Moving Forward by Looking Back: Feminist Scholars in Solidarity with Seo-Young Chu

In response to Seo-Young Chu’s “Refuge for Jae-In Doe, a piece that explores the sexual harassment, rape and racism she faced from a professor at Stanford, we want to revisit our shared time in graduate school. We are three Stanford women of color alumna, and, as senior faculty today, we work on diversifying and making more equitable the academy.

In looking back, we find ways to express solidarity with Seo-Young Chu—including amplifying the demand for Stanford to apologize to her and for the larger academy to recognize the need to change the environment for learning that women experience. In the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, the burden of responsibility for implementing change in the academy must not fall on women faculty alone.

We are Magdalena Barrera, Associate Professor of Mexican American Studies at San Jose State University; Shelley Lee, Associate Professor of History and Chair of Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College; and Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Professor of Cinema at San Francisco State University. 

MB: Seo-Young Chu’s “Refuge for Jae-In Doe” outlines in equal parts eloquent and terrifying detail the sexual assault she endured in 1999 at the hands of Jay Fleigelman, a now-deceased professor of English. Her letter shocked and jolted us into remembering who we were then, what we knew (or did not know) about the assault, why it happened, and what it meant for us moving deeper into the academic pipeline.

CPS: Reading Seo-Young Chu’s article was a jolt for me in two ways. She describes the trauma of surviving assault—watching every single episode of Law and Order SVU and having numerous dreams of talking with the fictional detective Olivia Benson about what she survived—in terms that resonated for me. In these examples, she captures the persistent pain and suffering resulting from her experience as a young woman in academia just starting out. Then there is the jolt of relief—that the young woman whose story I recognize comes to roaring speech, in a rage so powerful, and in language that so lucidly demands recognition not only of experience but the need to call for changing the environment women occupy as they seek higher learning. For me, Chu’s work awakens attention to that time we shared at Stanford, reflection on where we are since then and the importance of what she is calling for in terms of a future agenda we must set now.

MB: When we entered our doctoral programs in the late 1990s, I remember being told by faculty what a special time it was to be in the Humanities at Stanford, in part because a number of departments admitted larger than usual numbers of historically underrepresented students. Our small cohorts of admittees to well-known and highly regarded programs were composed of a majority of students of color, particularly comprised of women and queer people of color. It turns out that we would be each other’s protectors and support system as we navigated an unfamiliar institution.

SL: That really resonates for me. My decision to pursue a Ph.D. in history mystified my parents–this was not what they had in mind when stressing the importance of academics to their children—but I understood going to Stanford as part of my immigrant family’s pursuit of social mobility. The gain of entering Stanford was accompanied by loss, because graduate school pulled me into a world that my family did not understand or relate to. I look back and feel fortunate, though, for the generous comradeship I found among other graduate women of color in and outside my department, as well as my advisors who were models of scholarly brilliance and compassionate mentorship. This is all to say graduate school was heady and disorienting!

CPS: Many of us were first in our family to pursue doctorates, and many came from lower income and working class communities. We worried about the financial well-being of our families or siblings and cousins in different trajectories. Peers were concerned for the incarceration of a family member while wrestling with the stresses of their own course load or trying to survive on our fellowship stipends in Silicon Valley, all the while helping one’s parents and family. Ultimately, we found our work uplifting not only in the sense of social and class mobility but also the attention we were able to focus on our disciplines and on ethnic studies, sexuality studies and our specific projects, which transformed the academy itself for the knowledge we produced and the experiences we shone light on and validated as worth pursuit. Yet, so much of the academy is indeed about playing in a long-established game with rules that not only needed to be figured out but also transformed with players such as ourselves who diversified those already here.

Both my male and female advisors, pushed me to do my best work—as well as helped to professionalize me—showing up on time and demonstrating how every lecture, talk and presentation required meticulous preparation. Women professors were also encouraging and included advice particular to gender: what to wear to job talks or how to navigate the profession and personal demands at home. I became aware that faculty of color, women faculty and queer faculty endured discrimination and within their own constraints, attempted to help us. As an emerging race and sexuality scholar at Stanford, I found mentorship with men of color faculty members who were my dissertation directors—who were very respectful and deeply encouraging of my work. I graduated from Stanford with hopes for continuing to transform the institution with my work, and with the confidence to transform other institutions with my perspectives and participation as a woman of color faculty member.

