Here follows the second section following our article on The Freedom Project last week.
Since Laura Kipnis’ talk on Mar. 8, the controversy around the Freedom Project has continued. At her talk, Kipnis addressed the College in a lecture titled “Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (Intellectual Freedom Takes a Curtain Call)” where she discussed her experience with and criticism of Title IX policies on college campuses. After the talk, Sexual Assault Awareness for Everyone (SAAFE) released a video called “Shutting Down Bulls–t with SAAFE” that refuted the main points of Kipnis’s rhetoric.
“We felt that what she advocates for is directly antithetical to our work, which is grounded in evidence-based scholarship, research and anti-violence advocacy,” Hannah Lipstein ’17, Emily Boyk ’18 and Sarah Nwafor ’20 said in a statement from SAAFE. “We saw it as an opportunity to remind Wellesley students of our role on campus as Peer Health Educators and to counter what we saw as harmful misinformation.”
Laura Kipnis’ experience with Title IX is primarily based on the violation filed against her, of which she was eventually exonerated, by Northwestern students after she released an essay entitled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.” Afterwards, she wrote another article titled “My Title IX Inquisition” and drew upon this experience in her book “Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.” It should be noted that although Kipnis is a professor at Northwestern, she teaches primarily in media studies in the Department of Radio- TV-Film. Her academic and professional experience is not related to sexual assault education nor the history of Title IX.
Her two-hour long talk at Wellesley was attended by approximately 30 people, including 6 or 7 students, according to one participant, Caroline Walsh-King ’20. Walsh-King noted that very few students at the talk disagreed with Kipnis, who she said “mostly used anecdotal evidence and… seemed to write off the validity of statistics.” She also stated that Kipnis believed that “there has been an increase in PTSD diagnoses and sexual assault claims because people like to be part of a club or community and label themselves as victims.”
Following the event, on March 14, Kipnis posted an article on her personal Facebook page from thecollegefix.com that highlighted the video from SAAFE. In her post, she wrote “To report on my talk at Wellesley last week: I did hear some students made a video denouncing me in advance of my visit, but the students I met (had a great dinner with six students the first night) were all tough- minded and crazy smart.” In a comment on the post, Professor of Sociology Thomas Cushman wrote “I can confirm that Laura’s talk was one of the best we’ve had, and that our students are, indeed, tough-minded and crazy smart. But not the ones that made that video. Thanks, Laura for coming, it was great to have you here!”
Reports of the Facebook comment drew surprise and ire from the Wellesley community. “To publicly malign our intelligence as opposed to engaging with the content of our video is unprofessional,” Lipstein, Boyk and Nwafor said.
In an email response to the video, Professor Cushman noted that he supported the free speech of the students involved in the video and apologized for his comment. “Regrettably, I made a critical comment regarding the students who made the video,” he wrote. In a campus- wide email, he said “I would like to apologize to these students for my comment.” Cushman declined our request for an interview, referring the Wellesley community to his email about the event.
Some students argued about the content of the video. In a campus-wide email, Kristen Gasparini ’20 wrote “My primary concern is that the tone and format of the video does not promote honest, healthy and productive conversation, but rather establishes an orthodoxy that excludes different views on very debatable points.” In addition, some members of the community believed that the videos, and other opinions that contrasted Laura Kipnis and other Freedom Project talks, were stifling intellectual discourse and free speech at Wellesley.
After Professor Cushman’s apology, the faculty from the Commission on Ethnicity, Race and Equity (CERE) released a statement regarding Kipnis’ talk and its aftermath, offering recommendations for how groups should approach bringing speakers to campus in the future.
The first recommendation is to “consider whether, in [the invited speakers’] zeal for promoting debate, they might, in fact, stifle productive debate by enabling the bullying of disempowered groups.” The statement goes on to recommend that the speaker’s qualifications be considered and that faculty and administration defend students in these matters as well.
In addition, Claudia Trevor- Wright, the Assistant Director of Health Education, sent a campus-
wide email in response to Professor Cushman, emphasizing her support of SAAFE. “I am incredibly proud of the students and their work,” she wrote. President Johnson, in an email sent on Apr. 4 and titled “Free Expression at Wellesley”, also addressed the issue of free speech. She said that “disagreement is a necessary part of [addressing challenging issues], and something we should welcome rather than fear.” However, other than this email, there has not been an official response from the administration regarding the incident, especially in response to Professor Cushman’s action.
Since the event, the members of SAAFE have met with many members of the administration, including Provost Andrew Shennan. They hope that the administration will further address this issue.
“It is the responsibility of the administration to appropriately handle,” Lipstein, Boyk and Nwafor stated. “We believe that Professor Cushman’s apology did not assume responsibility for his comment in any substantive way, and we would like to see that he actually denounces his insult of our intelligence. We hope that the administration will uphold its values of integrity and respect and hold faculty accountable when they insult students.”
Lastly, SAAFE emphasized their commitment to their mission in light of the controversy around them. “To continue to frame this conversation as a controversy or feud is reductive and detracts from the important work that we do on campus. Our purpose in making the video was to provide education, and we remain committed to this goal,” Lipstein, Nwafor and Boyk explained. “We know from national and Wellesley-based data that many students on campus have been directly affected by interpersonal violence. Keeping this in mind, we hope that we can move toward conversations about violence and survivorhood that are substantive, meaningful and based in the experiences of survivors at Wellesley,” they said.