Ghost From the Past

Professor’s essay about being harassed and raped by her late adviser sparks calls for public acknowledgment of the reasons for his past suspension from Stanford and the renaming of a disciplinary society mentorship award that bore his name.

November 9, 2017
 
Stanford University
Jay Fliegelman

It was a simple phone call from an undergraduate seeking donations from alumni. But the words “I’m calling from Stanford to ask about your experience while you were here” were enough. Enough to send Seo-Young Chu reeling, back nearly two decades to when she says a former faculty mentor -- now dead -- harassed and ultimately raped her.

Chu, now an associate professor of English at Queens College of the City University of New York, wrote about that time in an essay published this month by Entropy magazine. The piece, as well written as its story is enraging, has many of Chu’s fellow academics reeling, in turn. Some have responded by asking the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies to publicly explain why it last year renamed a faculty mentorship award that previously honored the late Jay Fliegelman, Coe Professor in American Literature at Stanford University -- and the man Chu says raped her.

Demands for public acknowledgment have been directed at Stanford as well. The university points out that Fliegelman was suspended without pay and banned from the department for two years as a result of the incident. But those sanctions were not publicly linked to Chu's accusations until now.

‘The Story Tumbles Out’

“The story tumbles out” to the unwitting undergraduate, Chu wrote in her essay. It “begins with my suicide attempt at age 21 and ends with Stanford’s own punishment of the professor in 2001: two years of suspension without pay … I have never sued the rapist, the department or the school -- despite the time I’ve lost and the fortune I’ve spent as a consequence of the harmful culture at Stanford that enabled the professor to injure me as well as others.”

Chu describes how Fliegelman groomed her for abuse, inviting her to a group dinner that turned out to be a one-on-one and telling her, “I’m lonely. I’m needy. I need to feel desirable. I need you to desire me.” A new graduate student who was already recovering from a suicide attempt and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, Chu didn’t know how to respond, other than by promising to work hard. The harassment and abuse of power only escalated, as they too often do, by Chu’s telling, with Fliegelman alleged asking about Chu’s sexual history and other intimate topics. He allegedly told her all men -- even her father -- have rape fantasies, showed up at her dorm room uninvited and relied on her as an outlet for his own emotions. Then there was the alleged rape.

Chu says that she never personally reported the assault to Stanford but that one of her confidants did, on her behalf. The university investigated, she says, but Fliegelman was not terminated. Instead, he faced two years of unpaid administrative leave with no public record as to why. She remains haunted -- literally, in a way, and figuratively -- by his ghost.

‘Especially Gifted as a Teacher’

Fliegelman died in 2007, at 58, from complications from liver disease and cancer. A Stanford announcement from the time described him as an “especially gifted” who received the Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching, the Associated Students of Stanford University Award for Outstanding Teaching and a University Summer Fellowship in recognition of his teaching.

The American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in 2009 also named a mentorship award after Fliegelman -- which is what prompted Chu to name her rapist, initially to the group’s executive director. (Chu said Tuesday that she’d previously identified herself publicly as a rape survivor, in solidarity with Brock Turner’s accuser, in a high-profile rape case involving two students, also at Stanford.)

“Recently I learned that there is a graduate mentoring award named after (I’m just going to force myself to spell out his name) Jay Fliegelman,” Chu wrote to the society in mid-2016, upon hearing of Fliegelman’s namesake graduate mentoring award. “This man was supposed to be my dissertation adviser. I say ‘supposed to be,’ because he spent more time sexually harassing and stalking me than he did advising me academically … Surely there are better examples in whose honor this award might be renamed.”

The society renamed the award approximately two months later. But until now it’s been unclear why. So upon reading Chu’s essay, society members circulated a draft letter to the group's executive board this week, urging it to “publicly acknowledge the reason for rescinding his name from the award and to apologize for the shatteringly specific violence enacted, however unwittingly, in naming this award after this person in the first place.”

They further called on the board “to state in no uncertain terms that the society will no longer tolerate such patterns of abusive behavior nor their normalization as part of our professional culture.”

Lisa Berglund, executive director of the society and a professor of English at Buffalo State College of the State University of New York, said in an email Wednesday that the board, at Chu’s urging, removed “the name of her rapist from the Graduate Mentorship Award.” Now that Chu has shared her story, Berglund said, “we can begin making the circumstances of that removal public. And we will respond to the other concerns raised by our members as soon as possible.”

Seeking Acknowledgment

Eugenia Zuroski, an associate professor of English at McMaster University in Canada who helped organize the letter to the association, responded to a request for comment with a group statement from her and five other signatories: Tita Chico, associate professor of English at the University of Maryland at College Park; Mansuhag Powell, associate professor of English at Purdue University; Emily West, visiting assistant professor of English at the University of Windsor in Canada; Kathleen Lubey, an associate professor of English at St. John’s University in New York; and Kirsten Saxton, professor of English at Mills College. They said their letter calls “for an acknowledgment of and attempts to rectify the structures of inequity and complicity that have allowed such abusive and harassing behaviors to remain possible. Jay Fliegelman may be dead, but this pattern of behavior, so destructive to the academic culture we want to cultivate, persists.”

Instead of “blaming,” they said they call for “steps forward to protect and mentor our members, especially the most vulnerable among us. We hope the end result of Professor Chu’s publication and our collective response is an explicit position by ASECS on providing conditions of equity, security and productivity for its members of all sexes, genders, races, abilities and academic ranks.”

Chu said in an email to Inside Higher Ed that her writing “is not retaliatory. It is meant to add another voice to the record. It is meant to correct, or try to correct, any misinformation about the case. It is meant to explain my own experience as a survivor of sexual violence in academia.” Having tenure, she added, “is what encouraged me -- gave me the courage -- to write candidly about what happened to me at Stanford.”

Efforts to reach Fliegelman's widow were not successful.

Lisa Lapin, a spokesperson for Stanford, said both California employment law and federal student privacy laws “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.”

While Stanford remains constrained by privacy laws and can’t speak about this specific case, she said, “we take concerns of this nature extremely seriously, conduct thorough investigations and inform both parties of the outcome of those investigations. Most often, people in situations like this do not want details discussed.” Lapin added, “These are very difficult cases and the university does its best to make sure the right thing is done.  We could not speculate about what would happen today in terms of notifications; the privacy provisions are all still in place.”

Stanford noted that it’s been working to refine its sexual harassment policies since the early 2000s, expanding and adding more support service for survivors of sexual misconduct. According to state law, it said, all faculty members and supervisors complete mandatory sexual misconduct training every two years.

Even if Fliegelman's colleagues knew about the circumstances of his suspension, it's unclear how many of his students or peers off campus did. It was the graduate caucus of the literary society that voted, unanimously, to name the mentorship award after him.

As more and more harassment experiences come to light, Fliegelman probably won’t be the last deceased professor named. He’s not the first, either. Earlier this year, for example, St. Olaf College scrubbed from a campus arts building the name of Reidar Dittmann, a longtime professor there who died in 2010. In doing so, the college cited reports of Dittmann’s sexual misconduct against students -- now alumni -- that had recently come to light. Dittmann’s family disagreed with the action, saying in a statement that they were devastated by the “impossibility of due process for the person we knew and loved.”

Fliegelman’s case differs, of course, in that he was granted due process during his lifetime and punished by his university, although in ways some see as insufficiently serious. But Chu and her supporters seem to be demanding more than that -- namely some public record of that process.

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