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“A Professor Is Kind of Like a Priest”

Two recent cases reveal how the structure of American graduate schools enables sexual harassment and worse.

It was 1998 when Franco Moretti approached Kimberly Latta on an airplane. At the time, Latta was a PhD student at Rutgers, and Moretti a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. Latta recalled, “[Franco] came over with a big smile on his face and said, ‘Hello, hello! Do you remember me?’” Latta, who was sitting beside a friend, summoned the courage to respond. “Of course I remember you,” she told Moretti. “And I will never forgive you for what you did to me.”

Kimberly Latta
Courtesy of Kimberly Latta

It wasn’t until this year that Latta spoke out publicly. Latta wrote—on Facebook, in a letter to Stanford administrators, and to reporters—that Moretti stalked and raped her in the 1984-1985 school year, when she was a graduate student and Moretti was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley. Latta is now a practicing psychotherapist; Moretti has been a professor emeritus at Stanford since 2016. (Irene Hsu, a co-writer for this article, graduated from the Stanford in June 2017 with a degree in English.)

Latta’s Facebook post, published in November, followed an essay by Seo-Young Chu, now an associate professor of English at Queens College, CUNY, about how her advisor, the late professor Jay Fliegelman, sexually harassed and raped her when she was an English PhD candidate at Stanford.

These stories have surfaced as part of the #MeToo movement, a watershed moment for workplace equality that has shaken politics, the media, and the entertainment industry. They mark what could be the beginning of a long-overdue public reckoning with power and consent in American graduate school programs. The allegations against Fliegelman (who died in 2007) and Moretti are not singular instances of faculty sexual abuse, limited to a single department within a particular educational institution—in the past month alone, graduate students have spoken out against faculty at Princeton University and the University of Rochester, among a slew of others. They are the product of a larger culture of silence and complicity, which has made for a dangerous, destructive, and exclusionary educational environment.

Moretti became a professor at Stanford in 2000, where he taught until his retirement. While there, he established “distant reading” as a novel and controversial mode of criticism. He is a veritable celebrity as far as literary scholars go, having been profiled in The New York Times and The New Yorker. His research was collected in Canon/Archive, co-authored by 14 others, which was published at the end of October by n+1 books. (Shortly after Latta’s Facebook post, the editors of n+1 books told The New Republic, “We were disturbed to hear of the allegations against Moretti, which only came to our attention yesterday. n+1 does not tolerate sexual harassment and abuse, and we take these allegations seriously.”)

Back in 1984, Moretti was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley. Moretti told us that he “was a visitor, with no prospect, back then, of ever being part of the American academy.” Latta met him during her first year of graduate studies in comparative literature. She had requested an independent study with Moretti, who was an expert in the school of theory that Latta was interested in.

He took an interest in her, first making comments about her clothing and body, then forcibly kissing and groping Latta in his office. He would also invite her to dinner with his colleagues, further entangling the personal and the professional. One night, Moretti returned with Latta to her apartment in Oakland, where he began making sexual advances. Latta protested; Moretti responded, “Oh, you American women, when you say no you mean yes.” Latta says he then pushed her down onto her futon, and raped her. (Moretti denies that he raped her, writing that he and Latta “had fully consensual sex” and that he is “horrified by the accusation.”)

Latta ultimately took an incomplete for his class. Throughout this experience, which occurred between 1984 and 1985, she confided in Michael Harrawood, then an undergraduate student at Berkeley, who recalled, “This was a real concern to her.… It was something that was ongoing, that she told me about several times.” Latta sought the help of the Title IX officer at UC Berkeley, but she didn’t feel comfortable filing a formal complaint, because it “didn’t seem like a safe thing to do emotionally. Or professionally, to be honest,” as Latta told us. When Latta told Moretti that she had gone to the Title IX office, he responded that if she went through with the charges he would end her career. (Moretti denies these allegations.)

Multiple sources from various universities confirmed that Moretti had a reputation as a “seducer” of graduate students at best—and a predator at worst. This information sometimes reached people too late, if at all. In 1995, ten years after Moretti allegedly raped Latta, he was invited to teach a six-week long seminar at the School of Criticism and Theory at Dartmouth College. Jane Penner, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania’s English department, was enrolled in the seminar. One evening, Penner hosted a party at the home where she was staying. Moretti attended. Penner recalled that Moretti would not come in the house because of her dog: “Apparently,” she said, “he hated dogs.” Only when she shut the dog in her upstairs bedroom would Moretti join the party.

