Title Nein

Northwestern University found that a star professor violated the sexual harassment code in his treatment of a student. Why is he still teaching?

Northwestern University professor Peter Ludlow at the International Journalism Festival in November 2011.
One of Peter Ludlow’s former students alleges that even after he was found in violation of Northwestern University’s sexual harassment policy, he wasn’t punished. In fact, he seems to be getting a new job.

Photo courtesy International Journalism Festival/Flickr

Two years ago a Northwestern University freshman filed an official complaint to the school about superstar philosophy professor Peter Ludlow. Two weeks ago, after what she describes as indifference and inaction on the part of the university, the student sued Northwestern in federal court.

According to her complaint, the student originally accused Ludlow of getting her drunk, and then kissing and groping her while she blacked out. An internal investigation by Northwestern’s Sexual Harassment Prevention Office found in the student’s favor—Ludlow had broken the school rules that protect against sexual harassment, the university’s committee found. The student hoped he would be fired, or at least disciplined. Instead, she claims, Northwestern stood by ineffectually as Ludlow threatened defamation litigation. While she spiraled into depression and attempted suicide, Ludlow continued to work as a tenured professor with full privileges. And according to the blog Leiter Reports, he’s on his way to another tenured position at Rutgers University—his fourth such position in 12 years.

At the heart of the student’s complaint is the allegation that the university violated Title IX, the law that obligates universities to investigate sexual misconduct claims in a timely fashion, and provide an environment free of retaliation against the people who make the claims. The student’s suit alleges that Northwestern acted with “deliberate indifference” by allowing Ludlow to keep teaching, and committed “retaliation” by allowing him to threaten the defamation suit. The filing asks for damages, medical costs related to the assault, and attorney’s fees—and, most importantly, for “proper remedial actions” to be taken regarding Ludlow.

That’s actually what Northwestern seemed to be planning, back when Joan E. Slavin of the Sexual Harassment Prevention Office wrote a letter to the student. Slavin promised that the Sexual Harassment Prevention Office would “work with the [dean’s] office on implementing needed corrective and remedial actions.” Yet, Slavin said, the office “would be unable to provide [the student] with details of disciplinary and corrective actions taken against Professor Ludlow.” Update, Feb. 24, 2014: According to Northwestern’s court filing in response to the students complaint, which was publicized in a press release Friday afternoon after this piece was written, the university took substantial steps: denying Ludlow  a major raise, refusing him an endowed chair, and requiring him to attend sensitivity training. But, according to the statement Ludlow’s attorney gave me, firing him was never an option. “To our knowledge,” she writes, “there has never been any recommendation” that Ludlow be terminated.  

Given the certainty in Slavin’s letter, this seems difficult to believe—and appears to be seriously dicey at a school subject to Title IX. It’s not often that details of a sexual harassment case of this nature are even made public. For example, in the recent harassment kerfuffle at the University of Colorado–Boulder’s philosophy department, the accusations remained frustratingly murky. The details in the Northwestern report, by contrast, are disturbingly, vividly specific—as are the university’s findings. And yet, though Northwestern claims it took several substantial measures to discipline Ludlow, according to the student’s complaint, the office never informed her of this, and she continued to encounter him on campus–and to feel threatened with retaliation.*

Drawn from both the suit and Slavin’s findings, here are the pertinent details of the allegations, which Ludlow vehemently denies (and which remain unproven in a court of law). The student took Ludlow’s Philosophy of Cyberspace course in fall 2011. The following February, after the course ended, she sent him an email about an art event in downtown Chicago that she thought would be relevant to his research. He suggested they attend together. They met at his office, and he gave her a ride.

During the course of the evening, Ludlow plied her with alcohol, she attests in the lawsuit, even though she was 19. After she got drunk, she claims he made numerous sexual advances, which she resisted—asking, numerous times, to be driven back to school—until she became incapacitated, the filing alleges. At that point, she would have been incapable of consent, according to Northwestern policy. Instead of driving her home, the suit claims, Ludlow took her to his apartment, where she lost consciousness and later woke up in his bed, with his arms around her.* The Sexual Harassment Prevention Office found all of of these allegations credible.

Later that week the student told her story to university authorities—first to a history professor, then to a journalism professor, and finally to Slavin. That’s when the internal investigation was launched, with its damning findings that Ludlow had broken the university’s rules.

I’ve had several off-the-record email conversations with the student—a direct, articulate young woman who is now a junior—and I can see why Slavin believed her. After interviewing both the student and Ludlow, Slavin found that he engaged in “unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances” toward the student, and that “due to heavy consumption of alcohol purchased” for the student by him, she was “unable to offer meaningful consent to this physical touching,” according to the university’s report. (The statement I received from Ludlow’s attorney, Kristin Case, counters that it was the student who “propositioned” Ludlow, who then “refused her advances.” Case declined to comment further on Ludlow’s behalf; Ludlow only communicates with the press through his attorney.)

