I Had an Affair With My College Dean

My first and only queer relationship was kept a secret, but not for the usual reasons. Rather, my first and only queer relationship was kept a secret because when I was twenty-two and a senior in college, I had an affair with a well-known dean at my university—a married woman twice my age. The dean was a school celebrity—charismatic, adored—and I was the kind of young person who craved attention from powerful people. When a close friendship between us turned physically intimate, I was convinced I was in love and so I lived a double life. It was a lot for a young person, especially in this particular collegiate environment—going through the pomp and circumstance of senior year, meanwhile secretly sleeping with one of the most public figures on campus.

Our affair was both a sapphic Nancy Meyers film and a tremendous amount of stress for a twenty-two-year-old. It does something to your soul to carry a massive secret; there’s a weight of not being fully known. My friends didn’t know, my family certainly didn’t know. We weren’t breaking any rules—she checked the university’s policies—but it was clear that what we were doing put her job at risk, so I told no one. Meanwhile, I drifted from my peers. What would they say if they knew? Only one friend ever expressed skepticism about my public closeness to the dean.

“IT’S WEIRD,” she shouted as we danced at a house party, drunk on cheap alcohol.

I wanted to tell her. Can you believe it? Instead, I just laughed.

In my creative writing classes, I crafted fictionalized versions of our story, feeling very grown up to have such a secret. One day as I flipped through printed copies of my draft, I saw a classmate had scribbled “are you sleeping with the dean?” in his margin notes. The metadrama of his question thrilled me, but I said nothing. When I told her what had happened, she asked me to be more careful.

Her husband knew. I learned early in our relationship she had told him about her feelings long before she confessed them to me. Everything she did with me, he supported.

“Just don’t buy her a car,” he once joked to her.

To me, he remained a pale, benevolent shadow, a background character who benefitted from the energy I brought into her life and weathered the storms of her love for me. At the time, I didn’t understand how someone could be happy for their spouse to have other sexual partners, but I rarely interacted with him and found I could mostly put him out of my mind.

One late night after dinner and drinks off campus, we realized she had locked her keys in her car. She called her husband at their home a few miles away and he met us outside the bar with a second set, his visible impatience sobering our tipsy giggles. Even with this momentary annoyance, I wanted what they had. “I find it so hot how much they are in love,” I wrote in my journal. From what I knew of their marriage, they lived in a fairytale of endless passion and affection.

Neither the dean nor I had slept with a woman before. Despite all the porn I had watched since discovering it in high school, I didn’t even know what to call what happens between two women.

In the early stages of our friendship, as I became more and more obsessed with her attention, I had told myself I couldn’t be attracted to her because I was definitely not a lesbian—I had written as much in the pages of my adolescent journals until I believed it. I was the child of liberal artists who had raised me alongside their gay male friends, but I didn’t understand what I was feeling, what I had experienced in middle school toward my English teacher and her silk scarves, why I felt a tug between my pubescent legs while looking at the women’s bathing suit section of catalogs.

I’d had sex for the first time the summer before my senior year while interning in New York City, with a burly male grad student I met in drama class. He was attractive and sweet and the event was cinematic: the steamy elevator ride up to my Village sublet with a view, our clothes on the kitchen floor, his bare arms and sturdy body on the balcony. This is happening, I had said to myself, turning my mental camera on every moment so as to not forget. But the intercourse wasn’t the spectacular experience I’d been promised by magazines stolen from doctors’ office waiting rooms. This is it? I thought as he thrusted. I didn’t come and his mouth stayed above my navel.

Whatever might happen with her would be different, I could tell.

The first time she and I slept together—in a rustic cabin on a coastal mountain hours south of campus—I didn’t wonder what to do. I did what I had watched countless times, close-up shots of tongues and lips. I barely knew my own body, but I did what I imagined felt good, what I wanted done to me. I had worried I wouldn’t like the smell, that bodily fluids would interfere with my eagerness to please. They didn’t, though, and I wasn’t deterred by the slickness that spelled out her desire. She craved mine, marveling at my scent. She wanted me on her fingers, in her mouth. Now she understood, she said, how her husband could love it so much, could want her the way she wanted me. I came twice.

