By Sam Levin | The Guardian
Stephen Hinton wouldn’t leave her alone. After Michelle Karnes politely rejected the Stanford professor and former dean, according to her complaint, he didn’t back down.
It was July 2012, and he allegedly told Karnes, then an untenured professor, that he had a “crush” on her and was “tormented” by his feelings. She said she made clear she didn’t want further contact. But Hinton – a powerful faculty member who had hired her – allegedly continued to confront her at the gym, telling her he wasn’t “stalking”, but wanted to talk.
“I just wanted to crawl out of my skin, I was so uncomfortable,” Karnes, 42, said in an interview. “I was really scared.”
A university investigation of Karnes’ sexual harassment complaint concluded that Hinton, who is 20 years older, had made an “unwanted sexual advance”, but it’s unclear if the professor faced any consequences. On the contrary, Karnes says that administrators retaliated against her for speaking up and pushed her out of Stanford.
Hinton vigorously denied the allegations, claiming they had a “platonic, reciprocal relationship” and pointing out that a university investigation concluded his conduct did not constitute sexual harassment.
From Karnes’ perspective, however, the university went to great lengths to protect a senior faculty member and silence his accuser, prioritizing the institution’s reputation over her wellbeing.
Her story comes on the heels of numerous sexual misconduct controversies at Stanford, one of America’s most prestigious universities, and as women in academia across the US have increasingly spoken up about assault, harassment and discrimination.
Karnes’ story boosts the claims of Stanford students and faculty who argue that the institution has policies and a broader culture that systematically fail to acknowledge the problem, leading administrators to punish victims while not holding perpetrators accountable.
Tammy Frisby, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, who has testified about sexual harassment at her office, said administrators regularly tried to thwart litigation by bullying victims.
“It’s a culture of intimidation where the university very clearly wants to send a message to women that you should not speak up or we will go after you,” she said. “When the university comes to do an HR investigation, they aren’t on your side. The university is on the university’s side.”
Hinton, a respected music professor, was very supportive of Karnes when she was hired as a literature professor in 2008, she recalled. After Hinton stepped down as senior associate dean of humanities and arts, Karnes said he began inviting her to lunches.
“I thought he was someone who was just rooting for my success and wanted to help,” she recalled, noting that Hinton was well connected to top administrators and told her he could soon become the dean of humanities and sciences. “Stanford was such a hierarchical place. He was really high up, and I was untenured.”
But Karnes said it eventually became clear Hinton was interested in more than a professional relationship even though they were both married.
In the summer of 2012, Hinton at one point kissed her on the lips, she said. And in a later conversation that became the subject of Karnes’ complaint, he allegedly confessed that he had romantic feelings and was “constantly thinking about her”, her lawyer wrote.
After she rebuffed him, he asked her to meet again, writing in an email that he would “welcome the chance to continue our conversation”.
Karnes said the professor continued to find her at the gym. In one encounter, “Mr Hinton seemed agitated and angry and told her that he did not want to end their friendship,” Karnes’ lawyer wrote. “Mr Hinton attempted to explain away the incident by claiming his crush on her had already passed.”
In an email to the Guardian, Hinton claimed they “regularly ran into each other” at the gym and that after their initial conversation, “all subsequent contact amounted to an attempt on my part to clear the air”. He alleged that he “immediately complied” when she asked him to stop contacting her.
After they cut off communication, Karnes said her troubles didn’t end.
When Karnes explained the situation to Tanya Luhrmann, a professor and the wife of the current dean of humanities and sciences, Richard Saller, Luhrmann told Karnes “she should try to appease Mr Hinton as he was a powerful person in the University”, Karnes’ lawyer wrote.
Luhrmann discussed the case with her husband, who was a “close friend” of Hinton and the dean who oversees hiring, according to Karnes’ complaint.
Although the dean’s office approved Karnes’ tenure in 2015, she soon after learned that her husband, Shane Duarte, a Stanford philosophy lecturer, would not have his position renewed in 2016.
To the couple, it became obvious the move was retaliatory. They had been hired as a “dual-career academic couple”, and Karnes said it was highly unusual for Stanford to grant tenure to one spouse and terminate the other after years of service.
Records also show that Duarte regularly received high marks on teacher evaluations, and Karnes said she even offered to forgo a raise, which would have covered a majority of her husband’s salary.
The administrators lacked grounds to deny Karnes tenure after she received unanimous support from department faculty, she said, and instead targeted Duarte because he was not on a tenure track.
“They didn’t explain themselves, and we were left in the dark,” Duarte wrote in an email.
The couple’s lawyer wrote that after Duarte’s dismissal, Luhrmann “repeatedly encouraged Ms Karnes to leave Stanford”, which Karnes said further confirmed the retaliation.
“It was psychologically really difficult for me,” Karnes said, noting that she struggled with depression for the first time in her life. “To have Shane used as a weapon against me was really painful.”
Karnes filed a formal complaint with the university, and the lawyer Stanford hired to investigate, Christine Helwick, wrote in her final report that she found Karnes “to be more credible” than Hinton.
Helwick concluded that Hinton had made an “unwanted sexual advance” and noted that Karnes “had to communicate with Hinton more than once to terminate their friendship”.
But the attorney also found that his behavior was not linked to any employment decision and did not rise to the level of sexual harassment. Helwick further concluded that there was no retaliation.
Karnes and her husband now have positions at Notre Dame University.
Hinton told the Guardian Karnes’ complaint stemmed from a “single conversation”, adding, “I participated fully in the review, and the result was that I had not violated any Stanford policies, including sexual harassment.”
Asked about the kissing incident, he said their friendship was “warm, even affectionate” and that “on one occasion we accidentally kissed each other on the lips”.
Saller, the dean, denied the retaliation claim, but declined to comment further.
The university investigator concluded that Luhrmann, his wife, did not want Karnes to leave Stanford, but had “advised” her as a “fellow female academic, she should go where her husband can also get a job”.
Luhrmann told the Guardian in an email that she “often gave Michelle mentorly advice” and had suggested Karnes consider consulting an official authorized to give guidance on sexual harassment. And when she heard Notre Dame might be an option, “I told her that if I were in her position, I would take those jobs, although I would be sad to see her leave,” Luhrmann said.
Karnes said she decided to speak out after hearing so many stories of harassment and retaliation at Stanford, often involving powerless graduate students.
She said Stanford also offered a financial settlement that would probably have required them to remain silent. Her account echoes a recent report in BuzzFeed suggesting that the university offered money to two women in an attempt to close federal investigations into the school’s handling of sexual assault.
The reporting process felt like an opportunity for Stanford to prepare for a potential lawsuit, Karnes added.
“They just want to neutralize the threat,” she said. “It’s 100% about their brand.”
University spokeswoman Lisa Lapin said the university conducted a “thorough and objective review” of Karnes’ allegations, but declined to comment further on “personnel matters”.
Duarte said the university’s treatment of his wife made it clear that the college refuses to acknowledge the mistreatment many people face: “I don’t think that the administration believes there’s a real sexual harassment problem at Stanford.”