As his lawyer’s statement makes clear, Ludlow has never been convicted of a crime or found liable in a civil proceeding. Still, Northwestern’s findings raise some pressing questions.

First, why wasn’t Ludlow’s punishment made clearer to the student? And really, though said punishment was severe, why wasn’t termination an option?* The Sexual Harassment Prevention Office found him in violation of the school’s policy. Why was nothing substantial done as a result of this finding? Was the university influenced by the fact that Ludlow threatened to sue—and does it continue to be, since he has sued multiple media outlets over their reporting on the case?

Second, why is the philosophy program at Rutgers apparently taking Ludlow on? Does Rutgers miss former employee Colin McGinn that much? Maybe not, actually. “This was not brought to our attention by either the candidate or his employer,” a Rutgers spokesman told the Daily Northwestern. That’s an unconscionable omission, though not particularly surprising. On the rare occasions that professors with tenure enter the academic job market, they usually don’t tell their current employers, so Northwestern might not have had a chance to give a heads-up. Now that Rutgers knows, will the philosophy department still bring him to campus? Will the university worry that it will be next to be sued if this offer is revoked?

Third, why are influential voices in the philosophy community giving Ludlow a pass? University of Chicago professor Brian Leiter, for example, posted on his influential philosophy blog this statement from Ludlow’s attorney, with no corresponding statement from the student’s lawyer, and is cautioning his readers not to jump to conclusions. Sure, that’s always good advice, but what about the public findings of Slavin’s office? Update, Feb. 24, 2014: Brian Leiter, who emailed Slate in response to this story, says that he has not given Ludlow a pass. He writes:

The plaintiff’s attorney did not send me a statement, Ludlow’s attorney did.  (I did not even know who the plaintiff was at this time, since she had not been named in the news reports.)  If the plaintiff’s attorney had sent me a statement, I would have posted it, but for obvious reasons, the plaintiff’s attorney probably concluded that reaching an audience of philosophers was not as important for her.  (Ms. Schuman never bothered to inquire with me about any of this.)  More importantly, and unnoted by Ms. Schuman, I had linked repeatedly and described in detail news articles reporting the plaintiff’s account of Ludlow’s conduct:  the plaintiff’s allegations had been extensively covered on my blog at the point at which Ludlow’s attorney sent me her statement.  I also provided a detailed description of the allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint and, when Northwestern’s answer finally appeared (after the posts Ms. Schuman links to, but before her article appeared), I provided a detailed account of Northwestern’s admissions.

Leiter continues: “At the time I correctly cautioned readers ‘not to jump to conclusions’ (in response to a false statement that Ludlow had ‘sexually assaulted’ the student), the only account of the ‘public findings of Slavin’s office’ were contained in the plaintiff’s complaint, which I had noted at the time.” And he adds: “That sexual harassment is a serious problem in professional philosophy is consistent with responsible and thorough coverage of the allegations in the Title IX lawsuit against Northwestern, which I have provided.”

Here’s the thing. Providing a remedy for the kind of infractions Ludlow is accused of—unwelcome kissing and touching, getting an underage woman drunk and then failing to respect her wishes—is precisely the purpose of Title IX. Maybe he didn’t do it, but that’s not what the university’s own investigation found. No one goes to jail for this stuff, but that doesn’t mean they should get off with a financial slap on the wrist.* Title IX is meant to complement the criminal justice system. It’s meant to add another layer of protection for students and others in the university.

So what is particularly galling about this case—and why I hope the Northwestern suit continues to receive widespread media attention—is that the internal investigation did what it was supposed to do. Slavin appears to have acted with with due diligence when she found in favor of the student—and yet, something spooked the university into backing off. The public deserves to know what, and universities the country over need to realize that they cannot get away with shirking their Title IX responsibilities. 

*Correction, Feb. 24, 2014: This article originally misstated that Northwestern did not in any way discipline Ludlow after the school found he had violated its sexual harassment code in his treatment of a student. In fact, Northwestern says, it denied Ludlow  a major raise, refused him an endowed chair, and required him to attend sensitivity training. Ludlow was not fired, however, and he continued to teach with full privileges. This article also misstated that the student’s complaint in court, and the Sexual Harassment Prevention Office’s findings, included the allegation that the student’s blouse was unbuttoned. In fact, the complaint does not make that allegation, and the Sexual Harassment Prevention Office did not address it, finding only that the student was in Ludlow’s bed with his arms around her.