Harassment, assault allegations against Moretti span three campuses

Nov. 16, 2017, 2:07 a.m.

One week before he was first publicly accused of sexual assault and harassment by a former graduate student, Emeritus Professor of English Franco Moretti was profiled in The New York Times as a self-proclaimed revolutionary in literary scholarship.

Moretti, a founder of Stanford’s Literary Lab, has helped pioneer the growing field of digital humanities, approaching texts as data that can be computationally analyzed en masse. In the process, The Times writes, he has become something of a celebrity in the literary world by “promoting a ruthlessly impersonal idea of both scholarship and literary history itself.”

The beginnings of that celebrity loomed large in Kimberly Latta’s account earlier this month of the power dynamic underlying her public accusations of rape and sexual harassment against Moretti, her former professor at UC Berkeley. Moretti said he had only consensual sex with Latta, and he emphasized that he was just a “visitor” at Berkeley with “no prospect, back then, of ever being part of the American academy.” But Latta recalled feeling uncomfortable about sexual advances by an instructor who, even back then, was popular and admired.

“I was, of course, eager to work with him, I felt very much compelled — like it was a requirement of me,” Latta told The Daily. “If I was going to work with him, I would have to sleep with him.”

Now, two new allegations of Moretti sexually harassing graduate students have surfaced: one from a woman who says she had to set a dog loose to get Moretti to stop propositioning her and leave her house late at night and another incident described by multiple sources who say Moretti lost a job opportunity at Johns Hopkins after a graduate student reported that he touched her inappropriately.

Jane Penner was a doctoral student in English attending a summer seminar at Dartmouth when, she says, she had to fend Moretti off with her dog. Neither she nor Latta talked about their experience outside their circle of friends until the #MeToo movement encouraged Latta to formally contact Stanford with her account after over three decades. The third woman declined to speak to The Daily altogether.

“There wasn’t an obvious channel [to report],” Penner wrote in an email. “Second, Franco was a brilliant and powerful scholar. As a mere grad student beginning her dissertation, I couldn’t risk inviting his enmity.”

Moretti denied all accusations.

Berkeley, 1985

In the spring of 1985, Franco Moretti’s star was rising. Halfway into a one-year visiting professorship to Berkeley from the University of Verona, the first English language version of his book was out, and he was working and mingling at Berkeley with some of the hottest names in literary theory of the time.

“He seemed to be the most popular guy around,” said Latta. “He was in with the young, cool, hip people; he wasn’t in with the older statesmen of the department. He was one of the new, brash, young, hip, ‘we’re cool, we’re doing the Berkeley thing.’”

Meanwhile, Latta was a first-year graduate student in English. An invitation to dine with Moretti and some of his colleagues in English early in the semester struck her as “thrilling and wonderful,” an induction of sorts to an academic inner circle.

“It meant I’ve arrived; he thinks I’m smart,” Latta recalled thinking. “In the end it made me think the opposite because it meant he’s not interested in my brain.”

According to Latta, Moretti’s overtures to her escalated into one-on-one dinners, personal meetings in each of their apartments and public declarations of love — which she says Moretti relayed to her after the fact — that made rounds among the English faculty. Latta said she remembers Moretti telling her she reminded him of the heroine in “Le Rouge et le Noir,” or “The Red and the Black,” a novel about a man who seduces for his personal advancement.

These declarations mortified Latta even as she continued to “relish” his mentorship, said Michael Harrawood, an older undergraduate student in the department who heard about her dynamic with Moretti as it developed. Latta said she would sit in class with another professor, a friend of Moretti’s, and feel “intimidated” by the thought that the professor knew and apparently condoned her interactions with Moretti.

Latta recalls her relationship to Moretti as one of “jovial bullying” on his part and shamed acquiescence on hers. For instance, she said that he would try to hold her hand as they were walking on a street and cajole her in a way that she described as “friendly” but “pushy” — an attitude she felt powerless to resist.

