Why Banning Laura Kipnis Would Betray Wellesley's Academic Mission

Six professors at the college insist that campus speakers like the feminist intellectual will cause students “damage” or “injury.”

Wellesley College / PRNewsPhoto

This week at Wellesley College, six professors who serve on the Commission on Race, Ethnicity, and Equity, a committee at the highly selective liberal arts school, sent an email to fellow faculty members urging a radical shift in campus culture. Under the status quo, the Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis, a feminist cultural critic, was invited to speak on campus, despite her controversial view that academia’s approach to regulating sexual conduct is doing harm to female students.

The Wellesley professors find that status quo too permissive.

So they urged new norms that would eschew invitations to speakers like Kipnis. Their premise: “There is no doubt that the speakers in question impose on the liberty of students, staff, and faculty.” Knowing many will be skeptical of that premise, I present their argument at length, in their words, in the order that they appear.

Their email first expressed particular concern for Wellesley students, “who often feel the injury most acutely and invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments.” In their telling, “students object in order to affirm their humanity,” and  lest you think otherwise, “this work is not optional; students feel they would be unable to carry out their responsibilities as students without standing up for themselves.”

The expressed feelings of students are not to be questioned, for who is qualified to know their minds?

...we object to the notion that onlookers who are part of the faculty or administration are qualified to adjudicate the harm described by students, especially when so many students have come forward. When dozens of students tell us they are in distress as a result of a speaker’s words, we must take these complaints at face value.

Yet failing to anticipate their feelings may constitute negligence:

What is especially disturbing about this pattern of harm is that in many cases, the damage could have been avoided. The speakers who appeared on campus presented ideas that they had published, and those who hosted the speakers could certainly anticipate that these ideas would be painful to significant portions of the Wellesley community.

Before Kipnis spoke, for example, three Wellesley students posted a video, “Shutting Down Bullshit,” taking issue with her ideas.* Then a Wellesley professor disparaged the video. “In light of these events,” the email states, “we recommend the following: First, those who invite speakers to campus should consider whether, in their zeal for promoting debate, they might, in fact, stifle productive debate by enabling the bullying of disempowered groups … Second, standards of respect and rigor must remain paramount when considering whether a speaker is actually qualified for the platform granted by an invitation to Wellesley.”

Here’s how they flesh out who is “actually qualified”:

In the case of an academic speaker, we ask that the Wellesley host not only consider whether the speaker holds credentials, but whether the presenter has standing in his/her/their discipline. This is not a matter of ideological bias. Pseudoscience suggesting that men are more naturally equipped to excel in STEM fields than women, for example, has no place at Wellesley. Similar arguments pertaining to race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and other identity markers are equally inappropriate.

Finally, they write, “faculty and administrators should step up in defense of themselves and all members of the Wellesley community. The responsibility to defend the disempowered does not rest solely with students, and the injuries suffered by students, faculty, and staff are not contained within the specific identity group in question; they ripple throughout our community and prevent Wellesley from living out its mission.” That is a nearly comprehensive account of their arguments.

But those arguments fail. While they certainly do not reflect the beliefs of most faculty members or students on American campuses, they deserve to be challenged, to prevent their spread. Adopting them would do grave harm to Wellesley and its students, as one might expect of a framework literally inspired by an impulse to shut down a feminist intellectual.

In fact, I would wager that none of the signatories would urge this same approach if they were teaching at a different institution where their world views did not enjoy a place of privilege.

Consider the implications of their approach.

Most curiously, their email denounces the hypothesis that men are more equipped than women to excel in STEM fields—and “similar arguments pertaining to race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and other identity markers”—only to embrace the implicit assumption that women (the identity marker germane to the Kipnis controversy) are somehow unequipped to hear critiques of Title IX, so much so that a talk given by a dissident feminist will predictably cause “distress,” “damage,” and “injury.”

This is pernicious nonsense that smacks of long discredited sexist stereotypes. Wellesley women are formidable. They can get through a Laura Kipnis lecture unharmed.

Second, it is preposterous to imply that Kipnis’s ideas are an attack on the humanity of students, requiring them to rebut her “in order to affirm their humanity,” as if she has ever argued that any subset of Wellesley women are subhuman. That formulation adds unearned rhetorical heft; it is totally inaccurate.

What’s more, the notion that college students are “injured” by the work of formulating rebuttals to arguments that strike them as wrongheaded or offensive is backwards. Such work is the surest way to acquire a superlatively empowering skill.

