Feb 26 5:26 PM

Northwestern alumnae share stories of sexual harassment following lawsuit

Northwestern University seal.
Sergio Goncalves/Flickr


Northwestern University was rocked two weeks ago when a student filed a federal Title IX lawsuit, asserting that the university had mishandled her sexual harassment complaint against a professor in 2012. Since the lawsuit was filed, students, professors and alumni have spoken out against Northwestern’s sexual violence policies and demanded updates.

The university denies that it committed Title IX violations. Northwestern said it punished the professor appropriately based on the findings of its investigation.

A petition launched by Northwestern faculty and staff asking the board of trustees to amend its policies on sexual assault has garnered nearly 1000 signatures.  In the comments of the petition, some Northwestern staff shared their reasons for joining the effort.

One comment reads, “I am a Northwestern faculty member in History and Asian American Studies. In my 15 years here, two of my female undergraduate students have been victimized by male faculty. We need to better protect our students.”

The Title IX suit also sparked a discussion among Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism alumni. The Stream obtained records of the alumni group’s email list discussing the events. Some former Medill students came forward with stories of their own about how the university responded to their assertions of sexual violence.

The stories below are reprinted with the permission of the alumnae.

Aubrey Blanche, Medill Class of 2012, shared her story of reporting a rape, three years after it had occurred: 

"I can't speak for everyone's experience of course, but when I reported being raped (3 years after the fact) to university officials, they were generally receptive. Now, because the perpetrator had graduated AND my report was outside the statute of limitations for prosecution (and there was no physical evidence), they were likely incentivized to be nice to me...I was no threat to their reputation or national ranking. They did make me take a 6 month leave and upon return was required to file regular check-ups with a counselor and psychiatrist….

…Anyway, I've always loved Northwestern. But if things happened the way this young woman says they did, I sincerely hope that Northwestern gets put through the wringer in a very big way. It would be an incredible signal to victims of a crime that are mostly invisible." 

Blanche was asked by another alumna on the group email list to elaborate on what Northwestern required of her in order to return to classes. She replied:

"I received a fax while I was in the hospital being treated for PTSD that I would not be allowed back into classes without the sign-off of the CAPS psychiatrist (not my treating psychiatrist).

I was also told that because I had sought medical treatment at a hospital for "mental health issues" that I would require "special permission" to resume classes rather than take both Fall and Winter quarters off. I ultimately chose to not seek special permission, because I couldn't deal with my recovery and the re-admittance process and classes at the same time.

I can very easily say that the time off ultimately benefitted me, as I was able to really get control of my PTSD. But it felt very much like re-victimization at the time. I felt like I was given little to no choice."

An alumna from the class of 2003, who asked to remain anonymous, shared this story of being shamed when she approached a professor about an assault and threats of further sexual violence from a fellow student:

"I was assaulted by another student. The student said "I am sick and tired of these uptight Medill girls." He then threatened to go after a friend of mine also in the intro classes.

I told a female professor because I was scared for other students and was having trouble concentrating in class because this student was in my classes.

What happened next was most appalling. That female professor led a symposium on how "boys will be boys" and how we female students in journalism should not dress a certain way. And that we need to watch how WE were behaving in front of our male colleagues. I was mortified. I had told several female students what had happened because I feared for their safety. Now everyone knew that the symposium was held because apparently I was a "slut" and should have known better.

I was told that I could go before a group of peers to see if they believed me and then perhaps have the student kicked out of school, but that they would likely not believe me.

I asked for counseling. I went to one session, but the counselor said they did not have ongoing openings for me and that I would have to pay for outside counseling if I wanted it. This was not an option, as I could not afford it.

Ultimately I let Medill sweep the whole thing under the rug because I was worried that if I caused a big stink it would affect my future chances at a career in journalism. I regret that."

Courtenay Edelhart, Medill class of 1989, described her conflicted feelings about the Title IX lawsuit and its potential impact on student-professor relationships:

"I have mixed feelings about this. I had a professor at NU who later became a friend. He was a respectful mentor and I benefited greatly from that relationship, even though he was an older man and I was a young undergrad. He never did anything inappropriate like buy me drinks or put his hands on me. When we spent time outside of class it was in a group with other people, not one-on-one, so there was no opportunity for any funny business. At least not without witnesses. I would hate to see rules become so draconian that HEALTHY and APPROPRIATE interaction outside class is stifled.

But I guess that's a price we should be willing to pay to prevent situations like what's alleged in the Ludlow case. There is no way in hell a grown man should be taking an under-aged girl he has grading authority over to a bar. Even if nothing happened beyond that, he should be fired for that alone. Buying alcohol for a minor is a crime. Don't even get me started on the teacher-student power dynamic there. The whole thing is very troubling. Sadly, NU isn't alone in this. The response to allegations of rape and sexual harassment on campuses across the country has been woefully inadequate."

Peter Ludlow, the professor who is the subject of the Title IX lawsuit, is being considered for a new position at Rutgers University as head of the philosophy department.

Hiba Akhtar, a graduate student at Rutgers University, told The Stream in an email of planned student protests against the appointment:

"We're protesting this appointment because students everywhere have the right to learn and thrive in an educational setting where their safety isn't threatened. I recently had a friend tell me she was a victim of sexual assault by the head of an organization who was a mentor to her. That is the role of an educator. Tenured professors are the pillars of their institutions- they are who students go to for inspiration and encouragement- and therefore, they are entrusted with a tremendous amount of power. For a professor to be accused of sexual assault against one student threatens the safety of all students. And if we students aren't in solidarity with one another- across campuses, across disciplines and fields of study- we aren't upholding our commitment to the knowledge we're here to learn- and to our role as the shapers of our society."

The Stream reached out to Northwestern administrators to comment on the lawsuit and the stories of Medill alumnae being shared on the group email list. Alan K. Cubbage, Northwestern’s Vice President of University Relations, declined to comment beyond the university’s past statement on the lawsuit.

How should Northwestern University respond to these allegations? Leave us your thoughts in the comments below. 

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