Former graduate student alleges U. visiting professor discouraged Title IX reporting| Nov 27, 2017
After “many years of silence,” Kimberly Latta, a psychotherapist and writer from Pittsburgh, has come forward to describe her experience with complaints of alleged sexual harassment at University of California, Berkeley between 1984-85. Latta alleges that Frances Ferguson, currently a visiting Bain-Swiggett Professor of Poetry at the University and the then-Title IX administrator at Berkeley, discouraged her from making a formal report of the matter.
In a Facebook post dated Nov. 5, Latta alleged that while she was a graduate student in Berkeley's comparative literature department, she was sexually harassed, assaulted, and raped by a visiting professor. The accused professor taught at Berkeley in 1985 and is currently professor emeritus at Stanford University. He denies any wrongdoing.
Ferguson is currently on faculty at the University of Chicago, where she is the Ann L. and Lawrence B. Buttenwieser Professor of English Language and Literature and the College. This fall, Ferguson is teaching a graduate seminar at the University entitled, “Poetics - Poetic Realism: Episodes, 18th Century to the Present.”
Assistant Vice President for Communications Daniel Day declined to comment on Latta’s allegations regarding Ferguson at this time.
Latta believes a friendship between Ferguson and the accused professor affected Ferguson’s handling of Latta’s case.
In an emailed statement to the ‘Prince’, the accused professor denies that he and Ferguson were even friends at the time of the allegations, although he admits they “became friends later.” Ferguson’s statements hold that she and the accused professor were mere acquaintances. In a statement to the ‘Prince,’ Ferguson said the two “did not know each other in 1984-85.” The Stanford Daily reports that Ferguson said she and the accused professor did not see much of each other outside of “chance professional encounters” once the accused professor left Berkeley.
In Ferguson’s statement to The Stanford Daily, she said that she had understood the situation to be that the accused professor had only asked — not pressured — Latta for sex.
“She [Ferguson] treats it as though [the accused professor asking for sex was] nothing, like it was no big deal,” Latta said to the ‘Prince’ on her problem about Ferguson’s statement to The Stanford Daily.
Latta also alleges that Ferguson influenced her not to make a formal report against the accused professor.
“It wasn’t like she [Ferguson] said, ‘Oh, we’re going to do something about this,’ or ‘This is terrible that this is happening to you,’” Latta said to the ‘Prince’ of Ferguson’s handling of her case. “She [Ferguson] didn’t stress that at all,” Latta said.
Latta alleges that Ferguson remained “disinterested” in her case, even after Latta cried in Ferguson’s office.
“When I went to see her [Ferguson], I described the distress, the fact that I couldn’t get focused, that this professor was harrassing me, that he wouldn’t leave me alone, that I was extremely upset,” said Latta. “I may not have told her that I was raped because I was frankly so ashamed of that [the rape] and just felt really awful.”
Ferguson furthers that she would have only been able to show support to Latta if Latta had filed a formal complaint.
“Showing support [to accusers] is something one can only do once an investigation of a formal report has been completed and a disciplinary action taken,” Ferguson explained to the 'Prince' in response to Latta’s allegations of inappropriate neutrality.
In an emailed statement to the ‘Prince,’ on Nov. 12 — shortly after the allegations were reported by The Daily Californian and The Chronicle of Higher Education nationwide — Ferguson also defended her response to Latta’s complaints. According to Ferguson, she had to show objectivity during her meeting with Latta because of her role as Title IX officer. The responsibilities of a Title IX officer, Ferguson explained, center on investigating all formal complaints. In order to fulfill these duties, explained Ferguson, she could not act in any way that showed favor or sympathy for any particular party. Ferguson noted that informal complaints often amount to Title IX officers issuing a letter to the accused to stop inappropriate actions.
“Having a Title IX officer take the side of a complainant when she/he/they have not yet decided whether they want to make a formal complaint would effectively deprive them of the possibility of proceeding to make a formal complaint,” Ferguson wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ “The Title IX officer needs to maintain an impassive demeanor even when hearing a very distressing report in an informal complaint.”
Latta also alleges Ferguson mishandled both the reporting and documentation of the case.
In her interview with the ‘Prince,’ Latta alleges that her eventual decision not to file a report was affected by Ferguson’s never having offered her the option of an informal report. Latta said her only choices were a formal report or none at all.
“She never offered me that option [of an informal complaint], ever,” Latta said to the ‘Prince.’
A formal report, said Latta, was too overwhelming. As such, Latta said she felt like her only option was to remain silent.
“I do remember her saying to me, that one [option] was to be quiet and the other was to make a formal report. The formal report, at the time, was quite involved,” Latta said. “It involved hearings and a court, and it sounded like it would be another totally re-traumatizing experience.”
Ferguson maintains that she offered Latta that option of a formal report along with the informal complaint as an option. According to Ferguson, she exerted no pressure on Latta’s reporting decision.
Regarding her case’s documentation, Latta alleged that when she insisted her complainant’s name be included in Ferguson’s recording of the incident, Ferguson disagreed and instead told Latta not to disclose the complainant [the professor’s] name to Ferguson. Latta explained in an interview that, in her meeting with Ferguson, she insisted Ferguson include the complainant’s name in her records, to which Ferguson said that she would only leave his initials. According to Latta, Ferguson explained that the initials would help her track documents in case another person accuses the same professor of assault.
Ferguson attributes her neutrality to that needed in her role as a Title IX officer.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, a Title IX investigation “must be adequate, reliable, impartial, and prompt and include the opportunity for both parties to present witnesses and other evidence.”
Latta emphasized her shock at what she calls Ferguson’s “unconcerned” statement to The Stanford Daily in its piece on the matter.
Latta said she never heard from Ferguson after their meeting. The extent of their interaction, Latta told the ‘Prince’, was isolated to that initial meeting.
Latta left Berkeley's graduate program in 1986, two years after having started in 1984. She had earned a master’s degree in comparative literature, though she had intended to complete the Ph.D. program.
Latta is now a psychotherapist after having spent some time teaching English literature at both the University of Pittsburgh and Saint Louis University. In 1998, she received a Ph.D. from Rutgers University in English.
In 1987, two years after the alleged incident, Ferguson published “Rape and the Rise of the Novel,” an essay has been called called “groundbreaking” for its assertion that experiences with sexual violence have been integral in the rise of the psychological novel.
In September, the University celebrated the essay’s thirtieth anniversary with a full day symposium, “Rape and the Rise of the Novel at 30: A Master Class.”
University English Department Chair William Gleason was not available for comment at the time of publication.