It’s not just Hollywood, politics and media where allegations of sexual misconduct are pouring in.
Women in academia are sharing in the #MeToo moment, opening up about the high-ranking professors they say abused their trust and violated their bodies when they were graduate students. The women describe experiences of being stalked, forcibly kissed and raped by men who were entrusted with shepherding them through their studies.
Advocates fighting to prevent sexual violence and harassment on college campuses say cases allegedly involving professors who taught at Stanford University and UC Berkeley point to a culture in graduate schools where powerful professors are protected and allowed to act with near impunity at the expense of the students who depend on them for advice, guidance and the recommendations they needed to advance their education and careers.
An Election Stirs Uncomfortable Memories
Last fall, as Seo-Young Chu watched Donald Trump ascend to the highest office in the country, she felt an eerie sense of familiarity. Maybe it was the crude language he used to describe women on the “Access Hollywood” videotape, or the women who came forward during the campaign alleging he’d sexually harassed them, but Chu felt she recognized those mannerisms of his, and they jogged ugly memories.
“For a moment, I remember watching TV and thinking ‘How could they elect Jay Fliegelman?'”
Jay Fliegelman had been Chu’s dissertation adviser at Stanford 17 years ago. Chu was a 21-year-old graduate student in the English Department who’d tried to commit suicide not long before and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Fliegelman was a leading scholar and American Literature professor. He died in 2007.
Chu alleges Fliegelman harassed her, touched her and ultimately raped her.
“It started with strange remarks,” Chu says. Then, she says, Fliegelman invited her to his house to see his famous collection of rare books.
“We were in his living room,” Chu says. “I remember him telling me that his current project was about his books, and that reading his books meant feeling them and touching them and being emotional with them, possessive even, and that’s when he started touching me. I couldn’t move. I was petrified.”
The next day in class, she says, she didn’t know how to interact with him. Then, she says, he invited her back to his house. “This was the man who would be writing letters of recommendation for me and, in his words, controlling my future.”
She worried that if she declined his invitation, she’d be shunned. “He was so powerful,” she says. “He was this man who could get you jobs in a market where it’s difficult to get jobs.”
So she went back. “I thought, well, I’ll go to his house, but if he starts doing something I won’t let it happen. But he did something.”
Chu alleges Fliegelman raped her that night. She didn’t report the assault. “I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “I felt powerless.”
She says the harassment went on and, finally, she told him she was gay. It wasn’t exactly true, but it was the only way she could see to navigate what she calls his “fragile ego” and power over her future.
It was a forced coming out, one she still resents. Chu says she is bisexual but didn’t get a chance to fully explore her sexuality as a young person. She says she’d been a virgin before the assault.
Eventually, Chu says, she fell apart. Seeing her pain, a friend started making calls on her behalf.
Exactly what happened next is hazy for Chu. But former Stanford English professor Herbert Lindenberger said in an email he reported the misconduct to the chair of the English Department and a graduate student reported it to the dean’s office.
In a supportive note on Chu’s Facebook page responding to a post about her experience, Lindenberger described how the campus community reacted when he spoke out: “Because I played a key role in instigating Fliegelman’s punishment,” he wrote, “a number of my friends — colleagues and students whom he mentored — have held my role against me.”
In an open letter last month on Facebook, Chu claims that others enabled Fliegelman’s conduct.
Stanford Investigation Concludes There Was Harassment
When the allegations first surfaced, Stanford University hired an outside lawyer to investigate. Stanford said it could not share the findings of that investigation due to privacy laws.
But just recently Chu herself managed to get a summary of the findings after repeatedly pressing the university. The two-page letter from Stanford’s general counsel summarized the 2000 investigation.
Source document contributed to DocumentCloud by David Marks (KQED ).
It said the investigation found Fliegelman had called Chu repeatedly and left her messages with sexual content, showed her pornography and initiated oral sex.
“You stated that the sexual contact was preceded by your stating that you were uncomfortable and wanted to leave,” the letter reads. The summary says Fliegelman disputed that, but the letter continues, “Although there were no other witnesses to this incident, the investigation found that you made contemporaneous reports to others that were consistent with your assertion that the contact was nonconsensual.”
Based on the findings, the provost at the time, John Etchemendy, concluded that Fliegelman “engaged in a pattern of unwelcome verbal conduct of a sexual nature, and engaged in an incident of physical sexual contact under circumstances that were extremely inappropriate and in which your assent could be questioned.”
