Behind the Fliegelman sexual misconduct investigation

Dec. 2, 2017, 3:37 p.m.

A confidential letter sent by Stanford to former graduate student Seo-Young Chu M.A. ’01 reveals new details about Chu’s public accusations of sexual assault and harassment against now-deceased English Professor Jay Fliegelman Ph.D. ’77.

The letter, which Chu shared with The Daily, indicates that then-Provost John Etchemendy Ph.D. ’82 personally oversaw a University investigation that found Fliegelman responsible for sexual harassment rather than sexual assault but also concluded that “Chu’s assent could be questioned” in an incident she reported as assault. Fliegelman was banned from campus for two years before returning to teach.

Investigation summary  

The letter, signed Nov. 27 by Stanford General Counsel Debra Zumwalt J.D. ’79, was in response to Chu’s request earlier last month to see the report Stanford commissioned on her case in 2000. The University declined to send the full report, citing its standard practices, but provided Chu with a summary of the findings that led to Fliegelman’s suspension.

According to Zumwalt’s summary, Chu reported back in 2000 that Fliegelman “engaged in a continuing pattern of sexual talk and comments,” which included phone calls Chu found “unwelcome and disturbing.”

“He left me voice messages about overdosing on male enhancement pills,” Chu wrote in a creative nonfiction piece recently published in Entropy. “He shared explicit fantasies with me — despite my protests.”

Fliegelman called his sexual phone calls to Chu “playful banter” and described his explicit conversations with her similarly, the investigation summary says. Chu, on the other hand, said she felt pressured.

According to the letter, Chu said she told Fliegelman that she was uncomfortable and wanted to leave before he initiated “oral-genital contact.”

The letter stated that the “physical sexual contact” occurred under “circumstances that were extremely inappropriate” and that Chu’s consent “could be questioned.” The investigation also drew on reports from third parties, who said that Chu had described the encounter as non-consensual around the time it happened.

But there were no witnesses to the incident of oral-genital contact, Zumwalt wrote, and Fliegelman disputed that he persisted despite Chu’s verbal refusal.

Fliegelman was eventually found responsible for sexual harassment and professional misconduct – but not sexual assault, something Chu questioned in an email Tuesday to Zumwalt and administrators responding to the investigation summary. Chu, now a professor of English at CUNY Queens College, disputed Stanford’s account of the oral-genital incident.

“The ‘contact’ between his body and mine was more extensive than what the summary describes,” Chu wrote in her email. “Why isn’t the word ‘rape’ mentioned? He violated the place between my thighs with both his mouth and his genitalia. I unfortunately remember him shoving his body into mine. (I hate the fact that I had to type those words.)”

She also said she recalled Fliegelman making her “stroke” an antique pornographic book. Stanford’s summary mentioned Fliegelman reportedly compelling her to watch porn, something she wrote she did not remember.

According to Chu, Fliegelman encouraged her several times to touch rare books in “an emotional manner” as part of the process of reading and researching — something that particularly unsettled her when it involved him physically “guiding” her.

“First his hands on mine, and then —  spontaneously, he assaulted my ear. My neck. Other parts of my body,” she wrote to The Daily, saying she didn’t resist out of “petrification.”

Chu said that Fliegelman was well aware of her psychological vulnerability at the time, having asked about scars on her wrists and arms. In 1999, she said, she was hospitalized after trying to commit suicide and was diagnosed as bipolar.

Origins of investigation

Chu’s first advisor at Stanford, Herbert Lindenberger, ultimately reported Fliegelman to the University, as first detailed in New Republic; Stanford hired an outside law firm to investigate.

Lindenberger told The Daily that his report was triggered by Fliegelman’s obvious anxiety that his sexual advances on Chu would be discovered by others. Lindenberger recalled being approached by Fliegelman after an oral exam with Chu went badly: Chu was 40 minutes late and unable to answer a single question.

“He was evidently quite nervous — in fact, obviously scared of what I might do to him,” Lindenberger recalled. “Out of the blue he said to me that Seo-Young had told him she was a virgin and that she was attracted to women. It was clear that he was trying to ward off suspicions that anything sexual had transpired between them.”

Lindenberger said he immediately guessed that “something serious was happening” and called on two senior female professors to work with him and Chu on a “cease-and-desist” letter to Fliegelman. But another graduate student had notified the Dean of the Humanities and Sciences at that point, setting a formal investigation in motion instead, he said.

