Was anyone burned at the stake? Probably not a witch trial, then

I’m never going to be a fan of a story of a hearing that is titled Eyewitness to a Title IX Witch Trial — it’s loaded with language that is prejudicial and ignores the facts, from the title onward. “Witch trial,” really? It’s the story of a philosophy professor, Peter Ludlow, who was accused of taking advantage of a student. The story states the facts quite clearly, but then goes on to assume the professor was innocent. Here’s what we absolutely know, because both sides agree to this account.

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.

I’m going to say right there that Ludlow was in the wrong. Getting drunk with a student? Bringing her back to your home? Sharing a bed, even if sex didn’t happen? Damned poor judgment on Ludlow’s part. I cannot imagine ever doing anything like that — a student, at an event on my invitation, who was getting drunk…that’s where you stop the situation cold, not hours later when you’re both passed out in bed. This is an action by a professor that warrants discipline.

Then more problems are exposed.

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.

Good grief. He had a sexual relationship with a grad student in his department? This faculty member spells trouble all around. This author is also trouble. The fact that the accuser was over the age of consent says nothing about whether the relationship was consensual — when a woman turns 21 it does not mean she has suddenly agreed to everything. You can be 25, 50, or 80 and still refuse consent to sex.

A surprisingly large chunk of this story is also focused on a character witness who was brought in to testify about how wonderful and charming Ludlow is, sentiments the author clearly shares.

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.”

Yes? So? A psychopath can be witty and charming, that doesn’t mean they are innocent of ever committing any wickedness. I can well believe that Ludlow had a perfectly appropriate, reasonable professional relationship with this witness, and even that the witness had never heard a word of complaint about Ludlow — I’ve been in that same position where I’d been stunned to learn people I thought well of were perfidious scumbags in other relationships. It happens. It also actually supports the complaint by Hartley that she hadn’t been in a consensual relationship: she’d been snowed by a charismatic charmer, as Ludlow apparently is.

The story takes a weird turn with the author’s response to the witnesses testimony.

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.

WTF? This is a hearing, which she already characterized as a witch trial, and now she’s talking about an “erotic current”? Jesus. I guarantee you the lawyers didn’t feel that way on either side, nor did the defendant who was trying to protect his career, nor would any of his accusers. This was a hearing, a terrible tedious committee meeting with significant consequences. It sounds like someone was enamored with Ludlow.

By the way, this was serious business. The hearing stretched over a month, with lawyers and peers reviewing the evidence. Here’s how it’s characterized:

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).

How would the author prefer this be handled? The accusations were serious, the impact on the defendant substantial, and there was a massive investment in addressing them formally and seriously. It was not the kind of thing where it would be appropriate to flippantly dismiss either side — the young woman was distressed enough to have attempted suicide, the professor was at risk of losing his tenured position and his career. Damn right it was going to be handled with due attention to all the details. It was actually overkill in giving due process to a faculty member who had essentially admitted to gross impropriety with at least a couple of students, and the conclusion was essentially foregone once he’d admitted to the behavior, even if he does believe that he has sexual privileges with students because he’s erudite and scholarly. That’s not a “purification ritual”, that’s granting the professor full opportunity to justify his actions.

He lost, too. The author even admits, in a roundabout way, that he’s guilty.

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.

Goddamn. This is not about the age of consent. It’s not about a 60 year old man having having consensual relationships with younger women. It’s about a power differential, and how someone in a position of greater power can abuse it. He was not a heretic, just a professor who took advantage of students. That’s an already difficult situation, and he made it worse by stupidly getting a student drunk and traumatizing them.

He got a fair and perhaps even too deferential hearing, and his poorly thought-out behavior led to his own resignation.


  1. Siobhan says

    Yeah, erotic is definitely what comes to mind when I recall learning about bacteriophages.

  2. A Masked Avenger says

    tl;dr: Reporter listens to testimony about a rape, and finds herself getting aroused. Thinks the victim must have enjoyed experiencing it as much as the reporter enjoyed hearing about it. Concludes that the professor is guilty — of bringing teh sexay.