Fliegelman was suspended for two years, barred from the department during that time and sent to mandatory counseling. Then he went back to teaching at Stanford.
He was later honored multiple times — at a one-day conference at Stanford known as “Jayfest” put on by former grad students, when the university acquired his rare book collection, and when he died.
The university also named an award in his honor, a practice the university followed for other faculty but which it has since discontinued.
In 2016, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies also named a mentorship award after Fliegelman. The society renamed it after hearing from Chu.
Fliegelman was honored even though his sexual misconduct case was well-known on campus.
When he died in 2007, following standard practice at Stanford, a colleague read a memorial resolution honoring him in the Faculty Senate.
The resolution described Fliegelman as a dedicated teacher and mentor. “On three occasions he won awards for teaching, including the Dean’s Award for Outstanding Teaching and the Associated Students of Stanford University Teaching Award,” it said. “These honors do not begin to tell the story of his remarkable devotion to classroom instruction and to advising and reading dissertations.”
Everyone there — including Provost Etchemendy, who disciplined Fliegelman — stood in tribute.
Source document contributed to DocumentCloud by Ingrid Becker (KQED ).
“This to me encapsulates the problem,” says Michele Dauber, a professor at Stanford Law School and a vocal advocate for victims of sexual assault on campus. “The provost of Stanford University participated in a ceremony that praised an individual who had literally been banned from campus.”
But for Dauber it’s not a surprise. “This is what has been my experience at Stanford: light consequences followed by a sense that this kind of conduct just isn’t bad enough to remove someone from this community. And that is the sense that really must change if we’re going to make any progress.”
She says sexual misconduct occurs on many college campuses, but she argues an acute lack of transparency at private universities like Stanford contributes to a lack of accountability.
Private schools aren’t subject to public records laws, though they’re heavily subsidized by taxpayers. A 2015 report found Stanford receives $63,100 in tax subsidies per student, while UC Berkeley — which is subject to public records laws — receives $10,500 per student.
“They are literally awash in government money and yet they are not subject to the same kinds of transparency that we impose on public schools,” Dauber says. “It is contrary to the public interest to spend so much public money on a black box, particularly where sexual harassment and assault by faculty are concerned.”
Dauber has publicly called for the university to disavow the memorial resolution, and says she’s putting together a formal request to the Faculty Senate in conjunction with other faculty.
Regarding Chu’s case, Stanford University says the Title IX office is “reviewing the allegations to see if there is an action for the university to take.”
Over the years, Stanford has tried to make it easier for students to report sexual misconduct. The school has created confidential resources to provide support to students and strengthened policies governing relationships between faculty and students.
‘Emily Doe’s’ Letter to Brock Turner Inspired Chu to Speak Out
Chu is now an associate professor in the English Department at Queens College CUNY. She started writing about her experience at Stanford on Facebook last summer, after she read Emily Doe’s letter to Brock Turner, the Stanford student convicted for sexually assaulting Doe while she was unconscious.
She recently published an essay in Entropy magazine that has brought her considerable attention.
Stanford did offer Chu an apology. In that Nov. 27 letter summarizing the investigation, the general counsel, Debra Zumwalt, wrote:
On behalf of Stanford University, let me express how sorry I am that you have suffered as a result of a faculty member’s misconduct. You did the right thing by bringing this issue forward back in 2000, and we are grateful to you for doing so.
It’s the first apology Chu recalls getting from the university, but instead of bringing her closure, the letter raises more questions for her. She remembers being raped all too clearly, she says, and doesn’t understand why the school found Fliegelman responsible only for harassment.
“At this point what I really want is an explanation,” Chu says. “I want to move on, but first I need to understand what happened to me.”
Chu requested a copy of the investigative report on her case from Stanford, but hasn’t received it yet.
UC Berkeley Grad Student Shares Familiar Story of Abuse
A couple of days after Chu’s essay came out, another woman made public her own decades-old allegations against a professor.
Kimberly Latta was in her first semester of grad school at UC Berkeley in the mid-’80s when she took a class from a visiting professor: Franco Moretti.
In a Nov. 5 letter posted on Facebook, Latta writes that Moretti “sexually stalked,” “pressured” and “raped” her.
