Northwestern University Found a Star Professor Violated the Sexual Harassment Code in His Treatment of a Student. Why Is…

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Feb. 23 2014 11:44 PM

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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.

Rebecca Schuman Rebecca Schuman

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

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.

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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.

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