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Academia’s #MeToo moment: Women accuse professors of sexual misconduct

Lisa Schievelbein at her Albany, N.Y., apartment. (Katye Martens Brier/For The Washington Post)

Higher education runs on relationships built outside the classroom. Veteran professors hold private meetings during office hours, lead teams in laboratories and mingle at wine-and-cheese receptions. They aim to connect with students and junior faculty, provide academic guidance, develop confidence and trust.

Too often, women say, men who hold these positions of privilege and power on college campuses have abused that trust.

A growing number of former students and faculty colleagues have stepped forward in recent months to accuse tenured professors of sexual harassment and, in some cases, sexual assault. These women are now demanding a reckoning for long- ­hidden incidents they say left them scared, scarred and disillusioned. Some of these accounts target eminent faculty members at Harvard University, the University of Virginia and other prominent schools.

“He violated me in this horrible way,” Seo-Young Chu said of a deceased Stanford University professor who she alleges raped her years ago. “I never really healed completely.”

The #MeToo movement, which has rocked politics, media, business and entertainment, is exploding with full force in academia.

For colleges, the intensified scrutiny of professors marks a second phase in a profound shift of thinking about sexual misconduct that began several years ago with a spotlight on sexual violence among students. Schools are scrambling to assure campus communities that they understand the problem encompasses faculty, too.

Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust — the first woman to hold that position — said the #MeToo movement is forcing faculty members to rethink interactions with students and colleagues. “If you go out for drinks with the people in your lab, what are the implications of a situation like that?” Faust said.

Professors must ensure their influence is wielded in “an ethical way,” Faust said. “We intend to have our faculty be accountable for how they use their power.”

Sexual-harassment allegations have roiled Harvard this year following a report about a political scientist, Terry Karl, who left the university faculty in the early 1980s after enduring what she called unwanted sexual advances from a more senior colleague. Harvard found that professor, Jorge I. Dominguez, responsible for “serious misconduct” at the time, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, but he stayed at the university and rose to become vice provost for international affairs. The Chronicle has reported that several more women are now accusing Dominguez of inappropriate conduct. Harvard has pledged a “full and fair review” of the allegations.

Dominguez declined through an attorney to comment but has said he plans to retire this year.

Allegations of professorial sexual misconduct have also surfaced at Dartmouth College, Berklee College of Music and other schools across the country.

Since December, more than 2,400 anonymous accounts of sexual misconduct have been posted online through a spreadsheet in which victims and witnesses describe incidents they say occurred in their work with lecturers, professors, deans and others.

Karen Kelsky, an academic career consultant in Eugene, Ore., and former anthropology professor, created the forum that she calls a “crowdsourced survey of sexual harassment in the academy.” The offenses range from rape and assault to remarks about clothing and appearance that cross the line. Perpetrators are not named, but many schools are.

“I’m really struck by how endemic this is,” Kelsky said.

Colleges have long known of the problem, but in recent years have learned more about its prevalence. In 2015, the Association of American Universities surveyed students at 27 prominent research universities about sexual misconduct. It found that 10 percent of female graduate and professional students experienced sexual harassment from faculty members.

“We need to be thinking about faculty-student relationships,” said Mary Sue Coleman, president of the association. “I want to be perfectly clear about this: Universities are not somehow different from the rest of society. . . . We’re talking about culture — deeply embedded culture.”

Chu was a graduate student at Stanford in 2000 when, she said, her faculty adviser sexually attacked her.

Jay Fliegelman, a well-known English professor, was later suspended for two years for sexual harassment and misconduct because of his behavior toward Chu, including an incident of “oral-genital contact” at the professor’s home after he played a pornographic video, Stanford’s general counsel, Debra Zumwalt, told Chu in a November 2017 letter.

Chu described the incident as nonconsensual. Fliegelman disputed that, according to Zumwalt, telling investigators he stopped as soon as Chu indicated she was “not comfortable.” Stanford concluded the incident occurred “under circumstances that were extremely inappropriate and in which your assent could be questioned,” Zumwalt told Chu.

The university imposed what Zumwalt called a “significant financial sanction” on Fliegelman. At the time, he disputed many of the findings, according to the letter, but apologized for the pain he caused Chu and declared himself “very ashamed.”

Chu ended up leaving the university and getting her doctorate from Harvard in 2007. Fliegelman died that year, on the Stanford faculty to the end and celebrated in an official obituary for his scholarship, teaching and rare book collection.

“There isn’t a day in my life when I haven’t been eaten away by it in some way,” said Chu, 40, an associate professor of English at Queens College in the City University of New York.

On behalf of Stanford, Zumwalt expressed sorrow to Chu for her suffering. “You did the right thing by bringing this issue forward in 2000,” she wrote, “and we are grateful to you for doing so.”