SL: Stanford’s a fancy place that was not built for people like us! And yes, the country and its institutions have evolved but there are ways that the history sticks to the walls and stays in the air. And let’s be honest, we all wanted in. I will say, I experienced support and growth alongside a persistent unease that strikes anyone who has leapfrogged into an environment for which they lack the appropriate social tools, literacy, and capital. So I learned how to be a historian and walk and talk like one, and I learned the ways of elite academia. I did not do it with the swagger and self-assurance that Celine had! But anyway, elite academia upholds and rewards a professionalized, highly disciplined ambitiousness, which was really daunting, but it was ultimately what we were supposed to aspire for. I also internalized the idea that I should approach academic success and one’s career as a game. You play by the rules with the goal to “win”–or endure–but also keep some distance from it all. Self-preserving cynicism made sense, but it also called for habitual performances of dissemblance, which I had also learned went with being a woman and minority in elite academia.

MB: I’d like to echo what Shelley has shared and point out that part of the difficult was that we were learning the ways of elite academia through the hidden curriculum–the rules were unspoken and assumed, so to survive in that environment we had to observe, absorb, and integrate these into our ways of being, a confusing process by which we had to merge our academic identities with our home identities, which did not always seem to fit together. I do not at all remember receiving the kind of strategic advice from faculty that Celine describes. In fact, I was disappointed to not have greater contact with faculty; I had a romanticized notion that in graduate school, you would grow close to your advisors and be invited to dinner at their homes–which only happened once when a young queer woman of color professor held a class session at her house. Now that I have a greater understanding of the power dynamics within higher education, I no longer an envious of my friends who, for example, were invited to house-sit for a faculty member in Italy—because now it turns out that he’s another professor accused of sexual harassment.

SL: I didn’t know anything about Fleigelman until very recently. Departments could be very self-contained. There were a lot of burdens I avoided because of what I didn’t know.

CPS: How aware we were of what took place depended on one’s proximity to the English Department. It was largely students who actively warned each other about the dangers of working with certain faculty and of holding each other accountable in the decision whether or not to have them on your committee. I remember running into an outgoing Ph.D. student in the English Department in an eerily empty Main Quad separating the Department of English and my own Program in Modern Thought and Literature. He told me bluntly: Jay raped Jennie. I did not know Jay. I did not know Jennie, but I went to my peers who worked with Jay to say: this is what I heard and this means you have to examine if you can or cannot work with him. I am not sure how they chose to proceed. Seo-Young Chu says she remained closeted for 15 years about what happened to her at Stanford. And hearing about her experience, even if we did not know her, stayed with us, scared us, enraged us, silenced us.

From looking at Seo-Young Chu’s posted Stanford student identification in “Refuge for Jae-In Doe,” I recognize the name Jennie.  Seo-Young Chu was Jennie. Hers was not the first incident of sexual assault I heard about as a student. As an undergraduate, my friend could barely talk about an assault she experienced years prior by her Teaching Assistant when she was in her first year. I held her hand and shared my own story. In my first year, my writing instructor invited me to her home. I perceived myself her best student. And considered it an honor to work together further. Sitting in her living room, she put her hand on my knee, slowly moving it up my thigh. I got up and left. Not only did I not confront her, I did not report the incident. When I received a B+ for the semester, I knew it was not for the quality of my work but for what I refused in her apartment. Right before graduating, walking near the Student Center, I smilingly approached a male professor who grabbed me by the shoulders, or was it my cheeks? He then planted an unwanted smooch on my lips. It was repulsive. He kept walking. I was flummoxed and standing there asking myself, did that just happen? Did this inappropriate act I did not ask for and did not deserve occur, in public among hundreds of people? At another graduate school, a faculty member exposed himself to my friend. I don’t remember if she filed a complaint. I remember flyering the faculty and student mailboxes with materials about how to help those who experience assault on campus and the protocol for how to report a complaint. I wanted others to know there are mechanisms in place so as to make perpetrators answer to their actions and for victims to know there are ways to report what happened. What happens when complaints are not made, and are not heard when they are made? In higher education, women are assaulted when they are trying to learn. This should not be an inevitability. Careers should not derail before they even start, where the promising, brilliant and talented are made confused, overdetermined, silenced and stopped from learning. And what can we further do to help each other so we are not isolated?

MB: When Chu was in her first year in English, I was in my second in MTL. I had heard from other students what an amazing professor Fliegelman was supposed to be but had not taken a class with him in my first year. Then, suddenly, a wave of fevered whispering: “Jay Fliegelman raped a student.” It was mainly told from one woman to another in my program, a warning: Do not work with him! Later, a male friend was bragging about what excellent advising he was receiving from Fliegelman and I clearly remember thinking, “Well that’s great that you benefit from working with him but not all of us can!” Beyond that, there was the amazement of how much certain faculty can get away with. Other faculty members did their best to protect us from Fleigelman—for example, providing us with professional-sounding excuses for why we could not work with him. The main lesson I learned is that a powerful male professor can violate a student and the university will not do anything about it. Duly noted!

