The Agonist

This article describes several witch hunts in the academic philosophy profession over the last several years, conducted by soi-disant “social justice” activists. Resembling the recent #MeToo witch hunts starting in 2017, these purges began approximately seven years ago, around 2012. They are led by militant political activists: “self-righteous moralizing and vindictive internet mobs in the discipline,” as Professor Timothy Williamson of Oxford has aptly described them.

If universities cannot “be trusted to observe basic principles of fairness and due process,” then they, and students and faculty and citizens, will be much the worse for it. It may be asking too much for universities to be exemplars of integrity, but we cannot allow them to remain so compromised.

Professor Laura Kipnis’s book Unwanted Advances (2017) is an important expose of the irrational difficulties that many people working in academe now face. Professor Barnett, a former philosophy professor at Colorado, whose saga is recorded in the book, is one of those people. A graduate student of Barnett's was accused by a female student of “sexual assault.” This claim proved to be false, as established by multiple witnesses, and ironically, the accuser had been the one engaged in sexual misconduct with multiple men on that drunken evening. Still, as often happens in these cases, the false accuser was aided by local third-party feminist agitators. And despite the man’s innocence, Colorado’s secret Title IX kangaroo court found in the accuser’s favor and expelled Barnett’s student.

Perturbed by this injustice, Barnett assembled a dossier of witness accounts and sent it to the panel, hoping they would reconsider. Instead, they punished him for non-existent “retaliation” and proceeded to pay the false accuser female student $825,000—quite a sum for having made outrageous accusations! (“Retaliation” is Title IX terminology for telling the truth, based on evidence.) Then, in 2014, he was put through a complicated Title IX process. He was eventually pushed out of Colorado by means of a settlement.

Next, consider the pathetic witch hunt of Professor Brian Leiter, a respected scholar of legal philosophy and Continental Philosophy at The University of Chicago. For about sixteen years Leiter has run a professional blog, Leiter Reports, which is read by many in the field. In addition, for about twenty years he has edited The Philosophical Gourmet Report, using experts in various fields to assess the quality of academic philosophy graduate programs. Combative in argument and adamant in his political views, Leiter is generally a force for good in the field, supporting academic freedom, even for political opponents and unpopular opinions. He stands up for the “little guy” against both institutional abuse and social mobbing abuse.

In mid-2014, Professor Leiter was involved in some spats online about statistics concerning job hiring and placement in the philosophy profession, based on statistics collected by a philosophy/psychology academic, Professor Carolyn Dicey Jennings. A few months earlier, in February 2014, Leiter had spoken out in fairly moderate but critical terms about the “vigilante justice” in operation against Ludlow at Northwestern. He had also published a short statement I wrote in March 2014, about my situation—more on that later.

In response to these largely inconsequential spats about placement and prestige of academic programs, Professor Carrie Jenkins, a philosophy academic at the University of British Columbia in Canada, made a public announcement that she wouldn’t treat certain people as “normal members of the profession.” This was a passive-aggressive reference to Leiter, who in good Nietzschean humor emailed her a sarcastic reply, suggesting she might chase him around philosophy conferences with a “baseball bat.” He also called her a “sanctimonious arsehole.” The response of this “Senior Research Chair” in Canada was to collapse into a puddle of narcissistic self-pity and victimhood, all because of a sarcastic private email reply to her public provocation. Jenkins promptly retaliated, thumping Leiter publicly with a figurative baseball bat. Behind the scenes, she recruited a mob of social justice allies to attack him. In September 2014, this culminated in the online publication of a “September Statement”: “Professor Jenkins has been targeted by Professor Brian Leiter (University of Chicago) with derogatory and intimidating remarks.” Signed by hundreds of social justice warriors, the document expresses outrage at Leiter’s temerity in writing a sarcastic private email in reply to Jenkins’ public provocation. There were the usual demands for “action.” The terrible Brian Leiter, it was said, should be removed from his editorship of the Philosophical Gourmet Report.

Afterward Leiter took some kind of defamation action against Jenkins and her husband. I am unsure how that turned out. Leiter, anyway, has written a number of accounts of those events from 2014 on his blog, which are available for the curious to read. For example: “What really happened three years ago (fall 2014), a recap.”

We come now to Professor Peter Ludlow, the main character in Professor Laura Kipnis’s Unwanted Advances (2017). Until late 2015, Ludlow had been a philosophy professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He had dated multiple students over the years. Of course, such dating is hardly unusual in academia; indeed, it’s the basis for many marriages and, with a few exceptions (namely, in the US), is not forbidden. There are no rules forbidding adults from forming relationships in their workplace, except when one is a direct supervisor of the other, where there is a conflict of interest. During the months I was fired, a 50-year-old professor in my own faculty at Oxford married a 22-year-old student. Two of the academic faculty who had been involved in having me fired had themselves dated students.

