About an hour before students at Northwestern University were going to stage a sit-in at the President’s Office to protest the University’s plan to mediate a lawsuit filed by Peter Ludlow against the University and two defendants for defamation, school officials contacted the organizers of the sit-in and notified them that the university was willing to call off the mediation.
Kathryn Pogin, a first-year graduate student in the philosophy department, said that she had originally decided to stage the sit-in on behalf of the graduate student named in the lawsuit, whom she knows personally.
“It was my understanding that the graduate student expressed some discomfort [with the University’s plan to mediate] and that the University’s attorneys said they were going to enter into mediation irrespective of whether she wanted to,” Pogin said.
According to Pogin, the graduate student named in the lawsuit contacted university administrators directly on Saturday, and Pogin decided by Sunday to organize a sit-in for Monday to help get the graduate student’s message across. She contacted the unofficial student group, Title IX at Northwestern, to help organize and spread the word about the protest. Title IX was also involved in a national student protest last month showing solidarity with the victims of sexual assault. “We were hoping to convince the university that it was in their best interest to respect the wishes of the grad student,” Pogin said.
However, Weinberg senior Jazz Stephens, who is an organizer from Title IX, said that “an hour before the protest was to start, several of the organizers got an email, and I received a phone call from an administrator saying that they had not been aware that the graduate student did not wish to participate in the mediation process, and that they were willing to cease mediation.”
Stephens said that the sit-in still went ahead as planned, with about eight or nine students, most of them graduate students. “We still had questions about the process,” she said.
Pogin said that it was unclear to her and the students involved as to why the university decided to drop mediation. “It is my understanding that some reporters had reached out to the University on Sunday evening, asking [administrators] to comment about the sit-in,” she said. “It was unclear whether the university was responding to the threat of public controversy or whether they were responding to the graduate student’s emails on Saturday.”
Pogin also said that she wanted to know why the University had agreed to mediation in the first place.
“If the University believed in the integrity of its Title IX investigation, if they believed they handled both these cases appropriately, entering into mediation with someone who, by the light of their own investigation, engaged in predatory behavior, would effectively say, ‘Look, we’re going to write you a check to get you to drop these lawsuits,’” she said. “To do that would be unconscionable.”
Both Pogin and Stephens say that they were able to have productive meetings with administrators. The graduate student involved in the lawsuit issued a statement via Title IX’s Facebook page, saying that “the administration heard our cry, in turn responding appropriately by suspending all mediation proceedings.”
In the statement, the student says that administrators even ordered hot chocolate for the students at the sit-in.
“The administration and I are now engaged in further discussions about my wishes and needs throughout this process,” the statement reads.
According to Pogin, neither of the two students who are named in the lawsuit were present at the sit-in.
Pogin says that supporting the victims of sexual assault is a “fundamental matter of justice.”
“If you are on a college campus right now, sexual assault is absolutely an epidemic,” she said. “We wanted to make it clear to the University that how they handle [cases like this] is important for victims going forward because this is new legal territory: alleged perpetrators suing alleged victims for defamation."
If this becomes a new standard, Pogin said that she is worried it will contribute to the already “massive underreporting” of sexual assault and harassment.
“We wanted to communicate with administrators how important that was,” she said. “I think they were really receptive to that message, which was encouraging.”