Former Stanford Professor Accuses University of Retaliating Against Her for Sexual Harassment Complaint

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

Michelle Karnes, a former English professor at Stanford University, has accused administrators at the prestigious California institution of retaliating against her after she reported a formal sexual harassment complaint against Stephen Hinton, a fellow professor and former dean who’d been involved in hiring her. “I thought he was someone who was just rooting for my success and wanted to help,” she told the Guardian. “Stanford was such a hierarchical place. He was really high up, and I was untenured.”


In July 2012, according to Karnes’s complaint, Hinton, a much-celebrated music professor who had just stepped down as senior associate dean of humanities and arts, began inviting the young literature professor, 20 years his junior, to lunch. Despite the fact that both are married—and, more importantly, that she kept declining his invitations—Hinton persisted, telling Karnes that he had a “crush” on her, the Guardian reports, and was “tormented” by his feelings. “I just wanted to crawl out of my skin, I was so uncomfortable,” Karnes said. “I was really scared.”

Stanford is currently under five separate Title IX investigations, including four sexual violence investigations, according to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, and Karnes’ allegations come on the heels of a lawsuit filed by a former student accusing the university of ignoring the presence of a “known sexual predator on campus.” Earlier this month, BuzzFeed News reported that the university offered at least two former students settlements in order to get them to drop their federal complaints—an offer that Karnes claims was also extended to her.

At one point, Karnes alleged, Hinton kissed her on the lips and told her he was “constantly thinking about her.” Stanford’s investigation of Karnes’s complaint found that Hinton had in fact made an “unwanted sexual advance” on the younger professor, but that this did not constitute sexual harassment.

Karnes sought help from Tanya Luhrmann, a professor whose husband, Richard Saller, is the dean who oversees hiring and is a “close friend” of Hinton’s. Luhrmann told Karnes “she should try to appease Mr Hinton as he was a powerful person in the University.” From the Guardian:

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.

Karnes and Duarte are now both at Notre Dame University.

Reporter, Special Projects Desk


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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”.