On Ludlow, Northwestern, and the Ethics of Teaching


Here are two articles from the Tribune and The Daily Northwestern discussing how Ludlow will no longer be teaching this semester, after students planned a walk-out of his class.

Also, here is a link to a Facebook event for the original walkout. It shows 500+ students “attending”, which I am guessing is a mixture of people who were planning on going and people who wanted to show support for the endeavor. You can read a statement of their protest there.

From that protest statement:

“We are upset that the University allows a professor who has been found in violation of this policy to i) continue his employment at Northwestern and ii) be in contact with undergraduate students, graduate students, and TAs.”

You can compare that to this quote from the Daily Northwestern article:

“[The administration] understood why people would be uncomfortable taking classes with Professor Ludlow,” Stephens [a student] said. “But they were also saying that’s not the view of all students. Some students want to take this particular class.”


Contra the viewpoint of the administration as expressed by Stephens in the quote above, this walk-out does not seem to be about individual students feeling “uncomfortable” taking a class with Ludlow.  Rather, as they put it in their protest statement, students are upset that the university’s would choose to have Ludlow retain his full teaching and mentoring duties with students even after he was found in violation of the sexual harassment policy.

With that in mind, I would venture that, as to the assessment of this walk-out, the good that comes from a large handful of students (let’s say 500) expressing that they want to feel safe with their teachers and mentors might outweigh, in the grand scheme of things, the good that comes from other students getting to take a really cool-sounding class that they are interested in.  Framing this as some students who didn’t want to take the class preventing all students from taking it, is, if not false, at least not the whole truth. The students walking out don’t need to represent the judgment of all students. They represent enough students who seriously doubt whether their university is acceptably prioritizing their safety and well-being.

I want to stress this point, because I think it can be somewhat easy to dismiss this reaction from students as them being overly sensitive or going overboard. I myself am still a student, so I can say with very fresh memory—being a student, while one of the best experiences of my life, it is also one of the most vulnerable experiences of my life. That applies to both graduate and undergraduate education, though differently in some aspects.  In both, I am putting my academic self-concept, my personal growth, and a whole lot of intellectual and interpersonal trust in my teachers and my mentors.  I am giving over parts of myself to them in the hope that I will emerge a better, wiser, and more knowledgeable person. The realization that I cannot trust a particular teacher or mentor to have my well-being in mind—to realize that they might not care whether I emerge from our interactions as a better, wiser, or more knowledgeable person—to worry whether they might use my eagerness and my trust for some end that I do not endorse—is a rather devastating experience. That has happened to me three times in my career as a student, and I can recall each incident from high school onwards with vivid clarity. (And none of them ever reached the level of fearing sexual advances.) Perhaps I was hit extra hard by these experiences because I so highly value my academic self-concept; but, I would imagine that in a university setting, I am probably not so much of an outlier.

I find it weird and worrisome that philosophy discusses the ethics of being a doctor, a businessperson, a scientist, and an engineer, but not the ethics of being a teacher. For a group of people who so highly value reflection and introspection, who are perfectly fine using “I” in our papers, we philosophers bizarrely do not seem that collectively interested in looking at ourselves as teachers and what it means to be an intellectual mentor to someone—which is sort of the backbone of our profession, yes?
*I may have to close comments later today, as I will be traveling, but I will leave them open as long as I can find the time to moderate.


Moderators’ note: We lost track of this comment thread. We apologize for that. It is important to us that our readers regard Feminist Philosophers as a safe place to read and comment. Our principal tool in maintaining that safe space is our “be nice” rule. That rule was unfortunately violated in this comment thread, and we didn’t catch it in time. We have closed comments, and they will remain closed. However, we have decided not to delete the thread because we have received feedback that many of our readers have found the discussion there useful. We hope this is the right decision. Moderating is difficult; we are doing our best. We renew our determination to apply the “be nice” rule in future so that FP remains, as far as possible, a safe space for discussion.