In Professor Ludlow's case, there had been a brief one-night stand in February 2012 with a student. She had initiated it via an email invitation, but it nevertheless led to a complaint against him of “sexual assault.” This complaint was unfounded. In addition, a few months earlier, in late 2011, he had had a relationship for a month or two with a philosophy graduate student at Northwestern. It was consensual and didn’t break any rules. They shared his bed in his apartment; she told him in text messages that she loved him, and referred to him as her “boyfriend.” And yet, two years later, in February 2014, the first complainant brought a legal case against Northwestern for not having properly addressed her original 2012 complaint. This was absurd, as Ludlow was punished, demoted, and his pay docked, while she was given significant amounts of institutional support.

Meanwhile, this story having made the news, the second philosophy graduate student in question, the one from 2011, filed a new Title IX complaint against Ludlow, accusing him of both sexual assault and a sexually harassing relationship. She seems to have admitted, but then later denied, that they’d had a romantic relationship. Still, as Kipnis showed, detailed substantial evidence points the other way. (Moreover, it later became known that this graduate student had had a romantic relationship with a professor at a previous university in Canada, when she was an undergraduate.) Ludlow was thereupon subjected to vigilantism and protests from student activists at Northwestern and removed from teaching. A further internal investigation found no evidence of a “sexual assault”—in fact, Ludlow was able to prove he was not even present in the apartment at the time, but had been in a hotel.

Even so, the investigation concluded he was guilty of “sexual harassment” based on the strange feminist theory of “power differentials,” whereby a helpless female “victim” can wreck an allegedly “powerful” man’s life by merely asserting certain claims, with not a trace of due process, evidential accuracy, or presumption of innocence. That’s “powerless!” Having been libeled as a “rapist,” there followed a number of defamation suits, by which Ludlow sought to exonerate himself, but all fell at the dismissal stage.

This Northwestern witch hunt lingered on until late November 2015, when it was announced that Ludlow had resigned (“Another Harasser Resigns”). However, before that, Professor Kipnis—a professor of film and media studies at Northwestern, and herself a feminist, though of a very different mindset than the current orthodoxy—intervened. For Kipnis had begun to pay attention to the new cultural climate of hysteria, female fragility and victimhood. In February 2015, she published an essay, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education on this topic, including several anecdotes, two being a few lines on the cases concerning Ludlow (whom she didn’t know at that time).

Although her comments were anodyne, Kipnis was nevertheless subjected to the now familiar student protests and to a Title IX complaint from the philosophy graduate student who had made the complaint against Ludlow, and also to a complaint from another philosophy graduate student: a third-party feminist activist. After an investigation these were not upheld. (Note: entirely fabricated complaints are sometimes upheld by secret kangaroo courts where due process is non-existent and presumption of guilt automatic; often the matter then goes to a serious external court where the rule of law is then correctly applied).

Kipnis reported her own experience in a separate article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, in May 2015, called “My Title IX Inquisition.” She participated in what remained of Northwestern’s secret hearings to terminate Ludlow’s position. He himself threw in the towel, resigned, and moved to Mexico, no doubt traumatized by the whole thing. He did, however, pass on to Kipnis all the relevant documents pertaining to the witch hunt against him, and these formed the basis of her investigative reporting on his case. Since the publication of Unwanted Advances in April 2017, the graduate student has filed yet another Title IX complaint against Kipnis (once again, not upheld), and has also initiated defamation action against Kipnis and her publisher, Harper-Collins. This was settled in late 2018, but the terms of the settlement haven't been made public.

Of the unfortunate cases mentioned above, only Professor Ludlow was accused of "sexual harassment," though the case against him is implausible. David Barnett lost his job for defending a falsely accused student, though he already had a successful business which he has been able to continue. Brian Leiter remains as combative and valuable in criticizing these phenomena as ever. Laura Kipnis is still mired in the aftermath of the events at Northwestern and her courageous book. Peter Ludlow had his life and career ruined. I suffered a similar horror, as I explain below.

So, that is a summary of several false accusation witch hunts—David Barnett, Laura Kipnis, Brian Leiter, and Peter Ludlow—in the academic philosophy profession. The last case is of particular interest to me because it is my own.