We showered together after, becoming less shy in our nakedness. Like me, she longed for the self-love we believed existed on the other side of a thinner body. But with each other, our soft folds were safe. To each other, we were beautiful.

Meanwhile, I had gotten back together with my milquetoast college boyfriend. He was my first boyfriend, something I’d ached and longed for without understanding what I actually craved and why. I dated him our sophomore year because, unlike my family, he was calm and unreactive—and eager to please even as I didn’t know what to ask for. I had broken up with him because I was bored, but now two years later, my hunger for affection was louder than anything. His arm draped tepid yet sincere around my shoulder was enough to convince me he and I made sense together.

My relationship with him felt legitimate and publicly validating. When I couldn’t be with her, I was with him. With her, I learned about German wines and sent explicit mid-day texts. With him, I had a date to the senior formal.

She knew about him—I often shared my doubts about him with her. All he knew about my connection to her was that she and I were close friends.

I changed her name in my phone.

From a very young age, I imagined myself fabulous and single as an adult, living a glamorous life in Manhattan where I would win Tony Awards and own small dogs. I had started my senior year of college with the energy of this envisioned future, but as I became more invested in the story I was living in real time, my focus blurred.

“Why aren’t you applying to writing programs?” my department chair asked me. “You should be applying to writing programs.” A play I wrote and directed had just received high praise from talent scouts.

But I wanted to be an actress. I thought I was too tall, too big, my voice too low, my chin too weak—yet I ached to be on stage. The dean’s attention was like a special spotlight. We went away again, this time to a luxury hotel nearby. Another late night, a motel two miles from campus. The graduate school application windows closed as I relished in her affection.

We told ourselves she was teaching me how to love myself, how to act on my desires. This is what love looks like, we said, and I became adept at anticipating her desires—which I fulfilled, eagerly. She was my audience; I was her secret star.

After graduating, I landed an underpaid theater internship in New York City, where I quickly became overwhelmed from working more than full time for little money while pouring my effort and energy into maintaining two long-distance relationships, one still a secret. She wrote to me from across the country nearly every week, never signing her name. Sometimes, inside her cards were folded pieces of white printer paper containing poems she had written for me—about missing me, about longing for us. As I swiped my EBT card for groceries and juggled multiple Manhattan side gigs, the potency of her desire fed my hunger to believe I was special. In the absence of my self-love, her attention reassured me that anxiety and financial stress were just the backstory of my character’s future triumph.

I had moved to New York to do theater, but now I found myself without the time or energy to perform or write. On the rare night off, a booth at a 24-hour French cafe held me as I stretched a single boozy hot chocolate into hours of people watching and what little journaling I could muster. I made plans to submit to writing competitions, but the deadlines slipped by as I ran between side gigs.

I sent her things, too, writing brief love notes on the theater’s letterhead. Once, I mailed her a pair of my unwashed underwear. I wanted to compensate for how my messages often fell short of her libidinal desires. Rumbly, I called it—when she wanted to sext. Distracted and overwhelmed by my surroundings, I often didn’t have enough or the right words to feed her appetite.

I’m here like a prisoner,” she wrote one night.
Being fed broth
One spoonful
At
A
Time.

That fall, she flew to visit me, arriving outside my apartment building with a bouquet of irises. We crossed the river in her rental car and stopped at a market for weekend provisions. Our destination was a cottage upstate—the kind of dreamy place I had only ever seen in movies. That night we belted Les Mis as we ate hard cheeses slathered with fig spread and washed dishes together. We slept naked, waking up to wander through tiny art galleries and cozy shops in town, where she bought me a ring set with garnet and amethyst stones.

As a surprise, she had ordered me expensive bras—push-up, leopard print, black lace—delivered to the cottage before our arrival. I tried them on in the bathroom, sheepishly emerging to announce they were too big for me. Because I often wore shirts that accentuated my breasts, she assumed my cup size to be larger than it was. I was embarrassed—though for whom, I wasn’t sure. The pink and red striped box got tucked in a corner, its tissue paper as tossed as our sheets.

Beneath the cottage’s cathedral ceilings, I forgot about my small, dark room back in the city with its warped door that only locked from the outside. As I gorged myself on warm bread in the mornings, dressed in nothing but her soft white button-down with delicate nacre buttons, I didn’t think about my scary landlady who sent threatening texts that read like ransom notes. Or my boyfriend, who would soon be flying across the country for our own romantic weekend.