55 thoughts on “On Ludlow, Northwestern, and the Ethics of Teaching

  1. Very interesting on the whole, but why do you say that we philosophers do not discuss “the ethics of being a teacher”? It comes up in my classes every year because of the work of Nel Noddings, and the journal _Teaching Philosophy_ has some really great contributors who reflect on the ethics of being a mentor and a trustee in this way.

  2. I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again, we’re in a fiduciary relationship with our students and so should be held to a *higher* standard of conduct than the general public (not in fiduciary employment relationships). It seems to me that we think we should get away with things that people would be *easily* fired for in non-academic employment contexts. If a board of inquiry (or committee, or whatever) found someone to have violated a harassment policy, it’s likely, not *rare*, that they’d be fired for it.

  3. I appreciate this post, particularly given Leiter’s apparent support of the notion that the student protest constitutes a blow for academic freedom. I’d say that there’s a big difference between protesting a philosopher’s scholarly views and protesting his or her having sexually harassed a student.

  4. Contrary to what Leiter says – and this post tacitly accepts – there’s little evidence that students are making the claim that everyone who violates a sexual harassment policy should be fired. It’s a (minimally) possible reading of what the students are saying, but it’s the most uncharitable one imaginable. There’s far more that has gone on here than a mere sexual harassment investigation, and students are reacting to a much larger set of events (e.g., lawsuits, statements from lawyers, the university’s role, Title IX, and so on). Beyond that, Leiter’s use of the term “vigilante justice” is offensive, and I’m sure readers will have little trouble figuring out why. Leiter’s little displays on this case are getting more and more bizarre.

  5. Reply to Elizabeth Sperry: my correspondent described the protests that drove Ludlow from the classroom as implicating academic freedom because the latter includes the freedom to teach.

    Reply to Matt Drabek: Leiter did not say what you falsely claim I say in your first sentence, above. If you review the Facebook site of the student protestors, to which I linked, they made clear their intent to continue to disrupt the class, even after the first one was cancelled. They then celebrated when they succeeded in getting Ludlow out of the classroom for the remainder of the term. This is “vigilante justice” in the obvious sense that it secured an outcome through an extrajudicial process that the judicial process of the university did not secure. If you think my commenting on threats to academic freedom and due process, even for miscreants, constitute “little displays” that are “bizarre,” then this says more about you than me.

  6. Leiter:

    In your post on March 4, you state: “The students’ position appears to be that someone found guilty of violating the Univeristy’s sexual harassment policy should simply be fired.”

    Looks pretty clear to me, champ.

  7. Mr. Drabek: I apologize for forgetting that line from the other day–that was a reference to things said on the FB page. Whether that is or is not the view of most of the protesters does not matter for my post today. Please revise your tone.

  8. Please do not tell people on my posts to change their tone. If commenters feel they are not being shown charity or minimal respect, you can say so. But we are adults and should be able to easily see past tone to the content. We address content here, not tone.

    Also, @beta – I say we philosophers collectively do not address academic ethics. I say that because it is not a named topic in applied ethics, nor is it a popular topic in philosophy scholarship.

  9. My tone was certainly negative, and normally I don’t use a tone like that. The tone results from some wrongs I believe Brian Leiter has done against me on his own blog. But those issues aren’t relevant here. I won’t be using a tone that negative in the future, but I don’t apologize for using it above. That’s all I’ve got to say about that.

  10. The editors of this blog regularly police matters of tone, and I do not object to their doing so. I have otherwise entirely addressed the content in a tone appropriate to the usual expectations on this blog. I am glad Mr. Drabek acknowledges that he has other motives, though I did him no wrong, but probably saved him some unnecessary legal problems (not vis-à-vis me).

  11. the phrasing “should he be driven from the classroom because of this debate?” is interesting. This neatly excises all of the content of what Ludlow did and cites as the cause of the protest “debate”. If one were instead to say “should he be driven from the classroom for buying drinks for an underage student, taking her to his apartment, and then wrapping his body around her unconscious one while she was passed out”

    the answer might suggest itself. It might also be a little more difficult to maintain the tone of outrage! about! academic! freedom! over the whole thing.