“I thought ‘I can’t.’ I felt very afraid; it felt completely wrong,” she recounted. “I didn’t want to [hold his hand]; I didn’t want anyone to know, ironically, because I felt ashamed of myself. I felt ashamed it was happening, and I wasn’t strong enough to say ‘get the f— away from me’… I just didn’t have the strength.”

“So yes, I complied with him,” Latta said.

According to Latta, the uneasy compliance culminated in two counts of sexual assault after Latta explicitly rejected sex — once at her apartment and once at his.

“It was really traumatizing because I had a dissociative experience of being out of my body,” said Latta. “So I told myself, ‘This is not happening; this is happening to my body.’”

Moretti, on the other hand, said in an email to The Daily that his sexual intercourse with Latta was “fully consensual” and that they parted “on good terms” after further one-on-one meetings that were initiated by Latta as well as by himself.

Latta said she can believe that Moretti had a completely different notion of what was happening than she did. In her original post on Facebook, she recounted Moretti telling her that “‘you American girls say no when you mean yes’” after she said “no” to sex.

Aftermath at Berkeley, 1985

“I had to talk to him,” Latta said of their contact for the rest of the semester. “He was my professor, even after this.”

Although she eventually dropped out of the class to avoid him, she said, remembered that he gave her an A on the “crappy” final paper she submitted the following semester.

“Maybe that’s why he thinks it was friendly, because he didn’t totally fail me for the class,” said Latta.

Harrawood remembers being disturbed by the idea of Moretti “body-blocking” Latta and forcibly kissing her in his office — but he did not know that Latta’s complaint against Moretti also consisted of sexual assault until her public post this month. Of the parts that she did tell him, he said, his response was sympathetic but impotent.

“Kimberly told me and Tad [Piori], and we believed her, but someone asked me the other day: Why didn’t I report it?” said Harrawood. “And it was the first time I thought of it, and actually, I’m a bit ashamed of myself… It never occurred to me because I didn’t know who you reported stuff like that to.”

Frances Ferguson, another professor in the English department, was the go-to person for Berkeley Title IX cases at the time. According to Ferguson, Harrawood could not have stuck up for Latta without Latta initiating a formal report herself — the Title IX regulations at the time allowed solely firsthand reports to launch formal investigations, while third parties who had witnessed violations could only corroborate.

Latta said that she eventually paid a visit to Ferguson after the incidents of assault. Both women recall the meeting, but where Ferguson said she was “worried” about Latta’s emotional state at the time, Latta remembers Ferguson as “wooden” and “impassive.”

According to Latta, she was especially unsettled by the knowledge that she was talking to a colleague of Moretti’s as opposed to someone from another department. When Ferguson asked her not to say Moretti’s name outright — a practice that Ferguson said was required for Title IX complaints that were not intended to be formal reports — Latta assumed that Ferguson already knew the name of the accused because she was a friend of Moretti’s, the former student recalled.

Both Moretti and Ferguson denied knowing each other at the time, though they would have occasion to meet again during the informal hiring process at Johns Hopkins that gave rise to another allegation against Moretti.

Ferguson said that Latta did not mention the sexual assault during their conversation, an account that Latta believes to be true, though she does not remember what exactly she said. Latta remarked that her perception of Ferguson and Moretti’s relationship would likely have prevented her from speaking out.

Latta told Moretti about the meeting and said he threatened to ruin her career through a colleague whose wife was a “powerful attorney”; Moretti denies the claim and said he had no such connections at the time.

At the end of the school year, Moretti returned to Italy, where he would stay for another four years before accepting a post at Columbia. Ferguson and her husband, English professor Walter Benn Michaels, moved on to Johns Hopkins in 1988. Latta made no formal report, and no administrative action would ever be taken. But Latta, who took a seven-year-long hiatus from her doctorate after getting her M.A. from Berkeley in 1986, could not leave the events of the year behind.

“I wanted his support, I thought in the beginning — I thought it was because he really admired me and thought I was a bright young woman,” said Latta. “But it was not, and at the end of it all, I felt utterly insecure about myself as a student and as a thinker. I felt like my brain had been destroyed in a way.”

Dartmouth, 1995

Latta is not the only woman to accuse Moretti of inappropriate advances.