One month after she and I licked whipped cream off strawberries upstate, I greeted my boyfriend at the midtown high-rise apartment he had booked. Between theater premieres and fancy cocktails, we scarfed down dollar slices of pizza, trying not to drip grease on our nice clothes. I wore the same lace-top thigh highs I’d worn in countless photos texted to her (and him—two audiences for the price of one bedroom cell phone photoshoot).

As I padded around the rented apartment in nothing but his dress shirt, I started to imagine a life with him, and I fantasized about the lifestyle afforded by someone with his job in tech. It was not unlike what I knew she had with her husband: an airy house in an expensive neighborhood, secret horny eye contact during business functions, seaside vacations. The role appealed to me.

“I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” he said at one point.

In college, I hadn’t seen a future with my boyfriend—we were such different people—but in the loneliness of our long-distance relationship, a future started to coalesce in my imagination. I, who had never daydreamed about my wedding, saw us dancing our first dance and longed for the stability he represented. As we lay in bed on the second to last night of his visit, I decided to finally be honest.

Thinking my confession would lead to a swell of strings in a climactic scene of profound connection and self-actualization, I shared my secret. Maybe he would be turned on, I hoped, like her husband. Instead, he sobbed and wouldn’t touch me.

I didn’t sleep that night, taking refuge on the couch as he shut himself in the bedroom. “I don’t want to lose him,” I wrote on a scrap of paper as he slept, my nervous system screaming with fear. “I don’t think I can continue with her. I’m mad at her. For having enough and wanting more. She already has the love of her life. And now I’m losing mine. I’m scared. Please wake up.

I let my boyfriend fuck me without a condom several times between when he eventually woke up and when the weekend ended—something we, ever responsible, had never done. To my supreme relief, he didn’t break up with me, and we decided to try and repair the damaged trust. But first, I had to end my relationship with her.

The next day, I called her and struggled to keep my voice monotone. She cried, though she knew the end was inevitable. After hanging up, I wept. Later that week, I writhed in pain from an untreated UTI.

The abrupt loss of our attachment was devastating and the need to fix things with my boyfriend was daunting. Overwhelmed and distraught, I gave up on my nascent starving artist life. I moved back to California to live with my parents where, after barely a week at home, I finally told them everything.

They were horrified. Suddenly words like manipulated and abuse of power were being used and shame started to calcify in the parts of me that had desired her—tremendous embarrassment—as I began to see my great love story through a very different lens. I had felt like such an adult, living this beautiful, sexy adventure of intimacy and growth, swirling in a soft glow. But I told my parents and in an instant it was now closing time at a grimy bar—blinding fluorescent lights revealing makeup caked on cheeks sweaty from too many cheap shots. All at once, I was too drunk, my clothes were too tight, and I was very exposed. What happened was shocking; I had been groomed. Yet I couldn’t forget how I had pursued her and I hated myself for having been so desperate.

I was relieved to no longer be keeping this secret from my parents, but also flooded by the intensity of their reaction. I needed to be comforted, held. Instead, my dad expressed his grief through rage, thinking he could scream away the shock of my confession. I responded with my own fury, rampaging through the house like an addict whose substance had been confiscated. I demanded my parents have no contact with the dean and do nothing in response to my disclosure as I sobbed that I was still in love with her.

She used you, my mom insisted. I’d never seen her this sad. You can’t see that she used you.

A few weeks after I confessed to my parents, my mom told me she had anonymously informed the university about the dean’s actions. As a result, the dean would be leaving. This was profoundly upsetting because I felt, at the time, that I had ruined her life—that I was entirely responsible. Stuck in the liminal space of regret, I returned again and again to my memories with her, haunted by my own choices, still reeling from attachment withdrawals.

The next month, I received an email from a reporter with the student newspaper. “We have top secret information.” Panic flared in my stomach. “The dean is leaving to pursue an MFA and will be announcing her departure tomorrow. We know you two are close—can you give us a quote about what she means to you?

An MFA? She was leaving to pursue an MFA?

From the depth of my own struggle to find creative focus, rage began to boil. I declined to give a quote, blaming schedule conflicts.

