Peter Ludlow, the associate professor of philosophy at Northwestern University found to have sexually harassed two students who originally accused him of assault, resigned this week in the midst of his termination hearing before a faculty body. The news comes after several years of legal back-and-forth, and on the heels of another high-profile resignation over sexual harassment -- that of the former University of California at Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy.
“Ludlow’s actions violated university policy and are an affront to the standards and expectations that [Northwestern] has for its faculty members,” Alan Cubbage, a university spokesman, said in a statement Tuesday. “The university regrets the pain that was caused by his actions.”
Northwestern “treats sexual harassment and other types of sexual misconduct with the utmost seriousness,” Cubbage added, “and is firmly committed to the safety and security of its students, faculty and staff.”
Cubbage declined comment on what may have prompted Ludlow’s departure at this time, before the end of his hearing. It’s a somewhat surprising development, since Ludlow is likely walking away from any possibility of a settlement going forward. Ludlow has already sued the university and the graduate student for defamation, invasion of privacy and civil conspiracy.
In 2014, news broke that an undergraduate at Northwestern was suing the university for violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 in how it handled her complaint of sexual assault against Ludlow. The student asserted that Ludlow assaulted her after an evening out together at an art exhibit and several bars. After an investigation, the university found that Ludlow had violated its sexual harassment policy -- but not enough to fire him.
Northwestern enacted some sanctions, such as precluding Ludlow from a pay raise for a year, and told him to avoid social contact with students. But the alleged victim said that wasn’t enough, and accused Northwestern of “deliberate indifference and retaliation” following her report.
After details of the case were made public, including by Northwestern in an unusual statement, another student -- this time a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy -- came forward alleging that Ludlow had had nonconsensual sex with her. The graduate student first disclosed the alleged assault to Jennifer Lackey, another professor of philosophy, who reported it to the university and helped file a formal complaint.
A third-party investigator hired by the university to look into the new allegations found in 2014 that while there was insufficient evidence to support the assault claim, Ludlow still had violated Northwestern’s sexual harassment policy based on his position of power relative to the graduate student. That’s when Ludlow sued the university, the student and Lackey, and accused the university specifically of violating gender discrimination under Title IX.
In the suit, Ludlow denied the graduate student’s assault claim, saying they had engaged in a consensual relationship prior to the alleged assault. He said the third-party investigation was flawed and biased against him, in that it “failed to consider or even cite relevant evidence in [his] favor.”
Shortly after the filing, Northwestern said it was no longer considering mediation with Ludlow. Student protesters, led by another graduate student of philosophy, Kathryn Pogin, praised the move.
“At the end of the day, these cases are not about how to rearrange figures in the university budget,” Pogin told the Huffington Post at the time. “They are human beings and have a right to be treated as such.”
The suit was eventually dismissed, and Northwestern began termination proceedings against Ludlow, who has not taught since March 2014. But the hearing has been on hold, amid allegations that the graduate student’s Title IX rights were being violated throughout the process.
“With respect to the hearing currently underway, Ludlow has had the opportunity to present witnesses; [the graduate student] has not,” reads an email forwarded to the popular philosophy blog Daily Nous from someone familiar with the case. “Ludlow has had the opportunity to present evidence; [the graduate student] has not. Ludlow has had the opportunity to present character witnesses; [the graduate student] has not. Ludlow has had the opportunity to veto panel members; [the graduate student] has not. [It appears that] Ludlow has had access to a prehearing meeting; [the graduate student] has not. Ludlow has had the opportunity to have his attorney present throughout; [the graduate student] has not.”
Ludlow did not respond to a request for comment.
Lackey, the student’s adviser, declined comment on Ludlow's departure or the circumstances of his hearing.
The graduate student, who did not want her name to be used in this story, said Ludlow resigned just before he was scheduled to testify on his own behalf at the hearing. She said his departure in this manner wasn't the outcome she was hoping for, since “it's disappointing that he can to just walk away, after everything.” On the other hand, she said, “even with his resignation, there is an incredible sense of relief. I wasn't expecting that. There's just this overwhelming sense of freedom. Tomorrow, for the first time in 20 months, my day is mine. My life is mine, again. I had forgotten what that feels like, and it feels really good.”
Philosophy, like other male-dominated disciplines, has been dogged by concerns about sexual harassment in recent years, leading the American Philosophical Association to issue a letter of acknowledgment of the problem earlier this year. In contrast to the Marcy case at Berkeley, however -- in which the now former professor of astronomy was found guilty of serial harassment in a university investigation but received a warning not to repeat the behavior, inciting outrage from colleagues -- there wasn't the same kind of intense, seemingly unanimous public pressure on Ludlow to resign.
Laura Kipnis, a professor of media studies at Northwestern, for example, publicly criticized the accusations against Ludlow and the larger academic culture she felt they represented, which she described in Daily Nous as one that “misunderstands power and magnifies students’ sense of vulnerability.” Kipnis herself became the subject of a Title IX complaint related to her public comments, and many faculty members criticized Northwestern for pursuing the claims.
Nevertheless, Justin Weinberg, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina who runs Daily Nous, said Ludlow's resignation is further evidence of a positive cultural shift in philosophy.
“It shows that professors--even well-known and admired professors -- are less able to use their power, influence and perceived importance to get away with harmful behavior towards relatively vulnerable members of the profession,” he said. “His resignation was the result of many factors, including, of course, his own behavior, but also the strong support a large portion of the philosophy community provided to those at Northwestern who were taking risks to hold Ludlow accountable.”
The graduate student said it was hard to single out takeaways or lessons for the discipline from her case. But “however bad things are in our profession right now, there really are a lot of folks out there wanting to help, to make a difference,” she said. “And they will rally around you, and make a network for you, so that when everything is dark and awful, you can hold onto a glimmer of hope for what it will be like when you're on the other side.”