  3. weylguy says

    Wow — you spend up to ten years going through the BS/MS/PhD cycle, then several years as a starving postdoc, then years sweating for tenure, and then you throw it all away.

    Does the punishment fit the stupidity? Yes, in this day and age it does. I can’t know whether the professor was intentionally exercising any “power” over his student or whether things just got out of hand. And I can’t know if the student thought she was just hanging out with her professor or if she saw an opportunity to take advantage of the situation for profit or revenge. But it doesn’t matter — men in positions of power and influence had better learn to act responsibly.

    I feel sorry for the guy, but in the end I agree fully with Myers.

  4. says

    A professorship includes duties relating to supervising students in a responsible and professional way. If you can’t do that, you don’t get to keep your job and you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. Good riddance.

  5. screechymonkey says

    Ugh. I’m entirely open to the idea that universities don’t handle Title IX complaints well, that the proceedings aren’t fair or productive, etc. But that case has not been made here. The whole article by Laura Kipnis reads like a bad appellate brief. She offers arguments that seem to contradict the premises on which she relies, and her whole theme is that the panel should have adopted the reasoning of Ludlow’s character witness.

    She concedes that due process was observed, giving the accused the right to counsel and the right to cross-examine witnesses, that the proceedings were thorough and detailed and recorded to preserve any appeal, and the persons hearing the case were neutral. And… Kipnis seems to think this supports her claim of a witch trial? (Imagine the opposite set of facts — that Ludlow was denied counsel, and that the hearing was a brief appearance before the title IX officer who had already rendered a decision. What would Kipnis say then? Heads I win, tails you lose.)

    Kipnis notes that the university’s Title IX officer did not accept all of the complainant’s allegations as true. Yet somehow this is touted as further evidence that the professor was railroaded? (Again, if the university had accepted every bit of the complainant’s testimony as true, no doubt Kipnis would cite this as evidence of obvious bias.)

    But no, the panel was supposed to take the word of Ludlow’s pal, Professor Wilson, because if even a feminist supports Ludlow, then he must be ok! A witness who offers this gem of reasoning:

    “I’m very sensitive to those issues. If Peter had a predator bone in his body, I would know it.”

    Wilson would just know, you see. She’s very sensitive to these issues, because she was a victim of harassment once. We know, because she says she was, and you should believe people who claim to have been harassed, unless they’re accusing Professor Ludlow, of course. Then, the words of two accusers should be tossed aside in favor of someone who was a thousand miles away at the time, but whose spidey-sense says Ludlow is totes okay.

    Kipnis goes on to praise the supposedly brilliant lecture on epistemology that Wilson offered the panel. (Unclear how “being harassed gave me superpowers” fits into that.) Because, you see, the panel should have just ignored what Title IX, university regulations, and the university’s legal counsel say is the appropriate evidentiary standard, and go with what the accused’s friend says is the standard.

    And here’s the kicker — Kipnis paints this dramatic presentation of Wilson’s testimony, and suggests that the panel was deeply affected by it, but then leaves out the kicker…

    Ludlow didn’t wait for a verdict. He resigned voluntarily. He was totes gonna win, though, because that panel was practically in tears at Wilson’s brilliant lecture! But I guess he decided, nah, screw it.

    Oh, and to top it all off, Kipnis makes snide remarks about one of the complainant’s comments in a letter to the university declining to participate because she doesn’t trust the university’s motives and thinks they’re handling it wrong.

    You see, questioning the way the school handles this process is ok for Kipnis, but when anyone else does it, it’s obvious nonsense and proof that she’s a lying liar who lies.

    I say again: ugh.

  6. militantagnostic says

    From the character witness

    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.

    Of course Ludlow didn’t try to exploit her – he recognized she was another man’s property.

