The University of Virginia is investigating two complaints that an English professor sexually harassed female students in the school’s creative writing program, according to a U-Va. document, with one recent graduate alleging that the award-winning writer inappropriately touched students on their shoulders, buttocks and lower backs and subjected them to unwanted and sometimes crude sexual comments.
The professor, John Casey, author of the 1989 novel “Spartina,” is a longtime member of the faculty at the public university in Charlottesville.
Emma Eisenberg, who graduated from U-Va. with a master’s degree in creative writing in 2015, told school officials this month that Casey sexually harassed her and other female students from 2012 to 2014, the document from the university’s civil rights office said. She accused Casey of inappropriately touching women at social functions and said he once in class used a graphic anatomical epithet to refer to women and to a character in a story he told.
Eisenberg, 30, a writer who lives in Philadelphia, said she was motivated to step forward by the recent wave of reports of sexual harassment emerging from Hollywood, the media industry, Capitol Hill and other sectors.
“It had always bugged me. In my gut I knew there was something wrong about those experiences, but it was so openly talked about within the program that I figured I was over-reacting,” Eisenberg recalled in an email Monday. “Seeing this recent flood of women coming forward confirmed what I had always known — his behavior was problematic and inappropriate.”
Casey said it was premature to issue a public response.
“At this time the matter is under investigation, and I think it too early and perhaps improper to comment,” he wrote in an email Monday. He said he planned to respond “as soon as I have a complete rebuttal.”
Casey, whose precise age was not immediately available, is in his late 70s and has been an acclaimed writer and writing teacher for decades. “Spartina,” about a fisherman, his boat and a storm, won a National Book Award for fiction in 1989. He has held an appointment at U-Va. as the Henry Hoynes Professor of English since 1998.
Eisenberg tweeted about her complaint Nov. 10, and the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on the case Wednesday.
U-Va. said in a statement that the university “takes seriously any report of sexual harassment and is investigating this matter in accordance with its applicable policy and procedures.” University spokesman Anthony P. de Bruyn said Monday evening Casey’s employment status “remains unchanged at this time.”
In a Nov. 20 letter, which Eisenberg has given to reporters, the university’s Office for Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights said it had opened a Title IX investigation into the complaints from her and the other former student. Title IX is a law barring sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. The letter said Eisenberg told officials that Casey had commented on the appearance of women in the master’s program and on the sexual attractiveness of female authors.
Eisenberg also alleged Casey gave preferential treatment to male students.
The second woman alleged, according to the letter, that Casey repeatedly made comments about “her looks, outfits and sex appeal,” and made sexual comments to other female students.
The master of fine arts in creative writing program at U-Va. is small and prestigious, admitting 10 students a year. Esteemed nonfiction and fiction writers and poets serve on the faculty, including Rita Dove, a former U.S. poet laureate.
“The creative writing program takes the allegations very seriously and is cooperating with the university as the allegations are investigated,” said Jane Alison, an English professor and director of creative writing at U-Va. “I can say nothing further at this time.”
Eisenberg’s disclosure prompted others to step forward with criticism of Casey from incidents years earlier. Eisenberg gave The Washington Post their contact information.
Judith Claire Mitchell, an English professor and director of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin, said she met Casey when she was a graduate student and he was a visiting writer at the University of Iowa’s renowned Writers’ Workshop in 1998. She said the two held a private meeting about her work in which he made a peculiar request.
“In our conference he, bizarrely, asked me the brand of the fairly ordinary running shoes I was wearing and then asked me to get up from my chair, go to the wall, turn around, and lift my foot to show him the soles of the shoes,” Mitchell, now 65, wrote in an email. She said she complied with his request but felt “idiotic” about it and believed that “he was manipulating me and my body.”
She said Casey also interrupted their discussion “with comments about the physical appearance of my classmates, naming those he found particularly beautiful and trying to elicit my agreement.”
Mitchell said she was disgusted but did not complain to anyone at the time except friends. “I understood the power dynamics and I made a conscious decision to pick my battles,” she wrote.
Val Brelinski, now 61, who teaches fiction writing for Stanford University’s Continuing Studies program, said she encountered Casey when she was a master’s student at U-Va. from 1999 to 2002. She said her experience was similar to Eisenberg’s.
In her time at U-Va., Brelinski said, she saw him touch females in ways that made them uncomfortable and make “constant and highly specific comments” about their clothing and bodies. “Once, a female student wore a sweater to class that he said ‘made it impossible to concentrate on anyone’s writing,’ ” Brelinski recalled. She said she and another female student raised concerns about Casey with another faculty member at the time but that little changed.
Casey did not respond to an email seeking comment about the criticisms from Mitchell and Brelinski.