Convening a faculty advisory board to review the case would have required Chu’s participation in the hearing, Stanford spokesperson Lisa Lapin told The Daily. (The full hearing process with the advisory board would have required witnesses, attorneys and cross-examination of the victim.)

Because no faculty board was gathered, Etchemendy made the decision on the case, suspending Fliegelman for two years without pay as recommended by the law firm and banning him from the department.

Terms of suspension

During the suspension, Fliegelman was allowed access to Stanford libraries and continued to live in off-campus faculty housing he owned.

In an email to The Daily, Lindenberger wrote that Fliegelman was given an office in “a prefab building at the edge of campus” where he continued to advise dissertation students during his suspension. Lapin disputed that Fliegelman was provided an office.

“Yes, he continued to meet with [his advisees],” wrote Lindenberger. “They were dependent on his help and they would have felt lost if he hadn’t been made available to them. He was the only expert in the department specializing in the early-American literature.”

Zumwalt’s letter to Chu also mentions a “significant financial sanction” against Fliegelman. According to Lapin, Fleigelman took a pay cut on his return and estimated financial losses related to his punishment at $1 million.

Chu said Stanford “needs to make available the details” of the $1 million figure and added that while she does not want money from the University, she has lost both time and money as a result of Fliegelman’s abuse — “the medical costs alone have been staggering,” she said.

Stanford’s policy on sexual harassment at the time stated that individuals found in violation may be subject to penalties as severe as discharge or expulsion. According to Lapin, Fliegelman could not be dismissed except by a full advisory board process, per University policy on faculty termination in 1999.

But Lindenberger recalled being told at the time that Fliegelman’s punishment was the most serious that Stanford had ever imposed in a harassment case.

The official censure of Fliegelman was not always echoed by other faculty. Lindenberger said that some of his colleagues believed that Chu “was to blame” for the incidents of harassment because of her initial enthusiasm for Fliegelman and eagerness to have him as an adviser. However, both Lindenberger and Chu said she was adamant that she was not interested in a sexual relationship from the first.

According to Lindenberger, Fliegelman also had the sympathy of former professors who had known him since he began his Ph.D. at Stanford in the early 1970s — and who later hired and tenured him upon his graduation.

“His former teachers (of whom I was not one) loved him as a person and greatly admired him as a scholar and teacher,” Lindenberger wrote. “These colleagues had a hard time believing he could do the things he was accused of doing.”

But few, if any, of these colleagues knew Chu, then a first-year graduate student who was new to Stanford.

Chu says that Stanford English Chair Alex Woloch witnessed some of Fliegelman’s verbal and emotional abuse toward her; in an email to The Daily, she said Woloch was present when Fliegelman “berated” her for wearing thick glasses and joined Fliegelman in yelling at her. In an open letter posted on Facebook, she wondered why Woloch did not intervene.

Stanford spokesperson E.J. Miranda told the Mercury News on Woloch’s behalf that Woloch did not know of any sexual harassment on Fliegelman’s part until he learned of the investigation.

“I have absolutely no memory of any conversation along these lines,” Woloch said in an email to The Daily, referencing Chu’s allegation that he saw Fliegelman berate her for her glasses. He strongly denied ever having joined Fliegelman in yelling at a student.

After the case

Lindenberger added that the English department chair of another university attempted to arrange a visiting professorship for Fliegelman because she “felt sorry” for him. Her efforts were cut short by protests from fellow women faculty, he said.

Lenora Warren, an assistant professor of English at Colgate University, recalled hearing rumors about Fliegelman’s misconduct when she visited Stanford as a prospective Ph.D. student in 2006. As a specialist in American and African American literature, she was directed toward Fliegelman and visited his house with other students to tour his library.

“They were still steering female graduate students toward him,” Warren said. “At the time I felt strange, mostly in the way that these rumors were out there, and feeling maybe pressure and knowing that Jay would have been the most appropriate person for me to work with at the time … and feeling that I [didn’t] know if I would have options if something happened.”

“It just was easier to take the rumors as true and not go there,” she said. She stayed at NYU.