  12. sorry, I’m referencing the post about “vigilante justice” over at Leiter Reports in the above, for those who haven’t been jumping back and forth between sites.

  13. Kathleen Lowrey: I accept your alternative formulation, with one pertinent addendum: he was sanctioned for the gross misconduct described and the sanction did not include removal from the classroom. Thus, the question is should students be able to drive him from the classroom nonetheless given the wrongdoing the University itself acknowledges, and which you fairly describe. I continue to believe, for reasons of due process and academic freedom, that the answer is ‘no.’

  14. We address tone for the sake of addressing respect, civility, and charity. I recognize it may be too simplistic to contrast tone with content as I did above, but this is a blog rooted in feminism. The Tone Argument is not welcome here, in any guise. If the issue is about appropriate amounts of charity or respect, that can be on the table. But it’s not okay to tell someone to change their tone here, even if some somewhat politely. The request itself is a sidestepping of the more central issue.

    Furthermore, as moderator and conversation starter, I am making this stipulation.

  15. Stacey Goguen — thanks for rehearsing the “Tone Argument” argument. Still hasn’t been heard everywhere, evidently.

    Brian Leiter: I wonder, then, if you would answer these two questions. First, is your point that whatever penalty the university assigned should be accepted? What about a case where students were protesting a penalty handed out to a philosophy professor for some sort of misconduct that they felt to be too harsh? Would you also feel obliged to object on due process grounds?

    Or, second, is your point that they are protesting in the wrong place? Ie, that they should be standing around outside university HR offices rather than in a classroom? This seems to me rather like the “tone” argument (noted above): i.e., oh, “I *would* be sympathetic / supportive / what have you, if not for the tone. If not for the place. If not for the way they aren’t doing it quite as they ought. So rather than manifesting any support for the content of what they are up to, I’ll make known my objections to how they are up to it. In fact I’ll use my prestige, my platform, my voice to insist on the latter bit”.

    In which case, hey, fair enough. Though you might want to re-read King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

  16. A small thought about Rachel’s comment #6: while I largely agree, there may be an important difference between academic employment and employment in other sectors that makes dismissal a more serious sanction for academics. It is much harder for an academic fired for sexual misconduct to find new employment. This is partly because of our long, non-continuous hiring cycle (once a year between December and March), partly because it’s a small community where word spreads fast, and partly because jobs are so scarce. At the very least, a fired professor would almost certainly have to relocate to find new employment, which may not even possible for family reasons.

    Maybe someone whose misconduct is this serious shouldn’t be able to find another teaching job, in order to protect students. I’m not sure. But if the punishment is only meant to be retributive or corrective it’s worth considering that this punishment in this context—firing a professor whose cause for termination will quickly become common knowledge—is likely to be a career-killer and life-uprooter in a way that it wouldn’t be for, say, a lawyer or an accountant.

  17. Kathleen Lowrey: My point was that student protests that drive a teacher from the classroom raise due process and academic freedom concerns. I can’t imagine why students would drive a philosophy professor from the classroom to protest harshness of the penalty. I did not raise any concern about “tone” with respect to the student protests.

  18. Students are not trying to stop Ludlow from teaching because of his beliefs, rather his (alleged) violent actions (which he was not convicted of in court, but the university said he did it after their investigation) against a student.

    Thus, this has nothing to do with his academic freedom.

    That Brian has chosen to focus on a minor and non-existent issue of academic freedom instead of supporting the students in their attempts to rid themsleves of a sexist sends the wrong message to the field of philosophy and -I suspect- stems from sexist attitudes. At least it is consistent with sexism.

    As an analogy, imagine George Zimmerman was a professor. Should students have protested him and stopped him from teaching? Or would you raise the same cries of academic freedom? Imagine a white, conservative professor defended the imagined Prof. Zimmerman’s right to return to his class after killing -though not convicted of murder- a black student.