Penner said she met Moretti in 1995 while attending the School of Criticism and Theory, a six-week summer seminar that allowed graduate students in the humanities to learn from prominent faculty. The program, now hosted at Cornell, was held that year at Dartmouth in New Hampshire.

At the time, Penner was a doctoral student in English at the University of Pennsylvania. Moretti was still a professor at Columbia.

One evening, Penner said, she hosted a party at the home she was staying at for the seminar. According to Penner, Moretti lingered long after all the other guests had left to make sexual advances on her.

“I rebuffed him, but he continued to press his case and tried to touch me,” she told The Daily over the phone. “I continued to say no and asked him to leave.”

Then, she said, Moretti became “physically aggressive” — literally chasing her around the house downstairs.

“He acted as if it were a game, but I was alarmed,” Penner recalled, saying she feared both immediate physical harm and the professional repercussions of turning him down.

Not knowing how else to stop the harassment, she said, she ran upstairs to her bedroom, where she had shut in her dog for the party. She remembered that earlier in the evening, Moretti wouldn’t come inside the house until she put the dog away, apparently because he disliked the animals. Only when she let her dog out of the room did Moretti finally leave, she said.

While she wasn’t physically hurt, Penner said the episode left her shaken.

“He scared the hell out of me.”

Jonathan Grossman, an English professor at UCLA, confirmed that Penner told him about her experience with Moretti afterward. So did Rayna Kalas, now an English professor at Cornell, who was a fellow graduate student and close friend of Penner at the time. Kalas remembered Penner telling her about the incident when they reunited at school the following term.

“I remember her saying, ‘I had a very trying summer,’” Kalas said.

After learning of Latta’s allegations against Moretti last week, Kalas said, she encouraged Penner to go public with her story. Kalas speculated that Penner — currently the vice president and head of communications at the online lending company Upstart — is in a better position to accuse Moretti than those still embedded in the academic world where Moretti has left his mark.

“I think [academics] probably would feel reticent to come forward, and so I think in some ways [Penner] is in a unique position to be clear about what happened to her,” Kalas said.

The additional accounts of sexual harassment against Moretti come at what many commentators have described as a “watershed moment” for sexual assault and harassment claims.

“Every woman has had to do a sort of calculus,” Kalas noted. “When something happens to you, you think to yourself, am I going to come forward with this? What are the repercussions going to be for me? Is it worth it? At this moment … more and more women are coming forward.”

Johns Hopkins, 1997

In 1997, 12 years after Latta made her informal report about Moretti, Ferguson was a faculty member at John Hopkins when Moretti and his wife were considered for positions in the English department.

A faculty member who joined Hopkins after the incident said she heard from Ferguson firsthand that Ferguson and her husband, Michaels, were behind Moretti’s candidacy. Ferguson did not say whether she was directly involved in the hire when asked, stating instead that the department considered the possibility of extending offers to both Moretti and his wife when faculty numbers were down.

The former professor, who asked to be anonymous, added that prospective hires at small departments in Hopkins were usually solicited by current faculty rather than through a formal search process. The English department at Hopkins currently has under 20 people, and the number was under 10 permanent faculty at the time.

The informal nature of most hires meant that the invitation for Moretti to give a talk on campus in 1997 was a sign that he was being seriously considered for a hire, the faculty member said.

She and another professor present at the time both confirmed that a graduate student in the English department reported being touched inappropriately by Moretti during his visit — and that the department did not move forward with the hire because of the student’s report.

One of the former faculty members recounted that it was only this fall, reading Latta’s Facebook post on her allegations against Moretti, that she found out that Ferguson knew of the previous incident involving Moretti. Dismayed, she contacted Latta about what she described as Ferguson’s willingness to hire Moretti despite knowing about Latta’s report.

The student who reported harassment declined to comment.

Academia’s problem

The accusations against Moretti — as well as another recent accusation of sexual assault made against now-deceased Stanford English Professor Jay Fliegelman and allegations of harassment and cover-ups at the University of Rochester — have prompted the #MeToo dialogue sweeping the entertainment world to reach into the academic space.