Advocates for male professors accused of misconduct say it can be exceedingly difficult for them to defend their reputations when allegations are aired in public about disputed events that occurred years ago.

“Career-wise, you’re shot whether or not the process plays itself out in the university disciplinary arena,” said attorney Andrew Miltenberg. He said he represents about a dozen professors accused of sexual misconduct. Universities are doing “a very bad job,” he said, at ensuring the accused are treated fairly. “Faculty members have a lot to be afraid of. The damage is very immediate.”

Compounding the challenge: Many faculty members revel in making provocative remarks about taboo subjects, including sex, and presume tenure and the principles of academic freedom will protect them. Miltenberg said professors are often bewildered at the very notion they could be accused of sexual transgressions. Their attitude, he said, is: “Are you kidding me? I’ve taught at this institution for 23 years, I estimate 10,000 students have passed through my doors, and now I’m getting a complaint from 2006?”

Lisa Schievelbein’s complaint centers on events 17 years ago at the University of Virginia. In her senior year, she took a seminar on the theory and practice of fiction. Her professor was John Casey, on the U-Va. faculty since 1972, who won a National Book Award in 1989 for his novel “Spartina.”

One night in early 2001, she told The Washington Post, Casey took her out to a Thai restaurant in Charlottesville to talk about writing but surprised her with questions about her sex life. In his car after dinner, she alleged, he groped her breasts and digitally penetrated her vagina without her consent.

Days later, Schievelbein said, she was overcome with anxiety when she attended the fiction class.

“At one point, I began quietly crying from the stress of sitting so close to a professor who had sexually assaulted me,” Schievelbein said.

She said nonconsensual sexual encounters ensued — incidents she did not report to authorities at the time. “I did not think there was anything that I could do to make him stop,” she wrote. “In those subsequent assaults, he never asked for my consent, and I did not provide it.”

As the semester was ending, Schievelbein said she had consensual sexual intercourse once with Casey in her bed. By that time, she said, the professor had “manipulated” her into the perception that she was involved “in an exciting liaison with a famous author.”

Through an attorney, Casey said recently that he had a “regrettable but entirely consensual extramarital affair” with Schievelbein that year. He said in a statement that it occurred when she was no longer his student, which Schievelbein said is untrue.

“She was 22 years old at the time and freely chose, as did I, to have that relationship,” he said. “I am very sorry that, after almost 20 years, Ms. Schievelbein has suddenly decided to claim otherwise.”

Schievelbein, 39 and a postdoctoral fellow in clinical psychology in Albany, N.Y., said she had difficulty at the time understanding exactly what was happening to her. She said she confided her pain that year to a housemate.

Julia Fleuret, 37, of Washington, confirmed to The Post that she spoke with Schievelbein one night in 2001 about an eminent professor who had done something distressing to her.

“I don’t remember if she discussed specifics with me,” Fleuret wrote in a statement, “but it was something sexual, and it was at best unwelcome.” Fleuret, who graduated from U-Va. in 2002, a year after Schievelbein, said the two women kept in touch and spoke again about the matter 12 to 14 years later.

In addition, Schievelbein provided The Post with a copy of a 2009 email exchange between her and Casey. She told him she hated how “selfish” he had been in making overtures to her “when you were in a position of power over me.” Casey replied that he remembered her “with tenderness for what I still think was genuinely mutual interest.”

Casey’s attorney, Justin Dillon, said the email “says absolutely nothing about sexual assault.”

In November, U-Va. began investigating complaints from two women who said Casey touched students inappropriately on their shoulders, buttocks or lower backs, and made crude and unwanted sexual comments in their presence. Schievelbein then lodged her complaint, alleging in emails to English creative writing faculty and U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan that Casey had raped her. A letter from U-Va.’s civil rights office shows investigators folded her allegation and an unspecified number of others — dating back to 1990 — into the case. The letter indicated that a current faculty member was among those filing complaints.

The 79-year-old author has declined requests for an interview since the first allegations emerged. Casey wrote in an email to The Post in November that it was “too early and perhaps improper” to comment while the matter is under investigation. He also said he planned to respond “as soon as I have a complete rebuttal.”

Dillon said the professor denies sexually harassing or assaulting anyone.

The university said in late November that Casey would step away from teaching and advising duties in the creative writing program while it completes the investigation. U-Va. declined to comment on Schievelbein’s allegation.

Rules on sex between professors and students vary from college to college, complicating the issue for higher education.

In 2013, Stanford officials said, their university became one of the first to explicitly prohibit sexual or romantic relationships between undergraduates and faculty and between graduate students and faculty who oversee their work. In 2015, Harvard announced a ban on sex between faculty and undergraduates.

U-Va.’s conflict-of-interest rules stipulate that faculty should “avoid engaging in sexual relationships with or making sexual overtures to students over whom they are in a position of authority by virtue of their specific teaching, research, or administrative assignments.” The rules are in a memo dated 1993.