Moretti stayed long after other guests had left. Alone with Penner, Moretti “began to make sexual overtures at me,” she recalled. Despite her refusals, Penner said that Moretti “continued to make his case and try to touch me.” He began chasing her around the downstairs of the house, acting “as if it were a game,” as Penner recounted. Remembering Moretti’s fear of dogs, she ran upstairs and let her dog out of her bedroom. “Franco immediately left the house,” she said.

Friends of Penner corroborated the account. Rayna Kalas, now a professor of English at Cornell University, recalls, “Instead of establishing a professional relationship…. [Jane] came away feeling threatened, intimidated, and disappointed.” When asked about the incident, Moretti responded, “At this point, I will ... simply reiterate that I have never knowingly engaged in any kind of unwanted contact with anyone.”

In 1997, he was considered for a position at Johns Hopkins. During this informal visit to Hopkins, Moretti made a pass at a graduate student at the English department. Multiple sources have suggested that this was one reason why the department did not move forward with the hire. Then-faculty member Walter Benn Michaels did not comment on the specifics of the decision, but wrote to The New Republic that, after the visit, “it became clear that people were no longer interested in pursuing the possibility [of his appointment] and I immediately agreed.”  

In 2000, the Stanford English department hired Moretti from Columbia University. During his tenure at Columbia, he married then-PhD candidate Teri Reynolds in 1996. When asked if she knew of any allegations against Moretti while they were colleagues at Columbia, one faculty member in the department, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, responded: “No specific allegations.”

The Harvey Weinstein scandal and resulting resurgence of the #MeToo movement have shown that sexual harassment can and does occur anywhere, from the casting couch to the campaign trail. But the power differential embedded in academia’s hierarchical nature means that those with less power are uniquely vulnerable to abuse. Academics toil for years before they reach tenure, their equivalent of stardom. The process takes place within a highly stratified system that requires a dependence on higher-ups at every level. Each institution has its own departments, divided into subfields, and these insular orbits determine the professional—and oftentimes personal—networks of graduate students, postdoctoral candidates, and junior faculty, for many years at a time.

As a result, the relationship between graduate students and professors is one that hinges on trust. Strong letters of recommendation are tantamount, as is having a professor who will fight on your behalf in a dwindling job market. And throughout the dissertation process, graduate students rely on their mentors for emotional as well as academic support. “A professor is kind of like a priest,” Kimberly Latta told us. When that trust is violated, the fallout can be deeply damaging.

There are various other reasons graduate programs are ripe for abuse. Subjects with a smaller body of research are reliant on a small number of professors who can adequately advise a dissertation. Within STEM fields, women often hold positions with less power and influence, which means that they are starting out in a vulnerable position in relation to their supervisors. And when harassment does occur, the one-on-one nature of research work can make it difficult for students and untenured faculty to report misconduct.

Since many reported cases remain confidential (and more can go unreported), the cases of sexual harassment that are public represent a fraction of the incidents, as detailed in a forthcoming study in Utah Law Review. And professors—especially prestigious ones—can elude consequences if they get a job at another university that has no knowledge of their previous alleged misconduct. This is what’s known as “passing the trash” to another university. “If it’s a case involving two students, schools have to disclose the outcome in writing to the accuser and to the accused,” wrote BuzzFeed’s Tyler Kingkade. “But there’s no similar requirement that they disclose what happens to faculty who are accused of harassment. Too often, critics say, schools agree to keep such accusations quiet if employees resign and go elsewhere.”

When Seo-Young Chu started her doctoral degree at Stanford in 1999, she was only 21 years old. She had also just been hospitalized for a suicide attempt, and had been diagnosed as bipolar. She became an advisee of Jay Fliegelman, a professor of early American literature, during this time. Fliegelman was tenured, respected, and had been been hired by the department straight out of his PhD from Stanford. He was considered something of a wunderkind, a hometown boy made good.

