Not So Cold Cases, After All

What’s to be done about the numerous reports of faculty misconduct dating back years and even decades?

November 13, 2017
 
Getty Images

As more and more sexual harassment cases involving faculty members come to light, a significant share of them date back 10, 20 and even 30 years. The last few months have seen a series of high-profile cases in which the accused professors are now senior in age as well as status, retired or even deceased. While these so-called cold cases certainly pose practical challenges in terms of dwindling institutional memory and evidence, experts say institutions are often (if not always) eager to help right past wrongs -- and that they must.

“The deep question here is, ‘What is the purpose of making these allegations after so many years?’” said Michele Dauber, the Frederick I. Richman Professor of Law at Stanford University. “To a certain extent, it’s not unlike debates about Confederate memorials showing up in states that have never really been forced to come to terms with what they’ve done. It is wrong to say that people who were wronged by institutions in the past should simply let it go, with no acknowledgment of their suffering.”

Issues of moral responsibility are arguably more relevant and important in an educational setting, and indeed academic institutions have grappled with these parallel issues of legacy, Dauber said. “We really need to think about who we’re honoring … Seo-Young Chu is clearly owed an apology, at minimum.”

About a Stanford Legacy

Dauber was talking about harassment cold cases in general, but she referred in particular to one victim of harassment: Chu, an associate professor of English at Queens College of the City University of New York. Chu recently wrote a widely read essay saying that the late Jay Fliegelman, Coe Professor in American Literature at Stanford University, harassed and raped her when she was a new graduate student at Stanford, some 17 years ago. Stanford at the time investigated and disciplined the professor with a two-year unpaid leave, during which he was barred from the department. But Chu said she’d that she’d never received a formal apology from the institution and that she’d been dismayed to learn that the graduate caucus of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies had in 2009 named a graduate mentorship award after Fliegelman.

The society renamed the award shortly after Chu initially contacted leaders about it, in 2016. But until Chu’s essay, she said, there was no public record as to why. Chu’s essay prompted fellow academics to ask the society to publicly acknowledge why it changed the name of the award and to renounce such abuses of power -- which it did Friday.

The society’s executive board “unequivocally condemns all forms of harassment, discrimination and abuse, including mistreatment based on sex, race or status,” it said in a statement, thanking Chu for coming forward. “In the months ahead we will be developing policies for incorporation into our bylaws that make clear that harassment and discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated. This process will require the commitment of our entire membership to join together in a firm endorsement of our standards and values.”

Stanford has said that Fliegelman’s suspension was well-known on campus -- that the punishment was never quiet. Not addressed in Chu’s essay but worth noting, then, is that the Faculty Senate passed a resolution honoring him in 2008, upon his death from complications from liver disease and cancer. The resolution stated, in part, that Fliegelman’s “lasting legacy will be his mentoring of undergraduates and, especially, graduate students in their academic and research careers at and beyond Stanford.” According to meeting minutes, all present -- including the provost who would have overseen some if not all of Fliegelman’s disciplinary proceedings -- stood in silent tribute. The full Stanford Report version of the resolution notes that Stanford acquired Fliegelman's entire, highly valuable personal library -- including Thomas Jefferson's copy of Paradise Lost -- upon his death.

Dauber, a critic of some of her institution’s past responses to sexual misconduct, said she thought the Senate should now repeal the memorial resolution and pass one apologizing to Chu. “Surely we should not hold an institution charged with educating our future leaders to a lower standard than we hold Hollywood,” she added, referring to the professional fallout for Harvey Weinstein and others in the entertainment industry accused of sexual misconduct.

Chu told Inside Higher Ed that her essay “is not retaliatory,” but “meant to add another voice to the record.”

What’s Old Is New Again

Cold-case harassment reports are not new. Perhaps the most widely reported case of harassment in academe, that of Geoff Marcy, a former professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, broke in 2015 but involved reports of misconduct dating back years. Yet recent weeks have seen a new group of older allegations.

Jane Willenbring, now an associate professor of geology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, went public this fall with her claims of sexual harassment against David Marchant, who was until recently chair of earth and environment at Boston University (he remains a professor there). The allegations go back to 1999, when Marchant was supervising Willenbring as a doctoral student during a research trip to Antarctica; Willenbring says that Marchant pressured her to have sex with his brother, who was on the trip, pelted her with rocks while she was urinating outside, called her stupid and purposely blew volcanic ash in her eyes to agitate her ice blindness condition. Another formal doctoral student has made similar allegations. Boston is investigating Marchant, who has not commented publicly about the case.