Over the following months, I watched the university and my peers celebrate her commitment to authenticity and commend her bravery for pursuing this calling. Meanwhile, I was drowning from the distress of ending the relationship and my own inability to launch a creative life as I hydroplaned across heartbreak and a newfound anger.

While completing her MFA, the now-former dean published a book that became a New York Times bestseller and as her public platform skyrocketed, this secret burrowed deeper and deeper into my DNA. Sometimes over the years it appeared as bitterness, often as a quiet grief.

At this point, enough time has passed that I’m not sick to my stomach every time I turn on NPR and hear her voice or I see her on the news. I used to listen to her podcast interviews, wondering if I would hear our story in her conversations, jealous and resentful she appeared to have moved on in such a spectacular, successful way. Once, she alluded to a midlife crisis and I felt gross, like I’d been caught stalking her. I stopped listening to the interviews.

Part of this grief, I think, comes from wondering where I might be now if I’d poured all that energy and effort into my own story instead of ours. Another part—I know—comes from mourning the fact that my first queer relationship was shrouded in so much silent shame. Since her, I have only dated men. Are these things related? What will authenticity feel like on the other side of finally releasing this secret?

More than a decade has passed since our affair. My life—while different from the dream I had of it then—has been meaningful, even creatively rewarding. And yet this piece of my past has stuck to me, a specter of self-loathing. I cringe when I revisit my emails to her, when I scroll through the countless messages I once sent. In my words I see a performance of authenticity and I squint from the glaring evidence of how obsessively I pursued her attention.

A handful of years after our relationship ended and the cultural conversation about consent shifted, I didn’t see myself in the clear-cut wrongness of the stories that made headlines. Yes, she should have known better. And yet, I had agency. She showed poor judgment. And I made poor choices. She misused her power. She made me feel beautiful. For years, I thrashed between the simplicity of right and wrong, lost in paradox, needing to cast a villain. How do you reconcile a story that exists in the gray space between love and abuse? She has done much good for many people. She did something inappropriate with me. I eagerly sought her affection. I was very young.

As I grow older, I am learning to surrender to the possibility of both/and. I do believe she loved me, that we can love someone and harm them without meaning to. I often resent my secret, and yet from it, I have developed a relationship with integrity. There is a version of this story that is a queer mistake, there is a version that is a cautionary tale. What if it’s both? How do I hold both?

A soft voice emerges from the heart of my growing wisdom.

Forgive yourself.

A few years ago, she emailed me out of the blue. “I’ve been so ashamed,” she wrote. A knot of tears formed in my throat. My strange loop of shame and longing had turned into a nostalgic sadness that hummed in the background of my life. I assumed we would never speak again, that she wanted nothing to do with me.

I shouldn’t have told you I loved you,” she continued. “I shouldn’t have been in a romantic relationship with you. I shouldn’t have done any of that given my position and I am deeply sorry. I hope one day you’ll be able to forgive me. Maybe when you’re a forty-something, clinging…although I do not wish that for you.

I sat on my bed and cried. “I forgave you a long time ago,” I replied. The early months of COVID-19 raged outside. “I hope I can say that to your face someday.

Her email led us to get back in touch, although some days I’m not sure we should be. She’d rather not run into me, she said, but she supports me telling this story because she knows it’s quite a thing, what happened. I am sorry, too. For all the ways I have abused myself. For hurting her. I do not wish her harm.

Sometimes, though, I think about my young self in all her potential and momentum and I ache with the oceanic depth of my mother’s protective outrage. How could she? How dare she? But eventually the churning tide recedes and in the space created by forgiveness I am learning how to hold myself, how to give myself the love I have so desperately sought from others.

Until recently, I lived just a few miles from her house, a logistical coincidence resulting from unexpected career moves and my preference for tree-filled streets. I never ran into her, but my pulse always quickend when I would pull into the parking lot of the grocery chain where we both shopped. She drives a different car now, the make and model of which I know from reading about her life.

One late winter night while on a walk, I crossed the main road and headed against what little traffic lumbered down the dark street. Shoving my icy hands into my coat pockets as a familiar vehicle whizzed by, I looked up and thought I saw her behind the wheel. I froze. Did she see me? Was that actually her? But the car and its driver were long gone.