    As for character witnessing, base on my limited acquaintance with him, I could give a good character witness for former Reform/Alliance/Conservative MP Grant Hill. It wouldn’t change the fact that he is a bigoted homophobic shitsack.

  7. zoniedude says

    I wish you had clarified that having a relationship with a student is not the problem. The problem arises if the student is one of his students, in which case consent cannot be given because of the power relationship. The issue isn’t really students versus old guy: the issue is the power relationship in which by definition there cannot be consent.

  8. hotspurphd says

    The comments here by PZ and everyone else, here and on a recent thread are all from the same point of view. There is another. I notice that PZ doesn’t mention that the grad student exchanged thousands of emails, “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. “( No consent you say?not a fair presentation, PZ.Also the department, University didn’t have a policy against grad students dating professors. You didn’t mention that either. Way to stack the deck for those who didn’t read the article by Kipnis. You all seem to think that any relationship like this is necessarily abusive. It ain’t. I’ve seen it. I am not all all sure all relationships where there is a power differential should be prohibited. Northwestern didn’t have a policy against grad students and profs dating. Shall we prohibit tenured profs from dating assistant profs., from the cleaning staff? Maybe the abuses are so bad that we need all this regulation,prohibition. Maybe not. I don’t know.
    I repeat what I wrote in a recent thread:

    2 April 2017 at 2:31 am
    I remember in the 70s at my university in the Psychology Department grad students and professors had relationships frequently, lived together, got married and divorced just like everybody else. Then the American Psychological Association said we couldn’t do that any more and it stopped. One of my professors,then 45,married a grad student 22 years younger and they are still together 35 years later. I married a clinical supervisor in the medical school 15 years older and we are still together 40 years later. I was 35, she was 50, a full professor. Was a she a predator? A guy in the department who had affairs with several of the students said to me that life is messy anyway and he and the students should be left alone to work things out. (Not suggesting there be no regulation or abuses allowed, wzrd1). I don’t disagree for the most part with the comments on this thread but am aware of opportunities that would be missed because of the restrictions. So glad I was not prohibited by the APA at that time but it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference. I fell in love and so did she. No one abused any power.
    Also I had a brief affair with the a graduate student I was supervising. Again no power problems but there was the potential for abuse. Should we remove as much potential as possible and rule out some good things happening?
    PZ, just because you can’t imagine getting back n loved with a student doesn’t it’s always a bad thing. I did it with an undergrad as a grad student and everything was fine. She had been in a course I taught.

    I think there can be consent in a power relationship. The grad student believed that I would never use it against her. And she was right. It was called n sent freely given. And could have been rescinded at any time. That the kind of guy I am and it was clear to her.

    Sent from my iPad

  9. wzrd1 says

    @hotspurphd #9, policies that speak to ethical treatment of colleagues and students speak to this, so there is no policy needed.
    Just as I’m pretty damned sure that the university does not have a policy against murder and dismemberment of the corpse to avoid prosecution, but they’d fire the professor for violating state and federal laws, to wit; murder, abuse of a corpse and destruction of evidence.

    I watches similar things happen in the military, where a man worked his butt off for decades to achieve his station, only to abuse that station by fraternizing with his subordinates in an unseemly manner, resulting in a torpedo striking the spine of his career and meteoric fall.

  10. chrislawson says

    hotspurphd: you’ve shown the exact problem in your own words: “Also I had a brief affair with the a graduate student I was supervising. Again no power problems but there was the potential for abuse.”

    You clearly identify that there was potential for abuse. And yes, where there is clear potential for abuse, the university should prohibit it. This is not difficult to understand. It’s the same reason we expect researchers to declare financial interests in their work, judges to recuse themselves from cases where they have personal involvement and doctors not to sleep with their patients (and conversely, not to be the treating doctor for their sexual partners).

    You say that some good relationships have come out of prof-student romances, but this is also true of those situations I mentioned above. Just because a researcher neglects to disclose a financial interest doesn’t automatically mean their research will be substandard or fraudulent. A judge could still do an excellent job presiding over a case they had a personal interest in. And a doctor, especially in a remote community, may have no choice but to be the primary physician for a sexual partner.

