News & Politics » Deanna Isaacs on Culture

Northwestern pulls the plug on a high-profile professor

Feeling the heat over an alleged sexual assault, the university cancels philosophy professor Peter Ludlow's classes.



If Peter Ludlow hadn't been a 55-year-old star professor at Northwestern University and his accuser hadn't been a 19-year-old NU freshman when they went to an art exhibit together two years ago, the sexual harassment lawsuit that has had Ludlow and the university in the spotlight since it was filed last month might boil down to a classic case of she says/he says.

She says he got her drunk and groped her.

He denies all that, says she propositioned him, and claims he rebuffed her.

But Ludlow, now 57, was the shiniest star in the Northwestern University philosophy department's firmament. A prolific writer and frequently quoted authority on cyberspace (who sometimes publishes under the name of his avatar, Urizenus Sklar), he was, at the time he visited a couple bars with the undergrad and then spent the night with her in his apartment, Northwestern's John Evans Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy.

So there's another dynamic in play: on the one hand, a woman too young even to legally drink alcohol (the professor claims he thought she was 22); on the other, a much older man in a position of power at an institution to which she's been entrusted.

The student (the Reader does not publish the names of victims of alleged sexual assault) says she was so upset by what Ludlow did that shortly afterward she tried to kill herself.

In an interview in her off-campus apartment last week, the student said she "made a rash decision" and jumped into Lake Michigan in the middle of the night, turning back when a passerby started yelling at her. After that, she called two of her professors and told them what had happened. Because of the suicide attempt, she was hospitalized for three days and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the lawsuit. She told me she's still being treated and has no previous record of mental illness.

The student, now a junior, said she had done well in a class Ludlow taught the previous term, was interested in his research on the ethical concerns of virtual worlds, and wanted him to be her adviser. "In no way was I a student coming on to her professor," she said.

Her lawsuit, filed February 10 against Northwestern in federal court, charges, in part, that the university deprived her of her Title IX rights by being "indifferent" to a complaint she made against Ludlow, and by not removing him from campus after its own investigation found that he had "violated [Northwestern's] policy on sexual harassment."

Since I wrote about that suit last month, Northwestern has filed its response, claiming that it conducted a "prompt and thorough investigation" that "substantiated some, but not all" of her allegations, and then imposed "corrective actions against Ludlow."

What were those corrective actions? Ludlow was denied a raise, lost his honorary status as John Evans professor (but not his tenured professorship), was prohibited from dating Northwestern students (all faculty members, as of January, are prohibited from dating undergrads), had to take sensitivity training, and was told not have any contact with the student in question and not to retaliate against her. According to Northwestern's account, after Ludlow appealed the sanctions, a six-member faculty committee reviewed and approved them without suggesting any further disciplinary action.

A February 13 press release from Ludlow's lawyer stated that "Mr. Ludlow was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit [against Northwestern] . . . or any lawsuit by [the student]. That, alone, speaks volumes about this case."

Less than two weeks later, the other shoe dropped: the student filed a second lawsuit citing the same scenario, this time alleging violations of Illinois's Gender Violence Act and naming Ludlow as the defendant.

The response to that suit, filed by Ludlow's attorney earlier this month, offers the first detailed look at his side of the story, including his claim that she stated "several times that she wanted to date him." He denies coercing her to drink and claims that she ordered her own liquor, never appeared drunk, never asked him to take her home, and refused his attempt to put her in a taxi and pay for it. The response alleges that she asked if she could stay with him and declared that she was "DTF," which "he later learned" meant "down to fuck." He claims he refused to have sex with her.

Both Ludlow and the student agree that they fell asleep atop the sheets on his bed, with their clothes on. In his response he denies all allegations of "sexual assault," and claims that when she sought him out a few days later he told her that he "could not date her."

His response also alleges that Northwestern's internal investigation, conducted by the director of NU's Sexual Harassment Prevention Office, was "flawed and one-sided." He says the university refused to interview witnesses or to consider evidence that might have supported him, including bar receipts and security video from his condo building's elevator (where the student says he groped her). He notes, however, that the university investigation did not support the student's "accusations that he touched her behind or breast."

Meanwhile, Northwestern's response to the student's initial suit, in which it claims to have done everything it was required to do and asks that the case be dismissed, elicited a reaction on campus. Faculty members posted an online petition to the board of trustees, charging that the university has suffered a "failure of judgment" and requesting changes in the school's policies. The petition quickly gathered more than 1,500 signatures (including some from NU's philosophy department), and the Associated Student Government passed a resolution supporting it. On March 4, after a threatened sit-in prompted cancellation of Ludlow's class, student protesters taped their mouths shut and marched down Sheridan Road to the dean's office, demanding, among other things, Ludlow's termination.

The dean didn't come out to meet them, but the head of the philosophy department took over Ludlow's few remaining winter-quarter classes. And last week the university let it be known that President Morton Schapiro had made a decision: when spring quarter gets under way at the end of this month, Ludlow will not be teaching. His scheduled 200-level course, Minds and Machines, has been canceled.

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