Just last week, Kimberly Latta, a Pittsburgh-area psychotherapist, informed Stanford that Franco Moretti -- who now holds the Danily C. and Laura Louise Bell Professorship in the Humanities, Emeritus -- assaulted her decades ago when he was a visiting professor at Berkeley. Latta shared her email to Stanford on Facebook, saying she’d been inspired to speak out in the wake of the Weinstein news and the social media hashtag #MeToo, in which survivors of misconduct have shared their experiences.

“I am writing to report that when I was a graduate student at Berkeley in 1984-85, my then professor Franco Moretti sexually stalked, pressured and raped me,” Latta wrote. “He specifically said to me, ‘You Americans girls say no when you mean yes.’ He raped me in my apartment in Oakland. He also would frequently push me up against the wall in his office, right next to the window that looked out at the library, and push up my shirt and bra and forcibly kiss me, against my will.”

Latta said she reported the alleged misconduct to Berkeley at the time, but that the relevant official at the time was a friend of Moretti’s who discouraged her from filing a formal complaint. Instead, Latta said, the official said she should share only Moretti’s initials, in case of reports from other students. Moretti allegedly threatened Latta not to go public, saying he’d ruin her name. For that reason, she said, she remained silent for many years as she continued to work within academe.

“This man has certainly assaulted many other women over the course of his fabulously successful career,” Latta said. “It’s time that the truth came out about this predator. I will take any lie detector and make any affidavits necessary to assure that he is brought to justice.”

Stanford said Friday that Latta’s allegation was entirely new to officials, but that it had reached out to her. “We of course are concerned and will be reviewing the matter and whether there are any actions for Stanford to take,” said Lisa Lapin, university spokesperson, noting that Moretti was no longer on campus due to his retirement this year.

Moretti via email said that his relationship with Latta was consensual and that he never warned her to keep quiet, as he had little to no institutional status and no powerful contacts with which to threaten her at the time. While he and the misconduct officer are friends, he said, they were not yet so at the time Latta would have lodged a complaint.

“I did not rape her, and am horrified by the accusation,” he said in an emailed statement. “I was a visitor, with no prospect, back then, of ever being part of the American academy. Unfortunately, I fear this accusation will have an enormous impact on colleagues, friends and family, despite being utterly false.”

Latta did not respond to a request for comment about Moretti’s assertion. Berkeley officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the case.

Also last week, on Thursday, Arizona State University asked for and received the resignation of Jaime Lara, a former Roman Catholic priest and an esteemed professor of medieval and Renaissance studies who previously worked at Yale University. Earlier in the day, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn shared on its website that Lara had been defrocked 25 years ago for child sex abuse.

Ricardo Gonzalez, who received compensation from the church as a result of the case, told The New York Times that he called Lara’s institutions to tell his story as an adult. But he said he felt he was never believed. “I want everyone to know who he is,” Gonzalez said. “I want him to lose his job, I want him to not have a drink of water. He ruined the little belief that I have. He is a very, very horrible person.”

Lara did not respond to a request for comment via email.

Righting Long Overdue Wrongs

Gonzalez was not at Arizona State when Lara abused him, but the other cases pertain to former students.

Willenbring said Friday that she came forward once she earned tenure, and that she’s grateful for what seems like increased media attention to sexual misconduct cases in general because it’s “easy to sweep the issue under the rug without a spotlight.” Press attention can highlight a poor institutional decision following an investigation under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender discrimination in federally funded programs, for example.

Willenbring said that she wasn’t seeking justice in her Title IX case, however, “but to make sure it didn’t happen ever again” with Marchant and anyone else, and “also to shine a light on the dark aspects of academia.” She described the experience as anxiety ridden, in that there’s always a risk of professional consequences. She said she wonders, for example, if Marchant’s friends are reading her proposals or papers or, worse, those of her students. But writing the complaint has also been cathartic, and prompted others to come forward and possibly get their own sense of closure, she added.