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Olivia Swanson Haas

Olivia Swanson Haas is a bicoastal and bisexual writer, photographer, performer, and creative strategist. Since graduating from Stanford with a B.A. in English, she has held various positions in theater, film, television, and tech, working with and for The Kennedy Center, Manhattan Theatre Club, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Google, Pinterest, and Sequoia Capital, among others. Her writing has received support from the Community of Writers, Vermont Studio Center, StoryStudio Chicago, and Tin House. Find her on Instagram. and Twitter..

Olivia has written 1 article for us.

75 Comments

  1. The reveal of telling your parents, with the comparison of the “closing time” fluorescent lights flicking on, was just devastating. It snaps into such clear focus the dreamy romanticism that you’d been steeped in while it was happening. IRL, it’s so hard to see the clear picture of what’s actually happening in your life when you’re still in the middle of the story!

    • They should teach this text in units on compulsory heterosexuality. Assuming the boyfriend is the main relationship needing to be protected because he is the (hetero) marriage prospect. The shame the parents felt, so clearly because it was a woman. The idea that the affair was with the Dean, despite the fact that it was totally consensual within her relationship (the real affair was getting back with the ex boyfriend.)

      Really fascinating and vulnerable writing.

      • We don’t know if the parents were devastated bc it was a woman, or bc it was a dean, or both. They’re artists and she said they had close gay male friends, you might think they’d be more accepting. I think there are non-homophobic reasons for the parents to be upset.
        But yes, it is telling the way she discusses the bf. Why does she suddenly say he was the love of her life, when saying before he was boring and tepid?

      • Read it again: She said nothing about her parents feeling shame, nor that they were upset or even thinking about her boyfriend at all. She wrote only that her parents were upset because they felt she’d been groomed and used by the dean. There is nothing to indicate that they would have felt differently if the dean had been a man.

      • Why was this deleted? I feel like the disrespectful and insensitive way the msm have reported this (eg SF Chronicle and Daily Mail calling it ‘steamy’) is bringing over people who aren’t interested in responding to Haas’ experience, except for salacious reasons- is that it?

  2. Olivia, thank you for sharing your story in such a nuanced, powerful, and thoughtful framework. It was moving to read through the story, which includes your relationship to yourself and your own queer identity. This story of a power dynamic and how it can impact the (already difficult) coming out/coming to terms with queerness process is so important to uplift.

  3. What a beautifully written piece that takes on the complexity of this relationship in all its facets. I appreciate your vulnerability and seeing how your feelings changed over time as you moved toward forgiveness while still holding the truth of your experience in your heart.

    • I found this essay very moving too, especially the sections where she talked about “getting off” with the dean or her then boyfriend.
      Do we really need to know if she “came?”
      She has problems.

      • Sexual content in an essay about a sexual relationship? Shocking!

        Why do you think it bothers you? Because it isn’t framed in a black-and-white “these horrible things (that I shall not describe) happened to me and it was all 100% horrible forever” kind of way? Things are often more complicated and nuanced than that in the real world.

        The author has provided these details because she felt they were relevant to her story. It’s a personal essay, not a news article.

  4. Olivia, I loved reading this piece. You delve so thoughtfully into the grey areas, asking big questions about love and power and agency — and showing how your own understanding of this experience holds evolving complexity. Thank you for sharing this moving story!

    • I appreciated very very much that you don’t take the absolute, and generally victim, self-righteous position. We are human. We, I hope, don’t all go through life making “good choices,” looking to pounce on the other.

  5. What a riveting essay, very well written. Thanks for sharing your story. My curiosity got the better of me and a quick Google search turned up the likely identity of the former Dean. Did she really support your decision to publish this story? Seems like she has a lot on the line. I totally get why you might want to out her though, her actions were entirely wrong. I hope this can help you move forward. Wishing you the best.

    • https://padailypost.com/2024/07/16/opinion-lythcott-haims-should-step-down-from-city-council/
      Lythcott-Haims should step down from Palo Alto CA City Council.
      Julie Lythcott-Haims should have leveled with the voters two years ago about why she left her job as a dean at Stanford following a relationship she had with an undergraduate.