  19. Anon 19: One would think that that would incentivize academics NOT to engage in shitty behavior, though, wouldn’t it? Ludlow sexually harassed the student on his own accord. Tough shit for him if that results in destroying his career in academic philosophy employment (I’m sure he could have a fine career elsewhere, maybe even in academic administration, who knows).

  20. Brian: How did the protests “drive” Ludlow from the classroom? It was a peaceful, silent sit in. They weren’t stopping him from ignoring them and teaching anyway.

  21. Sorry, that should read “rid themselves of a sexual attacker” not just “rid themselves of a sexist.”

  22. Rachel: yes, it’s certainly a very strong incentive for academics to behave better, and it probably would be much more effective than merely rescinding titles and withholding pay-raises. I didn’t mean to question the punishment’s efficacy.

  23. If a university allows someone it has found to be a sexual predator to continue to teach, why is that any different from the Catholic Church allowing a sexual predator to continue to minister? Why should we want the professor to find another teaching job any more than we would want the priest to find another church?

  24. Kristian: there is no extant conception of academic freedom that does not include the freedom to teach. However, I agree that the academic freedom issue is more minor compared to the due process issue and the precedent established by permitting student mobs to make it impossible for faculty to teach when students feel the punishment is not proportional to the found wrongdoing. Ludlow did not do what Zimmerman did; if he did, we wouldn’t need to have this discussion, as he would have been removed from the classroom by the university. Your baseless accusation of sexism explains why so few care to comment on these issues under their own name.

    Rachel: the plan, as stated on the Facebook page, was to repeatedly sit-in and disrupt the class until he was out of the classroom. When he was withdrawn from the classroom, the students declared victory.

  25. Brian: Right. Sit in, quietly. How is that a breach of academic freedom, even if that’s broadly construed to cover teaching/learning? He could still teach if he wanted to under those conditions, even though it would be distracting.

    The simple answer is that it’s not. Some of us teach in non-ideal conditions all the time. We make it work. He could have. He was not “forced out” of the classroom by the sit ins themselves.

    I consider his being removed from teaching a victory. Why is the students’ viewing it that way evidence for your view?

    Also, as someone who is allegedly very concerned with accurate language, you really failed in labeling this “vigilante justice.”

    I think Virginia has this exactly right.

  26. First, I’m glad that this blog has finally chosen to discuss this case in more detail and permit (moderated) comments. Thank you.

    Second, I agree with the points many have made above that this is not about academic freedom (Ludlow’s behavior, not his beliefs are at issue here). There are what can fairly be called due process issues, in that the university has decided on a penalty for Ludlow’s behavior and students are acting outside the university judicial system to protest that penalty as too lax and in fact to unofficially implement their preferred penalty. However, you have to assess this within the general framework of civil disobedience. An assessment of the morality of civil disobedience can’t stop with the fact that the protestors are acting outside of the bounds of the official dispute settlement mechanism. You have to ask whether those official mechanisms are just and have led to a fair outcome. So an assessment of the student’s actions here is not possible without also asking whether Northwestern wronged its students by permitting Ludlow to remain in a position of authority over them.

    Finally, I think it is noteworthy and relevant that Ludlow’s legal defense relies on continuing to attack the student who he is accused of molesting. From the public comments of his lawyer, Ludlow’s defense is apparently that the student is a liar and a spurned lover who is retaliating against him for rejecting her romantic advances. This is a serious charge that has the effect of humiliating and discrediting her. Of course, if that charge is *true* than Ludlow may perhaps be justified in making it publicly (although one could still argue that making it so publicly is irresponsible). But if it’s not true then it’s another assault on the woman, who is still a Northwestern student and a member of the community that he is responsible to as a teacher. In any case, the legal defense strategy here appears inflamatory and well calculated to escalate the situation. There has certainly been no evidence of any attempt to reach out to the university community and either explain, assess, or apologize for whatever the behavior it was that led the university to conclude he was at fault.

  27. How was this a failure of due process? Civil disobedience and student protest are not failures of due process. Ludlow was “punished” by the university. Students are concerned about his presence on campus and in the classroom, and they have *every right* to be. They’re exercising their rights. They haven’t enacted any vigilante justice. Stop being hyperbolic and inflammatory.

