With mouths taped shut they marched.
Nearly one hundred Northwestern University students, all descending on the classroom of Professor Peter Ludlow Tuesday with one mission: to protest his continued employment two years after he allegedly sexually assaulted a freshman. The students were resolute but by no means solemn. Undeterred by the crippling polar vortex that's left heaps of snow lying unceremoniously at every turn.
Before the sit-in, which was to take place in Ludlow’s classroom, a well-lit lecture hall in the basement of the University’s Harris Hall, the professor canceled the “Philosophy of Psychology” class, preemptively refusing to face the scrutiny of the Northwestern community. The event proceeded as planned in the professor’s absence, the group of protesting students—a diverse mix of sexual orientations, genders, survivors, supporters, and majors—gathered in his room bouncing ideas off of each other as to how to rectify the larger systemic problem of university administrations’ responses to sexual assaults.
“There is a problem, not only on this campus, but as a society as a whole, that we tend to victim blame,” junior Laura Whittenburg said to the crowd. She fortuitously became one of the de facto leaders of Tuesday’s procession after organizing a forum to discuss the issue Monday night. “All of that talk has no place here. It has no place anywhere. Victim blaming is never the fault of the person. There’s nothing you can say or do that makes you an acceptable target.”
Whittenburg, along with junior Jasmine Stephens, proctored the hastily organized discussion requesting that members of the audience discuss potential opportunities for policy change with one another. Individual voices broke out above the din suggesting that the participants in the protest tape their mouths shut to represent their role as silent, supportive witnesses. Students adorned their clothing and lips with small pieces of masking tape, passing the roll around like a loaf of bread shared at a feast. Others triumphantly belted potential slogans for the burgeoning movement: “We are Northwestern, we could do better,” was one that was scribbled on the blackboard by Stephens in the small classroom.
The principal organizers of the sit-in had galvanized support for a petition to the university’s Board of Trustees requesting that an independent entity be established to oversee Northwestern’s handling of sexual harassment and abuse cases, that information from these cases be made publicly available, and that individuals who have been found guilty of committing these acts not be “passed on” to other universities.
The Title IX Coordinating Committee, which includes Dean of Students Todd Adams, issued a response to the petition in a campus wide email this morning but neglected to make any changes to Ludlow’s employment status at the university. An unidentified source informed Whittenburg that a substitute teacher would be taking over Ludlow’s classes hours after the protest, an allegation that has not yet been verified.
Above and beyond, the unequivocal validity of requesting that the university fire Ludlow, the students view the situation as severely lacking transparency from the administration. After the sexual assault victim in question filed a federal lawsuit on February 10, the administration announced that it was handling her allegations seriously. When a 2012 internal investigation by the university’s sexual harassment prevention office found Ludlow in direct violation of Northwestern’s sexual harassment policy, determining that he had “engaged in unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances,” the administration denied Ludlow a pay raise for the 2012-13 academic year, prohibited him from contacting the plaintiff, told him not to engage in one-on-one social interactions with undergrads and revoked his appointment to an endowed professor position.* Yes, the student had woken up drunk in his bed with his arms wrapped around her, and yes she had allegedly attempted suicide just days later. But did Ludlow actually grope her, as she claims? No one could be sure.
In the midst of heightening pressure from the student body, Northwestern is seemingly dragging its feet to ameliorate the situation. Bob Rowley, the university’s Director of Media Relations declined to comment in the wake of Ludlow’s canceled class. The head of Northwestern’s philosophy department did not respond to a request for comment, neither did Ludlow himself.
But Stephens and Whittenburg quite literally brought the fight to the administration’s doorstep Tuesday, leading the group of protesting students from Ludlow’s classroom through Northwestern’s recognizable arch and up to the doorstep of the dean of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.
As a heterogeneous mix of university press and larger media outlets gathered in the driveway of the dean’s office— a homely and house-like brick structure—chants of “No More Victims” broke out of the slowly freezing mouths. After a brief period of confusion during which Stephens and Whittenburg entered the office to discuss the next course of action, Al Cubbage the university’s Vice President of Media Relations emerged to make a statement. He said the dean would give a select group of students the opportunity to speak with her; a decision he claimed would prevent the clamoring ears of media outside Northwestern from hearing.
“I want to assure you that the university does care and is committed to the issues you're raising,” Cubbage said to the quiet storm of students.
But the rhetoric does not suffice for a movement that is putting its foot down.
“I'm hoping that this movement will send a message to NU's administration that it needs to prioritize the well-being of its students,” said senior Monte Alex Nelson.
Despite the short attention span of college students and the even shorter one of media outlets, the conversation is by no means slowing down. NUSpeaks was recently created to provide an online forum for the anonymous discussion of sexual violence. Another organization on campus, Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault, recently released a video featuring statements from students in support of survivors. And after Tuesday’s events, members of the student body plan to coordinate continued protests with students at Rutgers University, where Ludlow may be considered for a position, as well as discussing their proposals at an upcoming Board of Trustees meeting.
Sexual assaults happen on college campuses every day, a drastic situation made all the more present by Ludlow’s ongoing legal battle as well as a staggering set of federal complaints at UC Berkeley. And until and unless, this is an ubiquitously acknowledged and discussed fact, one which is addressed by faculty and students alike, there can be no change for this systemic and pervasive plague.
A battle to oust a professor is not indicative of a blanketed attack against the university as a whole, but rather a concentrated effort to affect tangible change. A simple recognition that people care enough about each other to demand that our very well-being and safety be protected; something that is so inherently an aspect of human nature that it is almost absurd to have to constantly discuss its importance.
“We’re proud of what we have here,” Stephens said as the chorus of synchronized clapping and cheers ended. “We just want to make it a safer community.”
It’s the sense of pride in an institution that makes the wounds cut deeper when it seems to fail us. But, even through taped mouths, there will be no more silence.
Correction: The previous sentence was rewritten after original publish for clarity.