A Medill junior who is suing Northwestern University for not acting on a sexual harassment claim she filed two years ago against professor Peter Ludlow said her first two years of college have been “stolen away” from her.
The student was enrolled Fall Quarter of her freshman year in Ludlow’s “Philosophy of Cyberspace” class. He requested that students add him on Facebook, which she said she thought was unusual. She did, however, interview him for a journalism assignment and respected him, she said.
“In a competitive college like this, it’s really endorsed by everyone that you should get to know your professor better professionally” in a non-academic setting, she said. “There’s a culture at Northwestern where it’s good to do that.”
He was one of her first professors at Northwestern, so she assumed that was how college classes were, she said.
“At that point, when I was a freshman not having that much campus exposure, I just thought, ‘You know what, maybe this is the way that college is,’” she said.
According to her legal complaint against the University, the student emailed Ludlow about an art show in February 2012, which she thought he would be interested in. Ludlow requested she attend the event with him. He drove her to the event at Columbia College Chicago.
The court documents state that the professor "insisted strongly" that the plaintiff drink with him at bars throughout the evening. At the time of the incident, the court document states the plaintiff was "incapacitated due to heavy consumption of alcohol," which Ludlow purchased for her. He allegedly ignored her when she asked to be taken back to Evanston and instead took her to his apartment, where he fondled her.
According to her, he said he needed to drop something off at his apartment, where she said he “interrogated” her about her sex life and whether she had a boyfriend. She said he then talked about his sex life and continued to give her alcohol. After losing consciousness several times throughout the night, she woke up in Ludlow's bed at 4 a.m. with his arms wrapped around her, according to the document.
After reporting the incident to another faculty member the next day, the student confronted Ludlow, who, according to the court documents, "begged [her] not to tell anyone and told her that he could mentor her academically or pay her money." The student said he also publicly posted pictures of her to Facebook.
Director of Sexual Harassment Prevention Joan Slavin was notified about the complaint shortly after the incident and an investigation began. The University investigation concluded that Ludlow “engaged in unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances.” However, according to the claim, Northwestern never gave evidence that there were any “disciplinary and corrective actions.”
“After the sexual assault occurred, I had a day of just questioning my existence – feeling really stressed out, feeling ashamed, feeling like I was – I was so disgusted at everything that had happened,” she said. “I was still in the state of denial. I’ve never been sexually assaulted before, and I was a mess. And then I made the rash decision to try to commit suicide.”
The student was hospitalized for three days, according to the court documents. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and continues to see a therapist, she said. She said this has interfered with her ability to focus, and she has missed or dropped several classes. If she drops another class, she will not be able to graduate on time, she said.
The difficulty of her situation was exacerbated by the stress it caused her family. The student had to take leave from Northwestern during Winter Quarter 2013 to be with them, as they had suffered distress due to the experience, according to the court documents.
“For the past two years, my life was almost ruined. It has been so hard for me the past two years. I could not get my stuff together,” she said. “I felt like my life was starting to fall – it was falling apart already.”
When she found out that the professor had not been fired, she was afraid and sometimes even refused to go outside for fear of running into him. She said he has not tried to contact her since the incident.
“I would never think about college the same way,” she said. “My two years were definitely stolen away from me."
The student remains adamant about her place at Northwestern.
“It is my right to be here,” she said. “If there’s anyone who should leave, it should be him … It was so disturbing to me that I was the one who should consider leaving. And I worked so hard to get in here. I feel like I’m a member of the community too, so why should I leave?”
In addition to demanding compensation for tuition and medical fees, her attorney, Kevin O’Connor, said he wants Ludlow fired.
“I think he needs to leave the University, period,” she said. “I’m not vindictive at all, I just think someone like him should not be in the position of being exposed to students.”
Ludlow responded to the student’s claims through a statement released by his attorney. The statement said he denies all the allegations. He also claims that he is in possession of communications indicating that the student initiated friendly contact with him multiple times after the incident. In response to these claims, the student said she stands by her existing statements.
The student and her attorney sued under Title IX, a sexual discrimination law O’Connor said was violated. The student and her attorney have demanded a jury trial because they felt that justice would best be served by a verdict determined by a jury of the student's peers.
“Nothing is going to be able to give [the plaintiff] back what was taken away from her, but we want to come as close as we can and make [her] whole through any remedy the court can provide,” O’Connor said.
The University has declined to comment on the lawsuit as it is considered pending litigation.