Northwestern philosophy professor Peter Ludlow
Northwestern philosophy professor Peter Ludlow Credit: Steve Pyke

Last week, a Northwestern University student rocked the campus by filing a federal lawsuit against the university for failing to take adequate action on her two-year-old complaint of sexual harassment against an NU professor.

The student, now a junior, alleges that the university discriminated and retaliated against her for making the harassment charge.

The faculty member she has implicated is Peter Ludlow, 57, a high-profile language theorist and cyberspace expert. (Ludlow figured prominently in a column I wrote about “hacktivist” Aaron Swartz last year.) Ludlow denies the student’s claims, and says it was she who propositioned him. And that he declined.

The Reader, which does not identify victims of alleged sexual assault, is withholding the student’s name.

Here’s the version of events according to the lawsuit, filed February 10 by the student’s attorney, Kevin O’Connor:

In the fall of her freshman year, the student took a course from Ludlow, Philosophy of Cyberspace. Her lawsuit notes that he utilized Second Life avatars in this class, and “would show videos of virtual characters having sex to the students during classes.”

The next quarter she sent him an e-mail suggesting that he attend an arts event on February 10, 2012, at Columbia College. He asked her to come with him, and after the art show they went to a restaurant, where, over her protests that she was underage and “did not want to drink,” he ordered a glass of wine for her, according to the lawsuit.

On their way to another exhibit the same evening, they stopped at a bar, where he ordered a beer for her, the lawsuit continues. She requested that he take her home; he refused, insisting that they “party together.” At the exhibit, the lawsuit claims, he again refused to take her home. From there they went to a third event, a performance in a warehouse.

The lawsuit states that he then took her to his apartment, gave her more drinks, and asked about her sexual relationships. She said she wanted to leave; around midnight they went to another bar. She “was already very drunk,” according to the lawsuit—and when he began to “rub her back and kiss her,” she “was too intoxicated to put up any meaningful resistance.”

The lawsuit states that her memory was fading “in and out” and that she recalls being in an elevator and going back to his apartment, with him groping her while she begged him to stop; then she recalls waking up at 4 AM. “Ludlow was in bed with her, and his arms were around her. She panicked and blacked out.”

He took her back to Evanston “around noon,” and told her that he was looking forward to seeing her again, according to the lawsuit. The next day, she told another professor about “the incident.” The lawsuit alleges that she also “confronted” Ludlow, who “begged” her not to tell anyone, and said he could mentor her or “pay her money.” Meanwhile, “a faculty member” informed Northwestern’s director of sexual harassment prevention, Joan Slavin, who began an investigation.

Three days after the incident, on February 13, 2012, the student “was hospitalized after attempting to commit a suicide as a result of the stress and trauma of the events with Ludlow,” according to the lawsuit. She was diagnosed with PTSD and released three days later, requiring ongoing psychiatric care.

Two months later, on April 11, 2012, Slavin sent the student an e-mail reporting that she’d completed her investigation. “Based on the totality of the evidence,” the e-mail says, Ludlow “engaged in unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances,” and his conduct “violated the University’s Policy on Sexual Harassment.” Slavin said she would work with the dean’s office on “implementing needed corrective and remedial actions,” but that she wouldn’t be able to provide details of any actions taken, owing to their “confidential personnel nature.” She added that she’d “cautioned” Ludlow to keep the matter confidential, and requested that the student also do so.

On April 24, 2012, the lawsuit states, lawyers for the student sent Ludlow a letter asking that he pay “damages caused by his sexual assault.” His lawyer responded with a denial and a threat to sue for defamation.

Meanwhile, according to the lawsuit, the student became so anxious about running into Ludlow on campus that she was unable to attend some classes. The situation also made her mother sick, the lawsuit claims; in March 2013 the student had to leave school because her mother had developed health problems “caused by extreme emotional distress she had experienced due to her daughter’s incident with Ludlow” and its “subsequent mishandling” by Northwestern. When the student returned to school, she “could not handle the full-time course load.”

The lawsuit claims that after Slavin’s investigation, the university set up a committee, which determined that Ludlow should be fired. According to the lawsuit, the university “ignored its own committee’s decision.” Ludlow has continued to teach, while the student has continued to suffer “humiliation, mental and emotional anguish, anxiety, and distress.”

In a statement issued February 12, O’Connor said his client “eventually” filed a police report, with the “encouragement (and accompaniment)” of NU political science professor Jacqueline Stevens. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the report was filed in April 2013.

Last Thursday, Ludlow’s attorney, Kristin Case, released a statement noting that Ludlow has “never been charged with any crime,” and “is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.” According to Case, “Mr. Ludlow did not assault [the student] nor did he engage in any inappropriate conduct. We have corroborating evidence that [she] propositioned Mr. Ludlow. He refused her advances.”

Case’s statement adds that “We are in possession of communications which show that [the student] initiated friendly communications with Mr. Ludlow the day after and then again four and five days after the date on which she now alleges he assaulted her.” (The communications, which the statement says include text messages, were not made available.)

Northwestern spokesman Storer “Bob” Rowley declined to comment on pending litigation but said by e-mail that “the University has policies and procedures in place to protect our students and to address any such reported concerns.” In fact, Northwestern instituted a new policy prohibiting consensual romantic and/or sexual relations between faculty and undergraduates just last month.

Ludlow reportedly was about to leave Northwestern for the philosophy department at Rutgers University. Spokesman Greg Trevor says Rutgers is “looking into this matter thoroughly to fully evaluate his candidacy. This was not brought to our attention by either the candidate or his employer.”

On Friday, Ludlow’s attorney filed a lawsuit against Sun-Times Media, Fox Television Stations, and Cumulus Broadcasting, owner of WLS AM 890. Ludlow’s lawsuit states the Evanston Review, which is owned by Sun-Times Media, published the headline “Student allegedly raped by professor suing Northwestern University”—and that the websites of Fox 32 News and WLS AM 890 later published versions of the story with the same headline, crediting Sun-Times Media. (Full disclosure: the Chicago Reader is owned by Sun-Times Media.)

According to Ludlow’s lawsuit, “the student did not include any allegation in [her] Lawsuit that . . . Ludlow had raped her or even that the two had engaged in sexual intercourse.” It goes on to claim that the use of the phrase “allegedly raped by [a] professor” is defamatory. The suit charges that Ludlow has suffered damage to his reputation, emotional distress, humiliation, and embarrassment, and seeks damages.