As more reports of former professor of English Jay Fliegelman’s sexual misconduct have recently been published, in just the last few days, two women have posted separately on social media their experiences as students of his. The series of tweets reveal that Fliegelman’s behavior — at least of engaging in inappropriate relationships with and unwanted harassment of his graduate students — began as early as the late 1980s. One post also suggests that Fliegelman was involved with an undergraduate student who attempted suicide.
Fliegelman, who is now deceased, was formally accused in 2000 of sexually harrassing and assaulting his graduate student Seo-Young Chu, who recently wrote a creative non-fiction piece on her experience for Entropy. He was subsequently suspended for two years, died in 2007, and was the subject of a now-controversial memorial resolution passed by Stanford’s Faculty Senate in 2008.
Fliegelman’s 2007 obituary in Stanford Report includes much fawning praise from his colleagues like, “It was evident that he was not just one of the most important scholars of his generation, but one of the great teachers of our time,” and it notes that “Fliegelman expressed his own love for teaching even Stanford’s youngest students,” omitting any mention of Fliegelman’s suspension for sexual harassment.
A former student of Fliegelman’s, Lydia Alix Fillingham (Ph.D ’89, JD ’96) posted on Twitter on Thursday afternoon with regards to the recent publicity of Fliegelman’s sexual misconduct:
This hits home particularly in terms of my own knowledge and perhaps complicity. Jay Fliegelman was one of my professors when I got my PhD at Stanford in the 80’s.
During that time he was involved in consensual but not happy relationships with one grad student, and then another. He told me personally that he had been involved with an undergrad who attempted suicide.
I remember telling him that that’s one reason for not getting involved with undergrads, that the ones who respond may be the most vulnerable. But I don’t think I contemplated any action.
I was over at his house once and remember him putting his hand on my knee, and my sitting very still until he moved it off. I remember telling that I would be very angry if he hurt one grad student friend he was involved with. No one responded well to that.
Grad students are very close to professors often, but the power dynamic is never absent, even as friendship is present. Looking now, I think I should have done something, I knew all this wasn’t right. But in the context of the time? What could I have done?
I mean, I know I should have done more.
When reached out to for more information, Fillingham told Stanford Politics that “Jay’s relationship with the undergrad was prior to when I knew him, and I think he said he was dating her, but she was unstable so he stopped.” She also expressed that the culture was very different and policies were just beginning to place stricter boundaries on relationships between faculty and students.
“Things were very different then,” she said. “There was no rule about profs not having relationships with grad students. Having sex with an undergrad that you taught was clearly prohibited and we were at the moment when all sex between profs and undergrads was recognized as bad, against the rules…There was no rule about profs and grad students, except not your advisee, not someone you were grading.”
As to her own interaction with Fliegelman, Fillingham says, “My personal experience with Jay, where he put his hand on my leg, felt uncomfortable but nothing more.” She emphasized that that the culture at the time made it rare for anyone to condemn, and especially difficult for women to report, sexual behavior that was improper due to power dynamics.
Margaret Stohl (MA ’92), a best-selling author and another former student of Fliegelman’s, also posted on Twitter Friday night:
a rape victim of my @stanford english phd advisor Jay Fliegelman just came out. We knew what Jay was like. We went to his office in 2s w/ doors open. We knew he borrowed cash from boys & hit on girls. We saw this as our problem bc he was powerful, genius.
I never thought of complaining. That was in 1990. Today I read that he raped one of us, 11 years later. 11 years after I did & said nothing. He is responsible for his actions; I am responsible for thinking I was not worth my own safety, or hers.
I got engaged & moved to Yale the next year. Was that why I escaped? How did Jay Fliegelman become my advisor? Did he pick me? God, did he accept me bc of how I looked, what he thought I would do? bc I seemed vulnerable? (I was.) How many years did u know, @stanford?
another one of my professors reported him – jay fliegelman – i have to keep saying the name – so he was suspended for two years. and then for years more everyone acted like nothing had happened. it’s incredible.
Stohl told Stanford Politics that she could not elaborate much beyond her public tweets but she does recall being warned by a fellow student of Fliegelman. She also stated, “He had married a grad student and we all knew to be careful.” Stanford Politics is looking into Fliegelman’s marital history, but he was reportedly going through a divorce at the time he assaulted Seo-Young Chu, and the wife who survived him, Christine Guth, was the result of a later marriage.
Stanford Politics has reached out to University Communications for comment about how long the University was unaware of Fliegelman’s inappropriate behavior and for clarification on the history of University policy on consensual relationships between faculty and students. Sexual harassment at Stanford has been a known problem since at least 1993, and the current version of Stanford policy on the topic, which went into effect that year, prohibits “sexual or romantic relationships — whether regarded as consensual or otherwise — between individuals in inherently unequal positions.”
This story will be updated to reflect any statements received after publication.
Update, Dec. 3, 5:00pm PT: Three paragraphs added to reflect comment received from Lydia Alix Fillingham.
Andrew Granato contributed reporting.