Around that time, I also began reflecting on a relationship I had as an undergraduate with my teaching assistant. When I was nineteen, I felt amazed and special that this older man was taking an interest in me; being with him made me feel sophisticated and mature. We began dating and were physically intimate even while he was in charge of assigning me a grade for the class. Being so young, I did not understand the inherent problems with that. Years later, in training to become a teaching assistant, we had a module on sexual harassment and why one should not date one’s students. As I sat there, it suddenly dawned on me how inappropriate the relationship had been.

Of course, this experience exists a whole spectrum of behaviors–because I had already experienced common street harassment.  Once, when I was a teenager, waiting for a pedestrian signal, I felt a strange pressure on my butt. I turned and saw that a black man in his 50s, a complete stranger, had kissed my butt, right there in public, and was snickering to himself as he walked away. I was so shocked that I did not know how to respond. For him, mine was a public body, available for his enjoyment and consumption. Another time, in a conversation with a middle-aged white man, I shared I intended to apply to PhD programs. “The job market is pretty tough for academics nowadays,” he responded. “It might be hard for you to get a tenure-track job. Have you ever considered becoming an exotic dancer? I bet you could make a lot of money doing that!” Though to my mind we had been having a serious conversation, all I amounted to was a curvy brown-skinned body.

So what does it mean to have this “exotic,” public body on a university campus, whether as a student or, now, as a professor?

SL: These experiences you share are tough to hear. All I can say is I graduated from Stanford in 2005 with incomplete and muddled lessons about sex and power in academia, though I still held to some vague optimism that it was a place where women of color could have an impact. I didn’t know about Fliegelman but I did hear second and third hand stories that provided little guidance. There was one about a female student who filed a grievance against a tenured professor (for a nonsexual charge) and then became the target of retaliation, eventually driving her out of academia. Another student became the object of a tenured professor’s infatuation, and on one occasion he showed up uninvited to her home. A sympathetic feminist professor confronted him, but ultimately the student dropped out, and the senior professor remains celebrated. Such stories served a cautionary purpose, I suppose, but their effect was insidious. It underscored the disposability of people without power (students, contingent and untenured faculty) and invincibility of famous professors who bring renown to their departments and schools.

MB: As tenured, first-generation women of color faculty, we work to undo legacies of inequality in higher education through the research we produce, the courses we teach, and the service and leadership we provide to our institutions and beyond. Now that we are in positions of (relative) power, it is incumbent upon us to consider our daily ethical choices and to think beyond the “help” that does not actually help. We have to do more than hope things will improve because hope in and of itself is not a policy or practice.

CPS: When I received tenure at UCSB in 2006, I immediately became a “senior” woman faculty member and was recruited to co-chair the Senior Women’s Council which worked to promote the recruitment, retention and promotion of women faculty. It was a committee that worked independently of the university administration and the academic senate though we did receive funding from the Chancellor to program events of our choosing. We also fostered an agenda that used data to improve policies regarding the stall in women faculty’s promotion to full professor, the problem with differences in pay between men and women, and more.

As a full professor at SFSU School of Cinema  today, the news of Harvey Weinstein rocking our industry, compelled me to speak to my students. I told them that based on the experiences shared by numerous women in the entertainment industry, that assault and harassment is clearly rampant. And at the same time, as long as men and people in power have perpetrated this violence, there is a long history of women and people who have fought against this problem. How will you choose to be in the industry? As the door has opened for these bold and courageous women and some men choose to speak, how will the industry and academia listen so as to change our culture?

SL: As a tenured professor at the midpoint of my career, I’m grappling with how and whether the diversification of academia has made it more just and inclusive. When I talk with a junior colleague who perceives they have been treated poorly or abused due to their structural position and tell them to work hard and wait till they earn tenure, am I giving them the same “good” advice I received or am I protecting the status quo? And in the arena of sex and power and this current moment, what is the role of the feminist professor? I’m really struggling with this right now.

To Celine’s remark, what happens after people speak out? Too often, nothing. And who is the “we” involved in changing our culture, and how is that done? It’s felt like it always falls to women to prescribe what is to be done, but women didn’t create patriarchy. And patriarchy won’t just dismantle itself. What are we doing besides making incisive critiques, bearing witness, and sharing testimonies? These acts feel powerful and cathartic but feelings don’t equal lasting and institutional change toward creating an environment where every person can just pursue their studies, grow intellectually, be treated with respect, and valued equally. And when people abuse their power, others don’t look away or fail to hold them accountable.

