Last week, a Northwestern University junior filed a lawsuit against the prestigious Chicago-area school, alleging that the administration failed to act after she accused a professor of sexually harassing her two years ago. School administrators maintain that Northwestern did respond adequately to the student’s initial complaints. But the professor remains employed at the university — and now, his colleagues are pressuring Northwestern to do a better job at enforcing policies related to sexual violence.
The student charges that one of the university’s star professors, Peter Ludlow, gave her alcohol and groped her on a trip to an art show in downtown Chicago during her first year of college. She alleges that he ignored her request to be taken back to campus — saying he wanted to “party together” — and instead took her back to his apartment, where she eventually blacked out. She woke up in Ludlow’s bed.
The school’s director of sexual harassment prevention launched an investigation into the incident, and Northwestern concluded that Ludlow had engaged in “unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances” toward the student. But Ludlow didn’t get fired. In her new lawsuit, the student alleges that she struggled with “stress and trauma” that eventually led her to attempt suicide, all while the professor appeared to have suffered no consequences for his actions.
Northwestern officials say that Ludlow was, in fact, disciplined. He faced sanctions imposed by a six-person faculty committee, including being denied a major raise and an endowed chair. He was also required to attend sensitivity training. But Ludow’s attorney confirmed to Slate that his termination was never really on the table.
That’s not good enough for other faculty and staff at Northwestern, who launched a petition pressuring the school’s Board of Trustees to update its sexual violence policies and make its disciplinary actions more transparent.
“We believe Northwestern has compiled a record of poor choices,” the faculty write. “When internal findings document misconduct, especially misconduct consistent with violation of state or federal laws, Northwestern should prioritize campus safety and stand firmly on the side of those who have the least power and privilege, understanding that this may risk lawsuits from aggrieved parties.”
The text of the petition lists a series of steps that the administration could take to ensure its compliance with Title IX and the Clery Act, the federal laws that require universities to adequately respond to sexual assault cases. It acknowledges that Northwestern is hardly the only school struggling with these issues; indeed, college campuses across the country have been accused of failing to protect victims in an attempt to sweep rape under the rug.
In the comments, faculty members at Northwestern — as well as college students and professors at other institutions — explain why they felt obligated to take up this cause.
“I am a Northwestern faculty member in History and Asian American Studies. In my 15 years here, two of my female undergraduate students have been victimized by male faculty. We need to better protect our students,” one supporter writes.
“I am a PhD student in Political Science and a teaching assistant. Universities should be places of safety and should always act in ways to protect students and enhance their lives. I am concerned that the University’s response was aimed at protecting itself rather than its students,” another explains.
“I am a faculty member concerned about the well-being of our community,” another simply states.
Just 12 percent of Americans think that colleges are doing a good job addressing sexual assault. This issue has increasingly captured national headlines as college activists continue to demand progress. Last month, President Obama announced a new White House Task Force to deliver concrete policy recommendations to move forward in this area. And lawmakers have begun to pressure the U.S. Department of Education to crack down on universities that consistently fail to adequately respond to rape cases on campus.