  28. Brian,

    It is a thought experiment. Suppose Zimmerman was a prof., was found not guilty on all counts -on grounds of self-defense- and was sanctioned by his school, but allowed to continue to teach.

    In that case, protesting him so that he couldn’t teach would not be a violation of his academic freedom. Rather, it would be the students attempting to get a dangerous teacher, whom had acted violently towards a member of an oppressed minority, out of their environment.

    Would you -hypothetically- support Zimmerman’s right to teach? If someone at, say, The Weekly Standard argued that he did have the right and the protestors were exercising “vigilante” justice, wouldn’t you suspect the author of racism? Certainly, such an editorial is consistent with racism and conibutes to a more racist world. (Please note this is a thought experiment, You can’t just say that it wouldn’t happen. As every freshman student knows.)

    So it is with your defense of Ludlow’s right to teach even in spite of a violent action that his school has sanctioned him for but which a court has not convicted him. He does not have a right to teach after acting violently towards members of an oppressed minority. Rather, they have a right to go to school in a place that is free of such employees.

    Finally, I find it laughable that you think it is fear of sexism as an allegation that keeps people from responding non-anonymously. The problem is that philosophy has become a vindictive and reputation mongering business. Have you noticed how few people want to state their views on almost any topic at your site because they fear some future hiring committee will use it against them. That is the sad state we are in. So far from Socrates who said what he thought fearlessly, not to get or keep a job or a reputation.

  29. Rachel: have you taught for weeks and weeks with student protestors not enrolled in your class who get up and leave every time the class meets? Even if they were quiet, it would be very difficult and undoubtedly disruptive. But you also consider his being removed from teaching a “victory,” so we are obviously quite far apart on this issue. What will happen in Spring Quarter? Will Ludlow be effectively removed from the classroom by vigilante justice, rather than university process?

    “Disgusted philosopher”: Ludlow’s response to the allegations has been very aggressive, much more so than I would have anticipated given the university findings. His position appears to be that the victim is not a victim, and that he has been “set up.” If this response turns out to have no basis in fact, then Ludlow will warrant even more opprobrium than he has already received. Sometimes an aggressive response like this is pure litigation strategy designed to cover up wrong-doing. Although I thought the punishment, given the university findings, was too mild (I agree, I guess, with the students about this), I would revise my view about “vigilante” sanctions if it turned out that the litigation posture he has adopted is pure fiction. But I also suspect the university will revise its posture as well under those circumstances.

  30. Sorry for the typos in my previous comment.

    Also, to underline how aggressive Ludlow’s public strategy has been, I’m not even sure that it started as a legal defense. The accusation that the student is a liar and spurned lover who propositioned him was made even before Ludlow was personally named in any lawsuit. (In fact his lawyer initially claimed the fact that he was not named personally in any case was evidence that the student was lying. That left her with little choice but to follow up by suing him.)

  31. Brian: Have I? No. Could I? Yeah, I’d take that bet. Maybe you wouldn’t.

    What will NU do for the following term? I have no idea. They’ve got a serious problem to deal with. I think Ludlow has lost his right to teach.

    I think it’s apt to compare Ludlow to a priest who sexually harasses parishioners. People are often quite happy to have them out of ministering for such a breach of trust. What Ludlow did is perhaps forgivable, on some notion of forgiveness, but not viz. breaching a fiduciary obligation to his students. We de-license other professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, for serious breaches of conduct. Why not in academia?

  32. Brian Leiter, since you’re here, I think you should know that myself and a number of other women in the graduate student community found your latest post nothing short of sickening. The actions of the students at Northwestern were inspiring, and they deserve praise for supporting a member of their community and mobilizing so quickly to protect themselves and their peers.

    The fact that you are most concerned with academic freedom and due process in the face of this likely sexual assault is indicative of your extraordinary level of privilege as a person who will never need such protections from abusive and dangerous mentors.