Such work is core to a residential college’s learning model.

And so, the faculty members err again when declaring that such work is “not optional.” Every day, on college campuses throughout the United States, speakers assert beliefs or arguments that many students regard as deeply wrongheaded.

For better or worse, the vast majority opt to forgo any further action.

A reality so obvious can only be lost on faculty members and students who so rarely encounter views on campus with which they profoundly disagree that they can conceive of having time to rebut them all. Talk to an orthodox Christian or Jew or a devout Muslim at a secular college, or a conservative or libertarian at an Ivy League college, or a radical feminist at Hillsdale College or Liberty University. You’ll find that even the few who speak up in defense of their values or identity with relative frequency nevertheless opt to let many things pass in the course of four years, including scores if not hundreds of speeches that they simply do not attend.

The canard such a commonplace is not possible can only overburden Wellesley’s most over-scrupulous young minds. Let them abide some things they cannot change.

As to the premise that a student’s feeling of distress must not be questioned and that ideas likely to cause distress to students should be preemptively kept off campus, I find it hard to believe the signatories would adhere to their own standards. Surely Hillary Clinton, the most famous Wellesley alumna, has the capacity, on her occasional visits to her alma mater, to say some things that cause distress to, say, an international student from a Muslim country, who might object to Clinton’s support for drone strikes, sanctions, repressive dictators, and military invasions. If some students preemptively claimed distress would that be reason to never ask her back?

The New York Times Magazine highlighted a sensitive subject in its 2014 article “When Women Become Men at Wellesley.” Should the campus avoid inviting any outside speakers who would distress students on either side of that debate? By the logic of the email, those students would have no option but to do the injurious work of formulating counterarguments, robbing them of their liberty itself.

As for the advice that Wellesley should consider not only whether a speaker holds academic “credentials,” but also “whether the presenter has standing in his/her/their discipline,” the signatories to the letter have unwittingly illustrated a core incoherence in their project—even while conceiving of themselves as advocating on behalf of “the relatively disempowered,” they insist, without seeing a contradiction, on a protocol that inherently advantages the relatively powerful.

The signatories are, in fact, confident that they inhabit a system where credentials and professional standing reliably accrue to the sorts of speakers that they find enlightening—even as the unenlightened sort is relatively disempowered within academia.

Credentials and standing do not reliably accrue to the marginalized!

What’s more, if they applied their standard, they would have to refrain from extending a speaking invitation to, say, a feminist economist whose radical ideas put her far out of the mainstream among her largely male colleagues, causing her to lack “standing in her discipline.” But it is hard to imagine the signatories applying their suggested standard in that case. It is hard to believe they really believe in it beyond its perceived utility for excluding the sorts of speakers they dislike.

In bygone eras, many college students have expressed genuine, deeply held distress at ideas as varied as the equality of races, humankind’s evolution from apes, the wisdom of extending the franchise to women, the injustice of punishing gay sex, and the propriety of allowing gays to marry (a position that Wellesley’s most famous alumna came to many decades after graduating, and some years after Dick Cheney).

Today, six Wellesley faculty members are urging that their students be kept from ideas on the basis of finding them distressful, a standard that, applied with sufficient success, would have delayed or prevented all of the aforementioned advances. That context underscores the hubristic arrogance in their framework: They write as if, uniquely in history, the feelings of their students, shaped by their guidance, will prove so infallible that they can abandon the enlightenment idea that it is folly to close oneself to rebuttals as if certain one is right.

The framework of the signatories, who misunderstand the nature of hierarchy and power, imposes high risks indeed on the marginalized, with precious few benefits in return. It is exceedingly rare for a faction to be so marginalized as to be imperiled by mere speech, yet simultaneously powerful enough to have it suppressed; even as it is very common for the powerful to leverage any framework that restricts speech, often in a manner that adds to the repression of the disempowered.

Faculty at a women’s college ought to know this better than most. Surveying the equality of women, or lack thereof, across eras and countries, for all of recorded history, peaks of empowerment occur under liberal, post-enlightenment regimes, where formerly radical ideas, deeply offensive to many, could be asserted by feminist trailblazers with nothing powerful on their side save superior strength of reason. So long as that tradition persists, Wellesley’s women will excel, even if a misguided faction of their professors push a disempowering, anti-intellectual message: that events with speakers like Kipnis can “prevent Wellesley from living out its mission.”

On the contrary, they are indispensable to its mission.

*This article originally stated that the student video was posted after Laura Kipnis spoke. We regret the error.