The case isn’t yet closed, Willenbring said, but “I think that now I have achieved what I set out to do.” She's turning her focus toward the “scores of women who reached out to me after the publicity with their own horrifying stories of harassment, discrimination and even rape in earth science departments all over the country.”

Brett Sokolow, executive director of the Association for Title IX Administrators, said that many institutions lifted their reporting timelines following the Education Department’s 2011 missive to apply Title IX to sexual misconduct, enabling these more dated complaints. And as new complainants continue to come forward with older allegations, he said, institutions are generally willing to hear their stories.

Richard Anthony Baker, assistant vice president for equal opportunity services at the University of Houston, said that such timeline-free policies are considered to be “trauma informed” because they allow the accuser “to decide when they are ready to notify the institution or move forward with their allegations, without the pressure of doing so because of an institution’s deadline.” The downside to those policies, however, is that the evidence to support a finding may be “hard to collect or not available 10 or 20 years after the event.” Another concern is that the “may no longer be affiliated with -- and therefore no longer under the control of -- the institution” so many years later.

Sokolow agreed that evidence is harder to obtain with time and that discipline is of course harder to administer if the professor is gone or dead. But cold cases are nevertheless an important opportunity for institutions to make sure that the policies and procedures in place now would clearly discourage or prevent whatever happened in the past from happening again, he said.

Additionally, he said, institutions in his experience are eager to help students or former students whose studies have been somehow derailed by harassment regain their footing. That includes offering readmission, tuition credits, counseling or advocacy, or accepting transfer credits, for example. Indeed, a number of women who have come forward with harassment or assault claims report having dropped out of academe, switched fields or transferring institutions as a result of their experiences.

Sokolow was hesitant to say whether the recent group of cold cases represented any Weinstein-inspired trend. But in higher education and in other sectors, he said, “We’ll look back on this moment as a tectonic shift in the way we address women’s equality in the workplace.”

Erin Buzuvis, a professor of law at Western New England University and moderator of the Title IX Blog, also said she had no way to quantify whether there were more cold case reports now or whether they were just getting more publicity. Legally, there’s not a bright-line reporting deadline, she said, but she agreed that colleges and universities are increasingly limited in their options for responding as time passes. Regardless of timeline, though, she said, “What institutions should be doing is whatever is reasonable and necessary to do by way of making sure that everybody is safe and that the problem doesn’t reoccur.”

That means that even when a professor is gone and no disciplinary action may therefore be taken against a particular individual, institutions “might be able to examine their internal processes and procedures or whatever allowed that problem to happen in the past.” In doing so, Buzuvis said, “institutions might easily discover that in the intervening years that a lot has changed by way of culture, policies and practice.”

Pushing for a Culture Shift -- and Accountability

Katherine Franke, Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia University and director of its Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, said she thought academe was no different from any other industry in which prominent people -- meaning men -- “have the power to make or break your career. And some will exploit this kind of power for personal gratification.” She said she also wanted to avoid “fanning the flames of a kind of sex panic” that could arise from the newfound attention on faculty harassment cases. (Franke worried, too, that such attention could overshadow what she said was a bigger threat to students: misconduct from other students.)

All that said, Franke posited that when it comes to allegations now emerging about male professors who sexually harassed or assaulted their female students 20 or more years ago, “I am less concerned with opening up the statute of limitations and allowing a suit to be filed, than with a kind of reckoning on our campuses with institutional denial of the well-known fact of sexual harassment by faculty.” Campuses have to be more invested in rethinking their cultural norms than protecting their brands, she said, noting that institutions' failure to sufficiently address harassment is one symptom of the “neoliberalization” of higher education.

At least in the court of public opinion -- or public accountability -- harassment cases at private institutions, both new and cold, are harder to try. That’s because private institutions are not subject to the same public records laws as public institutions, ostensibly because they are not funded with taxpayer dollars. In other words, some terms of a Title IX investigation are considered a matter of public record at a public institution but not a private one. Yet private institutions are still subject to Title IX -- because federal funds nevertheless flow into them.

Dauber, at Stanford, said accountability will remain a problem at private institutions in particular until public records laws are amended to include an exemption for sexual harassment and assault.

“There is no public benefit and only public detriment” to the current transparency laws for private campuses, she said.

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

 
+ -

Expand commentsHide comments  —   Join the conversation!

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

What Others Are Reading

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • Day
  • Week
  • Month
  • Year
Back to Top