Oxford Mob

For about 16 months, from June 2013 until October 2014, I was witch hunted by a feminist smear campaign. It consisted of fabricated accusations based on no evidence, intimidation, and cyber-harassment. Militant feminists drove me out of my job as a Professor of Philosophy & Logic and Fellow at Oxford, and drove me, my wife and frightened 4-year-old son out of town. Eventually, I was reinstated a couple of months later. The story of the false accusations, the smear campaign and my reinstatement was reported in The Sunday Times (August 3, 2014).

The lies originated from a violent stalker, Charlotte Coursier. I had met her five years earlier, in late 2008 when she was a student at the University of Edinburgh, where I was a lecturer. She began contacting me intensely, for about four months. She’d stopped attending her degree course. She made several suicide attempts, two of which I prevented (one a paracetamol/sleeping tablets overdose). Eventually, all this settled down. I thought it had been a short-term crisis she’d now resolved. Alas, I was quite wrong.

A few months later she returned to university. We became very close friends for the next two years. We saw each other frequently while she studied for her degree. Several times she said she was in love with me. Later she spoke in emails (which I have) of her hopes that we would get married. The whole experience had caused great fiction between me and my wife. On one occasion, in May 2010, Coursier confronted my wife angrily at our home, and later made worrying calls to me. I reported her to the police, who detained her. For around five months, I broke off contact with her. At the end of 2010, my wife and I separated and we began to get divorced. I moved in with a friend.

In November, 2010, Coursier contacted me and invited herself over to my friend’s flat. Stupidly, I acceded to this and forgave her for the incident five months earlier. For about three weeks, Coursier and I had a brief, extremely unpleasant romantic relationship, which she initiated and I eventually ended. At the end of it she assaulted me. When she refused to leave, the police got involved—a neighbor called them after hearing Coursier shouting and me telling her to go home. My flatmate witnessed these events. In June 2014, during my kangaroo court appeal, he testified, describing the events as remembered them.

I broke off contact with Coursier after this. There followed a barrage of text message and email threats, harassment, and stalking. I asked her to desist many times; for example, in July 2011: “Please stop sending abusive and threatening email messages.” For the next two and a half years, we spoke just three times: at the end of 2011, and twice in 2012 (March and November). We spoke face-to-face just once, for only a few minutes, in November 2012, during another stalking incident in which she followed me out of a building to talk to me (eye-witnessed, and later recorded by that witness).

By late 2012, Coursier’s abuse had gone on for two years. She followed me to Oxford. There, she was being treated (unbeknownst to me) at Oxford’s Warneford psychiatric hospital. I am reasonably certain, and psychiatrists who examined the evidence confirmed it, that she suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder. During 2012, my wife and I had reconciled and we moved to Oxford hoping for a new start. But from late 2012 on, Coursier stalked my wife and son for months, until my wife left town in early 2013. I had no idea how to solve this problem, and reported it to several others. At this time, unbeknownst to me, Coursier had another boyfriend. Also unbeknownst to me, in March 2013, she had had an abortion; she felt that she had “murdered her child.”

Shortly afterward, in May 2013, she began stalking me at my seminars, including a small philosophy club I organized for my students at my College, Pembroke. Having shown up uninvited at the club, she sat one seat away from me in a small room with seven people in it, pretending not to know me. On the day before she had similarly stalked me at a separate seminar, this one at the Philosophy Faculty building, loitering before and afterwards (alone) waiting for me. After the second incident, I emailed her, politely asking her to stop contacting me. I notified others of my serious welfare concerns about her behavior, including my college and the police (as later confirmed by Oxfordshire’s Senior Coroner).

To this rejection, she retaliated with false accusations about me. She lied to the police, who gave me a “Police Information Notice” (PIN)—without consulting me and without requesting any evidence or a statement. Such PINs are routinely abused for revenge reasons by malicious individuals, and so are now being phased out in the UK. When the police did consult me, they realized that I was the victim, and she the perpetrator. They requested I contact them again if Coursier’s stalking continued. It did, and so I contacted them on June 5, 2013. Five days later, her boyfriend ended their highly unstable relationship. A few hours later, on the same day, she committed suicide.

In and of themselves, Coursier’s malicious lies about me were not particularly serious. She falsely accused me of “contacting” her, a standard personality disorder inversion of the facts: it was she who was contacting and stalking me (she had also been stalking my wife two months earlier). She appears not to have told anyone about her years of being in love with me: for instance, “you are still the person that saved my life and my degree! … I’ll always love you and be wishing you well” (June 3, 2011) and “I’m still so obviously in love with you. … I split up with my boyfriend because I’m still not over you” (August 9, 2011); or about her hundreds of emails to me, or her desire to marry me, and so on. But these relatively insignificant lies by Coursier herself were later amplified into fabrications and distributed, including on social media, by feminist vigilantes who whipped up a lynch mob against me.

