CW: Mentions of sexual violence
As Claremont McKenna College’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum prepared to host Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis on Oct. 6, some 5C students were busy deciding whether or not they would attend.
The Athenaeum, known by students as “the Ath,” showcases speaker events throughout the semester, designed to host speakers with a wide range of viewpoints — sometimes on topics that students find divisive.
Kipnis’ talks are known for taking controversial angles on sensitive subjects ranging from Title IX to “sexual politics on campus,” and the CMC Advocates warned in an email to students that her talk could be triggering. CMC’s Advocates provide support and resources for survivors of sexual assault, separate from the Title IX office.
“Without minimizing the realities of sexual assault on and off campus … [Kipnis] argues for more transparency about the Title IX process, along with more oversight and review of those making the findings,” the Ath said in a description of the talk.
“Laura Kipnis didn’t know much about Title IX until she found herself brought up on Title IX complaints … for writing an essay,” the description said — sparking a career in writing and debating sexual assault policies on campuses.
The talk was co-sponsored by CMC’s Open Academy initiative, which was approved by the board of trustees in 2018 to provide funding for programs that reinforce the college’s commitment to freedom of expression.
“CMC’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum continues to be a nationally recognized sanctuary where speakers of many ideological stripes are welcomed,” the program’s announcement said.
But the CMC Advocates said the harm Kipnis’ ideas brought to campus outweighed any benefit from ideological diversity.
“We take great issue with the ways in which Kipnis discusses survivorship,” their email said. “A ‘victim blaming’ mentality has no place on our campus.”
The group asserted that they stood firmly against Kipnis’ work and views.
“[The] Advocates believes Kipnis’s work does in fact minimize the realities of sexual violence on college campuses and is counter productive to the efforts of those working to make the Title IX process more equitable and accessible,” they said. “Her work is also ignorant of the nuances of trauma responses.”
The Scripps College Advocates, in conjunction with the Scripps student government, released a similar message on Oct. 6 which reaffirmed their support for survivors and provided further resources for students. They also said advocates would be present at the talk for students who needed support.
“We firmly stand against Kipnis’s criticism of the Title IX process. We feel her beliefs are counterproductive to the movement making Title IX more equitable and accessible,” the email said. “Her work fails to address the nuances of trauma responses and advocates for a harmful rhetoric that has no place within our community.”
This isn’t the first time Kipnis has stirred controversy at the 5Cs. In 2018, a debate hosted by Pomona’s Student Union resulted in contentious exchanges between students and Kipnis, along with writer and activist Roxane Gay, another speaker at the event.
Ashley Park CM ’25 almost canceled her reservation for the talk after reading the Advocates’ email and the attached articles.
“I ended up going because I think a part of me wanted to hear what she had to say,” Park said. “I also wanted to see how students would react and how that discourse would go.”
At the dinner before the talk, Kipnis sat and talked with a table of students. During the talk the front row was empty except for a student Ath fellow and Director Priya Junnar.
Just before Kipnis began her talk, Junnar reminded students to be respectful.
“There will be lots of pointed questions for Dr. Kipnis,” she said. “Dr. Kipnis, I hope you’re ready.”
Kipnis started her talk by referencing a survey from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which gave CMC a “green” rating, indicating that CMC does “not seriously imperil speech.” CMC is the only liberal arts college to receive this rating, according to the college. The foundation has been criticized as having a conservative bias, although it is officially non-partisan.
“We don’t know what we mean by sexual assault because the definition keeps shifting,” she said early in the speech.
During the talk and subsequent Q&A period, Kipnis focused on a range of topics related to sexual assault, including the role of alcohol, the drawbacks of Title IX procedures and the possibility of false accusations.
Kipnis also implied that alcohol can amplify “stereotypical female behavior, namely passivity and helplessness,” which can lead to assault, adding, “What’s more passive than a passed-out person?”
“It’s not your fault if you’re drunk at a party and get assaulted,” a member of the Advocates responded, during the Q&A section.
During the speech, Kipnis questioned: “Why is it that women keep going to frat parties?” Answering her own question, she said, “[because] that’s where the guys are.”
Kipnis also said that once an accusation is made, the Title IX procedures may not dispense justice in a fair way.
“[I] don’t think that career [altering] accusations should be made behind closed doors,” Kipnis said. “[The] fetish for secrecy has so far gone unquestioned.”
Kipnis also discussed her belief that Title IX is used against professors and others when no sexual assault took place.
“Title IX is being used not infrequently for retaliatory purposes,” she said.
In the Q&A section, Kipnis took issue with students who suggested that false accusations of sexual assault are rare.
“It’s not as cut and dried as … ‘there’s no such thing as false accusations,’” she said.
Towards the end, Kipnis seemed to be frustrated with one person asking questions.
“I don’t really want to answer [your] question because your tone is annoying,” Kipnis said to the student.
“I don’t really want to answer [your] question because your tone is annoying.” — Laura Kipnis
But Park said she admired students’ collective response during the Q&A portion.
“The student reaction was very put together, everyone was able to hold it together and they were able to articulate their ideas and they were able to collectively reject it, and that was really nice to see,” Park said.
Park said she does not believe Kipnis’ talk could be justified by referring to it as a different perspective.
“On the one hand I understand that they want us to see different perspectives, but I also wish that they would bring fresh perspectives instead of an old perspective on repeat,” Park said. “This is a perspective that we have heard for decades, that unwanted sex is not necessarily rape and this victim-blaming mindset.”
The Advocates agreed in an email following the talk: “We are deeply saddened and disgusted by the blatant disregard for the survivor experience that was shown by Laura Kipnis at the Athenaeum tonight. Advocates understand the grave impact that her words have had on our community.”
The Advocates’ email also condemned CMC’s role in bringing Kipnis to campus.
“We are extremely disappointed in the lack of institutional accountability that allowed a victim blaming r*pe apologist a platform at our school,” they said.
CMC and Junnar did not respond to a request for comment.
In an Oct. 13 email, ASCMC released a statement in support of the Advocates and demanded accountability.
“Too many of our peers are hurting for the Athenaeum to walk away from its complicity in the decision to bring this speaker to campus, and for the College to remain silent in the aftermath,” the statement said.
It also affirmed that the student government stands with survivors and thanked campus leaders for their support, while acknowledging that they should not have to take on that responsibility.
“As ASCMC, we are deeply sorry to our community. We demand the Athenaeum and the College learn from this moment,” the statement said.
Ultimately, Park said, bringing Kipnis to the Ath felt like a poor decision.
“The Athenaeum is meant to help free speech and it’s meant to help us view fresh perspectives, but it’s not meant to waste our time. And it kind of felt like they were wasting my time,” she said.