    Please consider the effect that your blog has on the vulnerable members of the philosophical community. It is so demoralizing for us to see that these are the issues relating to this case that you — as a representative of the professional elite — deem most worthy of concern.

  33. “Current Student”: if you speak truly for yourself and for others, then you should leave academia, since you are a danger to a university community, to the rule of law, and to the freedom of thought. You lack all perspective and are clearly unable to even evaluate evidence, including the evidence of what has been on my blog over the last several months.

  34. Current student: Please don’t quit. Don’t listen to Brian. His kind is aging and will be gone soon enough. Better people are around and coming up. Surround yourself with good people and just ignore the jerks.

  35. Current student: your comment seemed utterly appropriate to me. I am stunned by Brian’s reply.

  36. Anon: you have just defamed me, per se, by making false statements of fact. If this doesn’t disappear quickly, I will have your identity within the week and you will hear from my lawyer.

  37. Brian: Your comment to a graduate student was utterly deplorable. I can’t believe that you just did that. Well, I suppose I can believe it. But it is utterly unacceptable for you to do that. Shame on you.

  38. I agree with Jeremy and Current Student. Current Student’s message was thoughtful and worthy of a considerate reply, not the overly aggressive, insulting response Brian gave it.

  39. I think you’re probably doing yourself harm here, Brian. As I’m sure you know libel is hard to win here in the US and it’s mostly used for silencing purposes. The threat could give the appearance of being a bully. Also, your comment to the Current Student, way out of line.

  40. I would normally agree with the basic sentiment the original post expresses, but the comments muddle things a lot. For instance I do not understand the one from “current student?” Who asked for “protection” from Ludlow? And how are students “protecting themselves?”

  41. Someone who makes false statements of fact about professional competence should be silenced. If s/he is an American, you are right, s/he may get away with it. But s/he may not be. In any case, his/her post violates the commenting rules here and I assume will be removed.

  42. No one said anything about your competence, Brian. And if anyone’s comments violated the commenting policy, it was your response to the student.

  43. I am so glad to see so much of what’s been written here. I wish more of the coverage elsewhere had been along these lines, focussing of our roles as shepherds, stewards, and servants, expressing sympathy, regret, and anger for the way this woman was apparently treated. And it is hard for me to fathom that concerns about procedure and academic freedom (which are themselves serious issues) could swamp concerns about the mistreatment of this woman, especially if we think that this woman is just one of many our field mistreats like this.

    Prof Leiter, I have no doubt that you are deeply concerned with the health of the field, and I’d surely believe that you’ve been a regular advocate for women in the field, both publicly and privately. That said, every single conversation I’ve had about the Ludlow affair has involved some incredulity that one of the field’s most significant news organs has seemed insensitive and misfocused. It could be that all of these people are wrong, that all of them are misguided, and that you’re in the right. But every conversation has been along these lines, and I’m at a Leiter-ranked department, so these are pretty good philosophers.

    So I’d ask that you take very seriously the last paragraph of Current Student’s comment. It reflects my concerns, it seems to reflect the concerns of many on here, and it seems to reflect the expressed concerns of the philosophers in my department.

  44. Brian, I am also a current graduate student and I agree wholeheartedly with Current Student. I find your response to her comment as well as your overall behavior on this thread and elsewhere to be utterly deplorable. You are behaving like a bully and there is genuinely no cause for it.

    That time you threatened the anonymous commenter with legal action was actually pretty funny. I’ll give you that. I’m honestly half expecting you to turn out to be someone else performing elaborate Brian Leiter parody.

  45. Wow. Throwing around threats of libel lawsuits on the comment section of a blog. Now I’ve really seen it all. Any attorney who brought a libel claim on the basis of that comment should be sanctioned for wasting the court’s time.

    Current student, I thought your comment was eloquent and well put.

  46. Current student: As a fellow graduate student, I would like to thank you for your comment and echo the sentiment, especially the last paragraph. Well said.

  47. I am closing this thread for the time being. My sincerest apologies to ‘Current Student’ that we didn’t pay closer attention to this thread.

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