    I saw one of my medical colleagues start a relationship with a patient. But she handled it properly — she told the medical board of her interest, and they worked out a plan with her that involved making sure the medical relationship was not compromising already (she had only treated him for minor medical problems), ending the medical relationship (which she had already), not dating him for several months, and only then allowing the relationship to proceed. Or, to put it in brief, both my colleague and the medical board made damn sure there was no conflict of interest before the relationship was allowed to continue.

    The fact that Northwestern had not made a specific rule does not make it OK to date students there. My own university (UQ) has the following statement in its policy on personal relationships:

    Personal relationships should not interfere with, be seen to interfere with, or influence practices in the workplace. The University expects all staff to avoid and minimise the likelihood of conflicts arising due to personal relationships.

    Personal relationships must not interfere with decisions or processes associated with the following:

    selection and promotion of staff
    confirmation of appointment
    performance review
    staff development opportunities
    authorisation of payments
    assessment of students
    selection of students for admission.

    The policy document is not perfect IMHO, but at least it makes it very, very clear that even a perception of inappropriateness is bad enough for the university to be against it.

  11. chris61 says

    I’ve never been involved in a professor-student relationship but I’ve certainly seen a number of them over my years in academia (and seen the results of a number of others) and I too think that the rules have started to go a bit too far. I don’t know enough about this particular case to comment but in a case where the professor has no power to influence a student’s grades/assessments in any way then personally I don’t see the problem. Are we supposed to retroactively label every professor married to a former student a sexual harasser?

  12. says

    The fact that such relationships can sometimes work out is utterly beside the point. We don’t fine people for speeding because of all the times nobody gets hurt.

    If you want to date students, don’t be a professor.

  13. anbheal says

    @13 LykeX — I’d admit for some context and distance, organizationally. I went to a college and grad school in a vast university system, spread over two (well, at the periphery, four)cities. If a 43-year-old adjutant professor at the Law School at some reception or party met a 34-year-old post-doc at the School of Public Health, which is actually two cities away, they have no professional or academic relationship, they never see each other in the hallways or at staff meetings, then fine. One is a professor at the university, the other a student, but there are no conflicts of interest or power relationships in play. They are simply involved at the same octopus of an organization that has 25,000 students and 15,000 employees, one of the most powerful organizations in town, hard to escape it. It would be akin to saying nobody who’s Director level at the CIA should date anybody who’s only an assistant manager at the IRS.

    And then there’s falling in love, but behaving properly about it. My thesis advisor was a top-flight geneticist, but in the Biological Anthropology wing of the Anthropology department. It became apparent rather quickly that she and the head of the department, a distinguished Englishman about 20 years her senior, had become more than colleagues, nor did either try to hide it. She immediately resigned and took a job at Dana Farber (kinda screwed me, for a thesis advisor, as there was no other geneticist in the department). They were married a few months later. I think they handled it with discretion and decorum, no matter what the rules in 1983 might have been. There was also no hint that the Department Head had ever engaged in serial skirt-chasing, like Harold Bloom or James Watson.

    So I think the codicil offered by @11 Chris Lawson is more or less appropriate: don’t shit where you eat.

  14. chris61 says


    And then there’s falling in love, but behaving properly about it.

    Just curious anbheal. Did you notice when you described your anecdote that “behaving properly about it” involved the junior (and female) partner in the relationship resigning and finding a new job rather than the senior male partner?

    I mean, I agree with you that under circumstances like that someone has to leave but does anyone know of a case in which the senior male colleague resigned and the junior female colleague stayed?

  15. David Marjanović says

    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.

    Whoa. That must be synesthesia.

  16. hotspurphd says

    10wzrd1 and 11 chrislawson
    I agree with most of what you have said and have changed my opinion on how these relationships should be handled. Thanks for the enlightening posts.