      According to an online essay the undergrad published last week, the young woman’s parents complained to Stanford officials about the relationship, and soon thereafter Lythcott-Haims resigned.

      Nobody is saying Lythcott-Haims broke the law. Apparently, she didn’t even violate any Stanford policies about faculty having sex with students, though those rules have since been tightened up.

      But her judgment is terrible. Her relationship with the female undergraduate reeks of recklessness, selfishness and an inability to control one’s impulses. As a dean, you’re supposed to be a role model to students.

  6. Moderators can you please explain why a whole string of comments were just deleted without a trace? They did not seem problematic at all. And did not go against the comment policy. Merely commented how easy it was to look up the dean without revealing her name, as well as commentary on how Stanford failed its students, etc. Would love to hear back from someone as to the reasons why comments were censored. Thanks

    • Hi Gwen,

      When a comment is in response to a deleted comment, it also gets deleted. I believe that’s what happened since your comment from last night that was not a response is still there.

      Generally, I do not believe the comments of a personal essay where the writer is describing their experience is the place for people to act upon their own views on harm and justice. We will never be able to have the important conversations raised by this piece if the only options are silence or vindictiveness. I believe it is the author’s right to share the details of her story and if through those details someone is able to figure out the other person being discussed, that’s fine. But any calls for that person to be punished — or any speculation about the motives of the author in telling her story — are not appropriate for the comments section. If people want to gossip or work out any of their own pain brought up by this piece, they are welcome to do so among their loved ones.

    • https://padailypost.com/2024/07/16/opinion-lythcott-haims-should-step-down-from-city-council/
      Lythcott-Haims should step down from Palo Alto CA City Council.
      Julie Lythcott-Haims should have leveled with the voters two years ago about why she left her job as a dean at Stanford following a relationship she had with an undergraduate.

      According to an online essay the undergrad published last week, the young woman’s parents complained to Stanford officials about the relationship, and soon thereafter Lythcott-Haims resigned.

      Nobody is saying Lythcott-Haims broke the law. Apparently, she didn’t even violate any Stanford policies about faculty having sex with students, though those rules have since been tightened up.

      But her judgment is terrible. Her relationship with the female undergraduate reeks of recklessness, selfishness and an inability to control one’s impulses. As a dean, you’re supposed to be a role model to students.

  7. Here’s basically what I said in my comment that was deleted, plus some extra:
    I can’t believe that Stanford allowed relationships between faculty and undergrads in 2011. They certainly do not today. The way the university “handled” this is despicable and all too familiar. Sweeping it under the rug and allowing people in positions of power to prey on vulnerable students, then leave on their own terms is inexcusable. At least she does not have such close contact with freshmen anymore.

    • I enjoyed this essay a lot. But it’s hard with these types of pieces because readers will always be curious about who the other person is. The same telling details that enrich the piece make it fairly easy to identify “the dean.”

    • My interpretation was not that the dean left on her own terms, but that Stanford allowed her to use the MFA as the cover story for her departure in order for the university to avoid scrutiny/bad press. Despicable either way, though.

  8. I see that some people are missing the point quite entirely. Is it not deeply infantilising and patronising to tell another adult (which the author is and was) how they should feel and act about their life experiences? The whole piece is about the tension between autonomy/coercion/love/dependency etc and the author is very clear to express that she isn’t interested in vilifying the Dean.

    • If you continue to name the person this essay is about you’ll be banned from leaving further comments on this article or any other on the site.

      It’s clear this piece has affected you, but your response to Olivia’s story and how you think Olivia should deal with her experience does not supersede Olivia’s own decisions.

      • It is really difficult to control the narrative after publishing an essay such as this. I think it is a losing battle to try to protect the identity of the dean. I am actually surprised you are working so hard to keep her anonymous since the author provided us with so many identifying details. It seemed to me she wanted to let the world know who it was. I assume someone googled “stanford dean mfa nyt bestselling author” before publication to see just how easy it is to identify her?

        • The concern is not about controlling the narrative or keeping the person anonymous. The comments on the piece itself are simply not the place for that information.

          My hope would be that people could sit with Olivia’s words and the complexity of the piece rather than immediately fixating on who the piece is about. I can’t control whether or not people do that since we live in a very binary right or wrong, punishment-focused society. But I can control whether the words below the primary source encourage that approach.