At a private dinner together—which had been presented to Chu as a dinner with other graduate students—Fliegelman intimated that he was interested in a sexual relationship. Chu emphasized that she wanted a professional advising relationship. “But I’m lonely,” he told her. “I’m needy. I need to feel desirable. I need you to desire me.” Throughout her dissertation, she writes, he continuously sexually harassed her. She says he raped her in February of 2000.

By the following fall, Chu had withdrawn from her courses. “Because [Fliegelman] was an ‘institution,’ and because of things he told me about others in the department, I felt I could not turn to anybody else for help. I did not know whom to trust,” she told us. “My ‘mentor’ had distorted my sense of reality, my sense of what it means to be a professor, to the point where I believed sexual violence was normal.”

Only during Chu’s disastrous qualifying exam—co-chaired by Chu’s initial graduate student adviser, Herbert Lindenberger—did Lindenberger ultimately discover Fliegelman’s abuse. Lindenberger recalled, “[Chu] came about 40 minutes late and just couldn’t answer questions, which was totally unlike someone like her. I knew something was the matter.” Lindenberger, with the help of a female senior faculty member, eventually reported Fliegelman to the dean of humanities and sciences.

From there, an external law firm investigated the case, recommending a two-year suspension without pay. During the suspension, he continued to live in a condo that Stanford financially supported. He was also given an office at the edge of campus to meet with students. Furthermore, the chair of the English department at another university tried to arrange a visiting appointment for him there. (“Apparently she felt sorry for him,” Lindenberger recalled.) The chair was thwarted only when female professors protested.

After his suspension, Fliegelman returned, almost immediately, to participate in graduate student life. One graduate student at the time said that Fliegelman frequented the graduate student lounge, one of the few designated office spaces for PhD and Masters candidates. “He would be the only faculty in the room,” said James Marino, who completed his PhD from the department in 2004. “There was no evidence that anyone took care he did not repeat his behavior.”

Fliegelman was also a job placement officer for the department in subsequent years, leaving him in charge of advising graduate students as they applied to teaching and research positions. Faculty members usually fill such administrative positions as part of their departmental duties. But putting Fliegelman “in charge of shepherding graduate students” through the job market, as one former advisee of his put it, was an act of departmental negligence.

That Fliegelman offered “genuine intellectual help,” that he had “professional skills,” that he was “brilliant,” as we heard from one former graduate student after another, reveals one of the tragic ironies of Fliegelman’s predatory behavior. Prospective academics were forced to choose between their careers, sense of ethics, physical safety, and psychological well-being, while the “brilliance” of predators in power often overshadowed the brilliance of those without it. Marino, who had been Chu’s peer at Stanford, observes that media accounts of her story rarely note that she “was arguably the brightest student” among the graduate students. “She had the edge over a bunch of really smart students,” Lindenberger told us. “She was just brilliant.”

Chu is now a professor of English at CUNY Queens College. She published her account on November 3 in an essay, “A Refuge for Jae-in Doe: Fugues in the Key of English Major,” for Entropy Magazine. Part poetry, part fragment, and part testimony, her essay is dialogic, she told us, “because it is responding to so many voices”:

The voice of Emily Doe. The voice of my assailant’s ghost.... The voices of students, teachers, colleagues, mentors, examiners, interrogators, enlighteners, oppressors. The voices of the silenced.

The different strands in the relationship between graduate students and their advisors—professional, academic, personal—have long been notoriously intertwined. Lindenberger recalls, “I remember that early in my career students occasionally dated faculty—in fact, they sometimes even married the person they were dating, and nobody thought any of this particularly wrong.” Over the past decade, however, Stanford and other higher education institutions around the country have chosen to prohibit relationships between graduate students and faculty.

Indeed, a backlash has ensued. Northwestern film studies professor Laura Kipnis has called such prohibition “patriarchal protectionism,” and claimed that it has resulted in a “sexual paranoia” that has chilled teachers’ freedom of thought and speech. But according to the forthcoming Utah Law Review study of faculty harassment of graduate students, most allegations involve physical harassment, which is a separate issue from free speech.