Harassment in academia may be a more serious issue than people realize, a recent study of 300 complaints of harassment against faculty suggests. Most of the cases involved physical (not just verbal) harassment, and 53 percent of cases involved harassers accused by multiple students.

“Academia is particularly fertile territory for those who want to leverage their power to gain sexual favors or inflict sexual violence on vulnerable individuals,” Caroline Fredrickson wrote in The Atlantic last month.

Some academics interviewed by The Daily had conflicted responses to the recent reports.

“I don’t want to see a senior professor crucified and punished at the end of his career,” said Harrawood, “and at the same time, if he did it, I want Kimberly to have peace.”

Harrawood, who describes Latta as a friendly “acquaintance” rather than a friend, spoke to The Daily for over an hour to corroborate Latta’s account over 30 years after he met Latta. He said he believed her, even as he felt torn about the public accusations against Moretti and the ensuing backlash.

“My sense of things is that Moretti had a very different idea of what was going on,” said Harrawood. “But hell … this was in the ‘80s, and the world was very different then.”

Moretti, for his part, denied the list of allegations compiled by The Daily based on accounts from the sources in this report.

“There are numerous errors of fact, regarding both the situations and my behavior, in the statements included in your email,” wrote Moretti in an email, “but for now let me simply say that I have never sexually assaulted anyone, nor have I ever knowingly engaged in any kind of unwanted contact.”

Relationships between faculty and students were more common in previous decades, some academics reflected.

In the 1990s, Moretti met a graduate student in comparative literature he would go on to marry. Her education at Columbia overlapped entirely with his tenure there, although he declined to comment on the origins or nature of their relationship at Columbia, or to confirm that they are still married.

Harrawood indicated that he knew of at least two English professors at Berkeley who went on to marry their graduate students. Berkeley did not ban sexual and romantic relationships between faculty and students until 2003.

Stanford, too, has more rules today restricting faculty-student relationships than it used to. The University’s policy was last updated in 2014.

“Even in regard to consensual relationships, Stanford has in recent years strengthened policies so as to prohibit sexual or romantic relationships between faculty and all undergraduates, as well as graduate students for whom the faculty member has — or may in the future have — academic responsibility,” wrote Stanford spokesperson E.J. Miranda in an email to The Daily.

Faculty also undergo mandatory training on sexual harassment and misconduct every two years.

Miranda said the University would inform its Title IX Office of the additional allegations beyond Latta’s, which the office is currently investigating.

Neither of the new accusations were reported to Stanford, Miranda said.

Meanwhile, the Literary Lab that Moretti founded has recently updated the “About” page on its website to specify that “no unprofessional behavior, harassment or abuse will be tolerated from any member, and we expect all participants to adhere to and further these values.”

Reflecting on office hour visits to Moretti, Latta said she does not remember what they spoke about — only that she went frequently, and that it was likely academic, because of the kind of student she was.

“I was a very ambitious student then. I did a lot of office hour visits with all my professors, always in their offices,” said Latta. “Probably I was brown-nosing, trying to get in with with my professors.”

Dedicated enough to get into a top-tier graduate school and then good enough to make it in the academic job market, Latta said she capitalized on the graduate school experience to seek personal relationships with the professors who would help to shape her career. That relentless drive, she reflected, left her and others like her vulnerable to those they sought most to impress and become close to.

“[Forming relationships with faculty] is what you’re supposed to do,” Latta said.


Correction: An earlier version of the article mistakenly stated that third parties witnessing Title IX violations at Berkeley in 1985 could not help with the investigations of the claims. In fact, third parties were allowed to corroborate, but not initiate, formal reports that led to official Title IX investigations – only firsthand formal reports were accepted as the basis for launching an investigation. The Daily regrets this error.

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


Fangzhou Liu ’19 was Vol. 253 Executive Editor; before that, she co-led the news section. She grew up in Singapore and studies computer science and linguistics.Hannah Knowles is senior staff writer from San Jose who served as Volume 253 Editor-in-Chief. Prior to that, she managed The Daily's news section.

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