ed from its saviors.
At the same time, as I weigh the evidence in my own inner courtroom, I can understand why the university wanted to jettison Ludlow. Personally, I don’t think he abused his power. The problem was that he didn’t share the conception of power in vogue in academic precincts. Yes, Ludlow was guilty — though not of what the university charged him with. His crime was thinking that women over the age of consent have sexual agency, which has lately become a heretical view on campus, despite once being a crucial feminist position. Of course the community had to expel him. That’s what you do with heretics.
Still, the history of purification rituals is a pretty squalid one. Heading down this path once again requires a lot of historical amnesia from everyone involved. That college campuses should be where history goes to be forgotten is depressing on all levels, not least when it comes to the future of higher education — and freedoms of every stripe.
Laura Kipnis is a professor in the department of radio, television, and film at Northwestern University. This essay is adapted from her new book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, out this month from HarperCollins.