          • If your goal was to encourage that approach, why not append an editor’s note to the piece or at the top of the comments section clarifying your expectations for the discussion, instead of deleting comments that do not appear to violate Autostraddle’s policy and then chiding people after the fact?

          • I agree there needs to be nuanced, and this essay was v well nuanced. But the Dean doing many good things, and the author pursuing her, doesn’t negate that uni staff simply should not be using their students as a dating pool for their midlife crisis.

          • You’ve chosen to publish an essay that describes an abusive* sexual relationship between an undergraduate and her undergraduate dean, in which the author made the deliberate choice to include details that would make the dean identifiable, and it is a case in which the dean has faced no justice until this point due to the failure of an institution to value the humanity and emotional well-being of its students as much as it values its reputation and the dean’s own cowardice. The piece has been published to a website whose predominant audience is queer and trans women, populations that experience a high incidence of sexual violence and coercion. This piece is driving awareness of Autostraddle (e.g. benefiting the site). In other words, the site is currently benefiting from a narrative of abuse*. The piece provides a poetic demonstration of the ways that victim/survivors are led to doubt their own human value by simultaneously convincing them to pin their sense of worth to their view of themselves as agentic adults (American capitalist fetishization of independence at its finest /s) while placing them in situations in which they truly do not have the agency and power they would like to have in ways that are only partially visible to them, particularly at the time.

            You and the author both chose to publish this essay knowing that it would elicit a range of intense emotions. That you would expect commenters not to express the range of emotions, including anger at the injustice portrayed, is naive at best and a harmful silencing of victim/survivors at worst. You can call all of this binary or “punishment-focused” thinking, but there is a reason that so many are so concerned about justice (“punishment”) and accountability in situations like this. Perpetrators rarely only harm one person. Evidently there have already been rumblings that the same dean behaving inappropriately or harmfully with other students (that she was a “missing stair” for some time). It’s not wrong to be concerned about justice and accountability in these cases, and this concern should not be subject to shaming by you or anyone else.

            I’ve been a devoted reader of Autostraddle for many years and have recommended the site to many folks seeking queer community. Your actions here are causing me to seriously reconsider my relationship to the site. At the very least I’m going to take a nice long break from supporting the site in any way.

            *People can and will argue whether the relationship was abusive. Only two people were there to witness what took place. But from the description here, from the dean’s own comments made to other news outlets, and from a review of the university’s policies at the time, it is clear that the dean was absolutely abusing her power and was, at best, self-interestedly dishonest with the author of this essay. The author may choose other language or may find it more helpful for herself to put the word “abuse” alongside other words. That should be respected. But that does not mean that it is okay or respectful to anyone involved for you, as the editor, to police commenters’ responses, insisting that comments must only use the language the author herself has chosen. Couching it in terms of a desire for readers to spend time engaging with the author’s words is a poor excuse: this piece has ignited a storm of engagement precisely because readers are engaging with the author’s words, taking them seriously, and having their own reactions.

          • Drew, it appears your readers are “sitting with the words,” and what some of them are concluding is that “This also happened to me.”

            It seems to me that this community-building and reach can only do your publication good. It is natural for readers to want to react to a good story, and yes those reactions may be visceral and disturbing.

            Can you redact the dean’s identity, if you wish, without reacting the entire comment?

    • I had a similar question when I read the PA Daily Post article about this affair. As I understand the pre-2011 Stanford policy, a Stanford faculty member was required to notify Stanford admin about an intimate relationship with a student.

      During the one-year affair, did Lythcott-Haims ever notify the Stanford admin? It appears that only when the parents notified Stanford did Lythcott-Haims “resign” (given a soft landing in a new Stanford role).

      This episode, probably among tens of thousands, shows why Stanford’s revised policy of no intimate relationships draws a much cleaner line for faculty to work with.

      Next question is what is Stanford’s discipline policy if this revised policy is broken: dismissal, reprimand, …?

  9. Jen, that detail about the dean telling Olivia that their relationship was not against university rules was a red flag for sure. I am surprised the eds didn’t fact check that before publication. It seems a very important distinction. And knowing that it was in fact against the rules and she lied about it adds to the ick factor. I am curious, how do you know so much about this story?