New Republic’s article on Fliegelman quoted other women expressing unease about their interactions with Fliegelman. Dawn Coleman, whose dissertation was chaired by Fliegelman and Franco Moretti — a retired English professor also recently publicly accused of sexual assault — recalled repeated invitations to meet with Fliegelman for dinner at his house or restaurants during the professor’s ban.

“In retrospect, I cannot believe that I was not given a clear statement of the terms or reasons for his leave when I was one of the students most directly affected by it,” Coleman told New Republic.

After the Fliegelman case, Etchemendy “dramatically” strengthened Stanford’s policy on sexual misconduct, wrote Lapin. (Etchemendy was unavailable for comment at the time of writing, she said.) Modifications to the policy included an affirmative consent requirement as well as further restrictions even in cases where, unlike in Chu’s, all parties agree the interactions were consensual. In 2013, Stanford prohibited relationships between faculty members and graduate students in their departments; according to a blog post by Provost Persis Drell, faculty members found to violate the prohibition may be dismissed.

Fliegelman himself remained heavily involved in steering graduate students through the job market for much of his career, volunteering to chair the job placement committee for years in a row, wrote a former graduate student in a tribute.

He held a prominent place in academia through his death in 2007, when the Faculty Senate honored him with a customary memorial resolution praising him as a scholar and mentor. An American Studies award for undergraduate research, now discontinued, was named after him.

Today, his rare books collection and personal papers are housed in Stanford’s Special Collections.

Law professor Michele Dauber, a vocal critic of Stanford’s sexual assault policies, has called for the Faculty Senate to disavow its memorial to Fliegelman, laud Lindenberger for reporting him and apologize to Chu. She expressed particular disappointment in Etchemendy for joining in the resolution.

“What Fliegelman did was monstrous,” she said.  “In my opinion, he never should have been allowed to return to teaching and it is beyond outrageous that he was apparently put in charge of parts of graduate advising.”

Lapin wrote that memorial resolutions are not voted upon by the Faculty Senate, complicating an actual repeal of the original.

“It is the equivalent of an obituary in a newspaper,” Lapin wrote.

Chu left the Ph.D. program at Stanford after completing her master’s degree. Lindenberger said Chu’s parents and a group of faculty suggested she seek psychological help and that she “managed well” in the following year. She taught in a private school in the area and applied to Harvard, where she completed her Ph.D. and moved on to her current position at Queens College.

“Everybody knew Fliegelman, but only a few, like me, had worked with Chu,” wrote Lindenberger of Stanford’s English department in 2001. “She has [since] established an enviable academic career.”

On Wednesday, several of Chu’s colleagues wrote an open letter to English Chair Woloch, addressing the University’s recent letter to Chu. Their response, spearheaded by Gloria Fisk — another English professor at Queens College, CUNY — urges the Stanford English department to “declare its solidarity” with Chu.

As of Monday afternoon the message had gathered over 100 signatures from professors across institutions, including 18 from Stanford alumni and one from a visiting fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center. Fisk said she and her collaborators did not circulate the letter among Stanford professors because they “understand there is an internal conversation underway at the department already.”

“We wanted to add to that conversation from our position as colleagues in other institutions, elsewhere,” Fisk said.

Fisk sent the message to Woloch and various members of the University administration Monday.

“This is all to say that we see Stanford’s problems as our problems, too,” the letter reads. “Alongside you, we hope to build an institutional culture that protects the right and ability of all of its members to do the work we love.”


Contact Hannah Knowles at hknowles ‘at’ Contact Fangzhou Liu at fzliu96 ‘at’


An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that Fliegelman died in 2008, not 2007, and that the university that offered him a visiting professorship during his suspension was Princeton. In fact, Princeton offered him a position a year before the incidents with Chu; another major university, which Lindenberger chose not to name, was behind the attempted arrangement during Fliegelman’s suspension. Finally, the initial version of this article said that Woloch had no memory of the scene Chu described involving Fliegelman berating her; The Daily failed to include the specific allegation of yelling in its communication with Woloch and has updated the piece to contain his more categorical denial of yelling. The Daily regrets these errors.

This post has also been updated to clarify the timeline of the open letter organized by Fisk and to add additional information about it as of Monday. Finally, an update clarifies that Dauber called for a disavowal of Fliegelman’s memorial resolution, rather than a repeal, given the obstacles to the latter action.  

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.

Login or create an account

Apply to The Daily’s High School Winter Program

Deadline Extended!