Consent is slippery in a space as hierarchical as academia. Even if training for sexual assault prevention and awareness is strengthened, it will have to contend with a pre-existing culture defined by vastly unequal levels of power. On Fliegelman, Marino said, “It became immediately obvious to me that it was not to discuss this with faculty. It was clear that some faculty supported him very deeply—some were angry.” As one professor told him, “These are supposed to be the enlightened guys, but they stick together like the fucking mafia.”

Dawn Coleman, who completed her PhD from Stanford’s English department in 2004, had a dissertation co-chaired by Fliegelman and Moretti. She said she faced continuous harassment from Fliegelman, including invitations during his two-year suspension to discuss her dissertation at his house or over dinner at a restaurant. “His excuse was that he was lonely and didn’t cook,” she recalled. She was never told about the terms of Fliegelman’s leave. “In retrospect, I cannot believe that I was not given a clear statement of the terms or reasons for his leave when I was one of the students most directly affected by it,” she said.

A former student of Fliegelman at that time was not privy to gossip among the English graduate students. She recalled, “You would go into a meeting with him in his office. Every time he looked down at his notes, his eyes would be coming back up to a different part of your body.” Now that she is a professor, she wonders, “When people are under investigation, how do you regulate that? How do you protect those students until that decision has been made?”

When Fliegelman passed away in 2007, Stanford University created an undergraduate thesis award in his name—discontinued now—and passed a memorial resolution. In 2016, the American Society of Eighteenth Century Studies also named a mentorship award after Fliegelman, which was quietly renamed after Chu sent a letter to the association. After Chu’s essay was published in Entropy, a letter and petition circulated in support of Chu, calling for greater public acknowledgment.       

Still, the issue is apparently still so complicated that nearly a month after Chu, Latta, and Penner came forward with their stories, the Stanford English department can’t even tack on a canned statement condemning sexual misconduct of any kind. Thus far, only individual faculty members have taken the initiative to reach out to undergraduate students and graduate students. A university spokesperson told The New Republic that Latta’s allegation is “new to Stanford.... We of course are concerned and will be reviewing the matter.” Alex Woloch, the current department chair, declined to comment on allegations against Moretti and Fliegelman, but wrote that, “Our department’s first goal, right now, is to support our students.”

The story of sexual assault in academia is also a story of exclusion. Patronage and mentorship are more important than ever in a career path with rapidly decreasing job opportunities. And when most faculty are white, hetero males, and from affluent families, the needs of marginalized students—low-income students, students of color, LGBTQ students—remain dangerously invisible at the level of post-secondary education. Junior faculty, too, are just as vulnerable in this system of hierarchies. Sexual violence is not just about sex—it is about power. And when marginalized people experience sexual violence in such a system, they must overcome tremendous disadvantages when speaking out.

For the most part, the people who were able to speak to us were those who have long left academia, or were tenure-track or fully tenured—that is, those who have the job security that mitigates consequences of coming forward. Away from academia, Latta felt she was finally able to come forward about what happened. She told us, “It’s really an old boys and old girls network these days. I wanted to say this, to say, ‘He did this to me,’ for years now, but I never felt safe enough to do it.”

Progress does not have a single trajectory. It could take the form of an apology from the university or department. It might mean hiring more faculty who can best advocate for marginalized students. It most certainly involves maintaining protections for Title IX, despite Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s reversal of Obama-era policy, which Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center, believes “will discourage students from reporting assaults, create uncertainty for schools on how to follow the law and make campuses less safe.”

“We have to make the hidden workings of the academy, and especially the hidden workings of mentorship and advancement transparent to people who don’t have access to them,” said Kyla Wazana Tompkins, who completed her PhD from Stanford University in 2004. “That means finding, cultivating, and hiring faculty who can do that mentorship work, and listening to them when they make policy change suggestions.”

Progress could take the form of ensuring that universities have confidential resources for supporting their students, establishing coordinated community response teams, and creating multidisciplinary policies surrounding sexual misconduct. Most importantly, progress asks for those in power to approach mentorship and policy-making with open doors, to cultivate a safe and inclusive space.

Sharon Zhang contributed reporting. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Jay Fliegelman co-chaired Seo-Young Chu’s qualifying exam. It also incorrectly stated that Franco Moretti and Kimberly Latta had dinner together on the night he allegedly raped her. We regret the errors.