Widgets Magazine

Two women accuse former Stanford professors of sexual assault

This post has been updated twice with comments from Franco Moretti.

Two women have recently made public accusations of sexual assault against Stanford professors, one of whom is now deceased and one of whom is retired.

Franco Moretti, professor emeritus in the English department, faces allegations of sexual assault, harassment and rape made by Kimberly Latta, his former graduate student at UC Berkeley. In an email to The Daily on Friday morning, Moretti said the allegations were “utterly false” and described his interactions with Latta as “fully consensual.”

The other accusation came in a creative piece — part poetry, part personal essay — published Nov. 3 in Entropy by Stanford graduate Seo-Young Chu M.A. ’01. The piece details Chu’s accusations of harassment and rape against Jay Fliegelman, Stanford’s former Coe Professor in American Literature who died in 2007. According to Chu, Stanford suspended Fliegelman for two years without pay after conducting an investigation but then allowed him to continue teaching.

Franco Moretti

Latta wrote in a Facebook post Sunday morning first covered by Stanford Politics that she had contacted Stanford authorities about the sexual assault that occurred at Berkeley in 1984-1985, while Moretti was a visiting professor. Berkeley later invited him to return as a visiting Beckman Professor in 2002.

According to Latta, Moretti “sexually stalked, pressured and raped” her while he was her professor in the department. She said that he raped her in her Oakland apartment and would push up her shirt and bra and kiss her against her will in his office.

“He specifically said to me, ‘You American girls say no when you mean yes,’” Latta wrote.

Moretti denied the accusation of rape, maintaining that she had been a consenting partner throughout their acquaintance.

“I did meet Kimberly Latta during my visit at Berkeley in 1985; we went out to dinner together one night and back to her apartment where we had fully consensual sex and I spent the night,” wrote Moretti. “I did not rape her, and am horrified by the accusation.”

He added that he and Latta continued to meet, “including at her initiative,” and remained friendly until he left Berkeley.

When Latta reported the incident to Berkeley’s Title IX office, she said that both Moretti and then-Title IX officer Frances Ferguson attempted to silence her — an account that Ferguson disputes.

While Latta wrote that Ferguson, who was also an English professor, pressured her to state only Moretti’s initials in a report as Ferguson was “a friend of his,” Ferguson described the characterization as a “real misunderstanding.”

“I scarcely knew Franco Moretti, but even if I had been a close friend of his, I believe I would have told her what I told her at the time, which is that she had two options ahead of her,”  Ferguson said. “The last thing I would want would be to discourage someone from making a formal complaint.”

As Berkeley’s sole Title IX officer, Ferguson said, she would advise individuals who reported sexual misconduct or assault of their options: file a formal complaint, which she could then investigate through the Title IX office, or make an informal complaint to the accused, which Ferguson said amounted to a letter asking the accused to desist.

According to Ferguson, she was prohibited from keeping detailed notes on any case that was not filed as a formal complaint. The misunderstanding between Latta and herself, she said, originated from notes that she kept on her meeting with Latta, which she took in case Latta or another student made another complaint about Moretti. Ferguson said she redacted Latta and Moretti’s names in the notes in deference to the policy on record-keeping with informal complaints.

Nor was she aware that Moretti’s actions had reached the extent Latta described in her post, Ferguson said. In her recollection, Latta’s report to her included interactions that amounted to sexual harassment but not sexual assault.

“I had the impression that she was saying that he was asking her to have sex with him, but he was not putting pressure on her — past just being initially soliciting her attention,”  Ferguson said. “And I had the impression that I had not thought it had reached such an extreme path that it’d be useless for her to write a letter to him to say, ‘your attentions are unwelcome, please stop.’”

The relationship between Moretti and Ferguson remains disputed by all three parties involved. Both Moretti and Ferguson deny that they were friends at the time of the incident, but whereas Moretti claims that he and Ferguson “became friends later,”, Ferguson said that she saw little of Moretti outside of chance professional encounters.

Ferguson added that she later heard from her academic network that he allegedly sexually harassed another graduate student in the 1990s, a claim that Moretti also disputes.

After Latta told Moretti about her conversation with Ferguson, he threatened to “ruin [her] career” if she pressed charges against him, Latta wrote. Moretti denies that the conversation ever happened, saying that he first heard of Latta’s complaint against him – or any other sexual harassment complaint in a university setting – only on Nov. 10, the date he responded to The Daily’s inquiry.