“I remember wanting him to stop and telling him I don’t like this, I’m not comfortable with this,” she says in an interview. To which she remembers him responding, “‘You American women, when you say no you mean yes.’” Moretti is Italian.
She says the harassment continued for several months. During his office hours in the English Department, she remembers Moretti pushing her up against the wall and grabbing her breasts.
“I remember feeling kind of revolted and paralyzed and embarrassed and ashamed and deeply uncomfortable,” she says, “and yet totally and completely passive and unable to do anything. For the longest time I remember feeling so ashamed of myself for having allowed that to happen, as though it were somehow my fault.”
Eventually, Latta says, she became sick with anxiety.
She stopped going to Moretti’s class because she’d get sick to her stomach when she did. She went to Berkeley’s Title IX office to make a complaint.
“I remember walking in and thinking, ‘Oh shit.’” The officer at the time was Frances Ferguson, another professor in the English department. Latta remembers crying in Ferguson’s office and telling her she was being harassed. She doesn’t remember if she told Ferguson she’d been raped. “I was deeply ashamed of that,” Latta says.
Latta says Ferguson actively discouraged her from reporting. “Her demeanor and coldness led me to believe that if I were to go through with a formal process, there would be nobody at the university who would be on my side, who would believe me.”
She assumed it was because Ferguson and Moretti knew each other, and “they were on the same team and I wasn’t. I was an expendable graduate student.” Both professors deny they were friends at the time.
In a statement, Ferguson said she hadn’t understood the misconduct to be so significant. She recalled Latta describing sexual harassment, not assault.
“I respect that we remember some of these events differently,” she said in the statement. “Had any student at Berkeley brought a formal complaint concerning such allegations, I would have pursued it.”
But that wasn’t Latta’s impression. So instead of going through with the formal process, Latta says, she told Moretti she’d reported him to the university. She says he threatened to destroy her reputation and end her career.
Moretti is now a professor emeritus at Stanford. He did not respond to a request for comment, but he told the Stanford Daily he denies the rape allegation. He said Latta had been a consensual partner.
“We went out to dinner together one night and back to her apartment, where we had fully consensual sex and I spent the night,” Moretti told the campus paper. “I did not rape her, and am horrified by the accusation.”
He added that he and Latta kept meeting, and maintained their acquaintance until he left Berkeley. He also denied threatening Latta.
A friend of Latta’s, who was a fellow student in Moretti’s class, confirmed much of Latta’s account. She asked not to be named because she’s still in academia. She remembers Latta agreeing to go on a date with Moretti and having a bad experience, though she didn’t know the details. Afterward, she says, the professor wouldn’t stop pursuing Latta.
“Basically we would call it stalking,” she said. “She would leave his office and be very upset.”
The friend remembers Latta trying to make a complaint and later telling her that she’d been threatened with legal recrimination. The friend says Latta was a strong student, but ended up dropping out because of the episode.
Latta says that’s true. She didn’t finish her Ph.D. at Berkeley. “I had to leave academia for a long time because of what happened,” she says.
It wasn’t just the trauma of the alleged assault and harassment, or the way the university responded that affected her. She says the experience with Moretti undermined her sense of herself.
“At first I thought he was interested in me because he thought I had an interesting mind,” she says. “But then to find out it was only sex — it really sapped me of my sense of myself as an intellectual. It took me a long time to gather myself together and feel like a competent scholar after that.”
Latta says she has wanted to tell this story for years, but it’s only because she feels buoyed by the recent wave of women’s public testimonies that she’s doing it now.
“I don’t any longer feel like a single voice crying in the wilderness,” she says.
Stanford University says it is reviewing her allegations against Moretti.
In the days after Latta spoke out, another allegation involving Moretti has surfaced from Jane Penner, a woman who alleges he harassed her while she was attending a seminar at Dartmouth University.
Seeing women like Chu, Latta and Penner come forward as part of the #MeToo movement is heartening, says Stanford student Stephanie Pham, who founded the university’s Association of Students for Sexual Assault Prevention. But, she says, it’s also upsetting.
“What I’ve found most disappointing and scary is that if you compare what happened to these survivors decades — generations — ago, to what’s happening now, you see that nothing has really changed,” Pham says.
In 2015, about 40 percent of undergrad women who were surveyed said they had experienced sexual violence in some form at Stanford.
Pham says, “History continues to repeat itself.”