MB: We can only move forward by looking back at those years and confronting the tainted legacy created by not only Stanford faculty and administrators who mishandled, denied, and inadvertently condoned the behavior of Fliegelman and others like him but also by other institutions as well. Like it or not, this dark side of the “special” time at Stanford is now part of our stories. With the privilege of our academic pedigree, and the doors it has opened, also comes the responsibility of calling upon our alma mater to acknowledge and apologize for what Seo-Young Chu experienced and even more, what is now in place to ensure that these will not happen again? And that the culture there should encourage and support women of color moving to become the next generation of faculty.

Oddly, being senior faculty can at times feel akin to being back in the 90s when we were students doing our best to protect and guide each other forward. We have worked incredibly hard to establish and grow our careers by doing the research, teaching, and university leadership that we find rewarding. Even while as senior women of color faculty we need to maximize our stories, wisdom, and power by posing the kinds of questions that can help us forge a more ethical pathway as we guide the scholars who are coming up the ranks, we should not underestimate the pressure of having the kinds of bodies that both are and do diversity at our institutions (to borrow Sara Ahmed’s framing). To what extent can we dismantle a structure that we did not create? It is not our responsibility alone.

SL: No it’s not. Schools certainly need to deal with perpetrators, and they should also not lose sight of the institutional and societal cultures that produce and tolerate such people and behaviors, or of the  patriarchal system we inhabit that devalues women and impacts everyone. It’s depressing, but it doesn’t get better as I’ve gotten older and more accomplished; in fact in some ways I’ve experienced worse behavior perhaps because I’m older and more accomplished. People sometimes have to (gasp) treat me with respect, and they can resent that.

This has come partly as a result of reading about Seo Young-Chu, but I want to practice empathetic solidarity toward young women and everyone who is disadvantaged or undervalued in our system. We have a voyeuristic and distancing relationship to victims and victimhood, that might spotlight crimes but fetishizes–through pity or heroizing–victims. When something bad happens to me, I feel worse when people give me a sad look and say “I’m so sorry this happened to you.” I hear underlying relief that they’re not me. Let’s say instead, “I’ve got your back, we’re in this together, and let’s do excellent things.” To me that can be a small step toward something transformative, where we build bonds of trust, encourage one another to create beautiful alternatives, and spotlight and celebrate those things. And I think the more we do that, we also hopefully close the pathways for people who are abusive and arrogant to even become celebrated professors in the first place. Because we’ve replaced the old culture with a new one that actively eschews such qualities and elevates compassion, integrity, and feminism!

CPS: To read Seo-Young Chu’s essay is to feel this sense of both great relief and a fiery heat to galvanize movement. This was Jennie. She survived, she endured, she did not succumb to silence. She lives, she fights, she writes a work that so clearly explains the impact of sexual assault in one’s life, one’s dreams and one’s most private sense of self. She thrives and contends with the ongoing impact of the assault she experienced. She has a powerful voice that demands to be heard. And she moves us to connect, to fight, to speak, to make our presences known and to demand the space we need to thrive. In addition to empathetic solidarity that Shelley speaks of, I also want to model kindness and compassion towards my colleagues in our line of work where we frequently feel beleaguered and overwhelmed. We write now to help make sense of that time, not only for Seo-Young Cho to hear who was around her, and who surrounds her in solidarity, but how her story demands for us to act now.

SL: Seo-Young Chu wins.


Shelley Lee is an Associate Professor of History and Chair of Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College. Her scholarly work focuses on Asian American history and she has also published essays on a range of topics from immigration to campus activism in Salon, Truthout and Inside Higher Ed. Follow her @Shelley_S_Lee.



About , and

Magdalena L. Barrera is Associate Professor of Mexican American Studies and the Faculty-in-Residence for Diversifying the Faculty at San José State University. Her research covers two areas: one strand focuses on the representation of Mexican Americans in early twentieth century American literature, photography and government publications; the other centers on the retention and mentoring of historically underrepresented students and faculty in higher education. Her work has appeared in journals and edited collections in the fields of Chicano Studies, California history and the scholarship of teaching and pedagogy.
Celine Parreñas Shimizu is Full Professor of Cinema Studies and Member of the Graduate Faculty in Sexuality Studies at San Francisco State University. She is an award-winning film scholar and filmmaker. She is the co-editor of The Feminist Porn Book and author of Straitjacket Sexualities and The Hypersexuality of Race. Distributed by Progressive Films and Third World Newsreel, her films include Birthright: Mothering Across Difference and The Fact of Asian Women. Follow her on twitter @CelineShimizu.