“I did not know Frances Ferguson at the time (though we became friends later), had no powerful attorney friends, and certainly did not threaten to ruin any career,” wrote Moretti. “I was a visitor, with no prospect, back then, of ever being part of the American academy.”

Whether or not the conversation that year took place, Latta made no further report about Moretti in the decades that followed.

After earning her degree, Latta stayed in academia as an assistant professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh and Saint Louis University before switching careers to psychotherapy and writing.

Moretti, who retired from Stanford last spring and is on leave this academic year, is known for his work on literary theory and digital humanities. He was unavailable by phone when The Daily contacted him Thursday evening but responded via email Friday morning.

University spokesperson EJ Miranda wrote in an email to The Daily that Latta’s complaint is ‘new’ to the administration and that the University has reached out to Latta for further information.

“The professor has retired and is not currently on campus,” Miranda wrote. “We of course are concerned and will be reviewing the report and whether there are any actions for Stanford to take.”

For his part, Moretti said that he only learned about the sexual harassment and assault allegations against him for the first time on Friday.

“Unfortunately, I fear this accusation will have an enormous impact on colleagues, friends, and family, despite being utterly false,” he wrote.

But in her original post, Latta said she was confident of her version of events and that she hoped to stand up for other women who might have been assaulted by Moretti.

“I will take any lie detector and make any affidavits necessary to assure that he is brought to justice,” she wrote.

Jay Fliegelman

Former English graduate student Chu, now an associate professor of English at Queens College, CUNY, wrote in her piece in Entropy that Fliegelman subjected her to months of sexual harassment in addition to raping her while she was studying at Stanford.

Fliegelman also made inappropriate statements to her, she said, asking her if she was a virgin and telling her once that “All men have rape fantasies, including your father.”

She recounted a conversation with him early on in their acquaintance in which he probed her desire to stay in her Ph.D. program over a restaurant meal between just the two of them.

Feeling uneasy, Chu wrote, she tried to fend off potential advances.

“I added that I was not ‘interested’ in the way people who are dating use that word, but he could always count on me to work hard and try my best to produce good scholarship,” she recalled.

“But I’m lonely,” Chu wrote that Fliegelman replied. “I’m needy. I need to feel desirable. I need you to desire me.”

Chu said she never pressed charges against the professor but that her statements to University personnel led the school to take up an investigation concluding in Fliegelman’s suspension.

Miranda did not comment on the specifics of the case, citing ongoing privacy concerns and saying that written permission to discuss such cases – required by FERPA to share information – “is rarely provided.”

“Both California employment law and FERPA restricted what we could say at the time about the details, though it was well known throughout the campus that the faculty member was suspended and banned from the department and its building for two years,” Miranda wrote in an email to The Daily Thursday evening.

“While we remain constrained by privacy laws and cannot speak about this specific case, we take concerns of this nature extremely seriously, conduct thorough investigations and inform both parties of the outcome of those investigations,” he continued.

Chu herself could not be reached by phone or email Thursday evening.

After leaving her doctoral program at Stanford, Chu completed a Ph.D. in English at Harvard University and has been teaching and writing since. Her first book, “Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep?”, was published six years ago.

Despite his two-year leave from Stanford, Chu noted, Fliegelman remained a prominent scholar up to his death at the age of 58. One section of Chu’s published piece is a letter dated June 2016, addressed to the administrators of a graduate mentoring award formerly named after Fliegelman. The award’s exact title is unspecified in her essay but apparently references an honor that the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies named after Fliegelman in 2009.

Until at least 2014, Stanford’s American Studies department also presented the Jay W. Fliegelman Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Honors Research.

“If you are one of Jay Fliegelman’s former students who had an experience worth celebrating: I believe you,” Chu wrote in the letter portion of her essay. “You need not provide documentation to persuade me. I believe that, in your experience, he was a wonderful mentor. Is it too much for me to ask you to believe me too?”

 

Contact Fangzhou Liu at fzliu96 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Hannah Knowles at hknowles ‘at’ stanford.edu.

 

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Washington University in St. Louis once gave out an award named after Jay Fliegelman. In fact, a WUSTL professor won the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies’ award once named after Fliegelman. The Daily regrets this error.

About Fangzhou Liu

Fangzhou Liu ’19 is a news editor majoring in computer science and linguistics. Raised in Singapore, she still shares her compatriots’ interests in street food and freebies and your dad’s taste in music. Contact Fang with questions and job leads at fzliu96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Hannah Knowles

Hannah Knowles is a junior from San Jose double-majoring in English and The Daily. Prior to managing the news section, she was desk editor for the University and Local beat.