The vigilante campaign was led by two people I’ve never met and had not even heard of. One was an American feminist Oxford graduate student named Brooke Berndtson, who was Coursier's housemate. The other was a temporary lecturer at Oxford, Dr Paula Boddington, a feminist activist whom Berndtson contacted on the day that Coursier took her own life. During the few months before Coursier’s death, Berndston had cajoled her disturbed housemate into making false accusations. These prevented her getting emergency help. This was all later covered up. (For example, one of the activists whom Coursier spoke to told her to “delete the oldest correspondence,” in order to cover up evidence of her hundreds of emails to me over the years.) Berndtson began slandering me with vicious false accusations on the very day that Coursier died: calling me a “murderer,” inventing all manner of slanders that bore no relation to reality, and distributing these lies to many people, including on Twitter a couple of months later. Together, Berndtson and Boddington recruited a mob of activists. Boddington herself used her status to make false accusations about me to the police, to the university, and to the Oxfordshire coroner’s office. At the time she was libeling and smearing me, for a period of around 10 months, I had never heard of her. She did not contact me. She displayed no interest in the facts or evidence.

On February 26, 2014, after pressuring the Thames Valley Police, the University, and the Coroner’s office for months, the vigilantes got their lies read out in a coroner’s court. I was not informed or consulted. These were preposterous fabrications, accusing me of having “abused” Coursier, of having “followed” her to Oxford and of having “engaged in a campaign of harassment.” No evidence exists for these fabrications, which are an inversion of the actual facts, as witnessed and documented by more than fifteen others.

Four days earlier, my family and I had again received an anonymous cyber-harassing message calling me a “murderer.” We reported it to the University and to the police, and were advised to leave town for our safety. The lies were then published in multiple newspapers. None asked for any evidence or facts; none asked me for my reply.

Next, on March 5, 2014, the vigilantes authored an apoplectic "Open Letter.” It was published at Jennifer Saul's "Feminist Philosophers" website, smearing me and demanding punishment based on the lies that they (including Saul, who had also published fabricated libel about me in October 2013 on one of her blogs) had distributed for months. This vigilante feminist campaign was then used to fire me, as I reported here, on March 25, 2014.

I appealed my firing. In this I was helped by Oxfordshire’s Senior Coroner, Mr. Darren Salter, who by then had been shown some genuine evidence. I won, and was reinstated to my post at Oxford University in August 2014. The Sunday Times asked me to give an interview. The journalist interviewed me and several witnesses, his article appearing on August 3, 2014.

After that, I was silenced and threatened if I spoke out again. The Times Higher Education contacted me a few weeks later. I decided not to reply because by then I was exhausted, penniless and effectively homeless. Two years later, in 2016, powerful figures at Oxford retaliated against me and drove me out on trumped-up charges (non-reply to a non-existent email; expressing a purely academic opinion about entry qualifications).

In September 2014, on my academic blog M-Phi, I briefly complained about the mob that had destroyed our lives via a campaign of defamation and harassment. This prompted the mob to attack me yet again, with more false accusations from feminist blogs. I was institutionally threatened and silenced. A feminist philosophy academic, Richard Pettigrew, appropriated my M-Phi blog. He also blacklisted me, using his political power at his University to have me uninvited from a logic conference I’d been invited to speak at in 2016.

In May 2017, my ex-colleague, Professor Timothy Williamson, Wyckham Professor of Logic at Oxford, and possibly the most important and influential living philosopher, commented in an interview about problems currently befalling the academic philosophy profession. In response to the question, "Do you find any trends in philosophy disconcerting?”, he said:

I find the current atmosphere of self-righteous moralizing and vindictive internet mobs in the discipline deeply disturbing (whether the mob is on the left or the right). Such attitudes easily produce injustice and cruelty to individuals and unwise and counter-productive policy-making. Here I'm moralizing too, though not naming individuals or proposing policies. The effects would be much less serious if universities could be trusted to observe basic principles of fairness and due process and to fulfil their duties of care to both students and employees, but they can't. Like most other institutions, they are more concerned to protect their reputations, which typically involves trying to cover up a problem or, if that fails, summary dismissal of alleged culprits. But those institutional failings are not specific to philosophy.

Academic philosophy, and academe generally, should heed Professor Williamson’s words. If universities cannot “be trusted to observe basic principles of fairness and due process,” then they, and students and faculty and citizens, will be much the worse for it. It may be asking too much for universities to be exemplars of integrity, but we cannot allow them to remain so compromised.