    • As I understand Stanford’s policy, it was not against Stanford’s rules at the time. It appears that Stanford only required the Stanford employee to notify Stanford admin. Or am I misreading this?

      One potential redeeming result of this affair: did this affair prompt Stanford to revise its policy shortly after this was revealed. That would be a good sign that Stanford learned from this episode, and responded to fix it.

  10. This was a v well written piece and v brave. It shines through that the Dean took a lot but gave very little. If she loved you unselfishly, she would have ended the relationship, instead of stringing you along and damaging your career. It seems a good symmetry that I read this after Drew’s article on Catherine Breillat, where she points out that older people may desire the young, and the young may desire them and pursue them, but the older person has the power to say no,and should do. (She was talking about older men and underage girls, but the principle is similar as the dean had so much power over you, and you were innocent and vulnerable).

  11. Ain’t the first time that Dean has done something like this. Make book on it: more will come out soon about additional questionable behavior between her and young undergrads.

    No way this was her ‘first time’. Bah-loney.

    • Olivia Haas says on LinkedIn she ‘s writing a memoir. I suspect the Dean’s acceptance of the article will backfire.. Running for Congress on the grounds of ‘standing up for people’ and advising parents is put in a different light with this info.. The Dean may well be sincere in their desire to help, but this sits against a disturbing secret side in contradiction to that..

    • Yes, ask anyone who was a student (like me) during her time and they will learn this dean followed a pattern of abusing her position’s power for her own carnal gratification. this is just the tip of the iceberg.

      • Anyone who knows more should make it public to news outlets if they are happy to do so. Someone commented on Olivia’s IG that the Dean covered up a hate crime against them, but no other undergrads have come forward so far. It’s awful what this person got away w for so long.

    • “She really derailed my life for many years”. Thank you, Olivia, for relating your story. As a parent, I find it repellent that a university official would take advantage of a student like this. This sort of behavior completely subverts the dean’s authority as an expert on what benefits young people; ironically, the ex-dean proves herself to be case study in what a young person should avoid, at all costs.

  12. I’ve been Stanford faculty for many years. It is true that Stanford’s sexual harassment policy did not explicitly forbid all undergrad-faculty relationships until 2013 (shortly after the relationship described above, and I suspect changed in part because of it). However, starting in 2002, there was a very notable exception: Any member of the Stanford community who was in a relationship with someone over whom they had a supervisory or evaluative role needed to disclose the relationship to the university and recuse themselves from that supervisory role (e.g. faculty or student switches out of a shared course, student changes labs, etc…). Due to the inherent nature of an undergraduate dean and associate vice provost’s responsibilities, it would have been impractical at best to recuse themselves from a supervisory role over an undergrad. So if the dean did indeed claim the relationship wasn’t in violation of university policies, she was either wrong or lying.

    https://stanfordmag.org/contents/new-rules-on-relationships

  13. This was beautifully written! I really liked your portrayal of how something that at the time felt so right and exciting and special could later be shown through someone else’s reaction be problematic and troubling. You described it really well so that we could see all sides of this.

  14. “ Beautifully written” seems to be one of the only acceptable comments in response to this piece by Olivia, as she is being needlessly protected and infantilized by her editor Drew Burnett Gregory. Imagine if we as lesbians could respect her peace by having a passionate discussion with varied opinions?

    • I was thinking the same thing. There was a comment made earlier that was similar to my first comment but without as many niceties such as “well written” etc. It was deleted without a trace (along with other comments) without even any reference to violating the comment policy (because they didn’t). I wonder how many other comments were deleted that nobody saw first? A lot of people were moved by this story enough to comment but only certain points of view are permitted. The editor seems overly interested in exerting “control” over people’s comments.

    • Meno’s comment began “YO YOU BI WOMEN ARE SOMETHING ELSE I LOVE BI” and got increasingly more vulgar after that, so, no, it had nothing to do with the dean.

  15. The Palo Alto Daily Post reporter Braden Cartwright has commented on the reddit stanford thread, putting their email address. They’re looking for alumnae to interview via phone, so I guess if any of the commenter are alumnae and strongly want their voices to be heard on this, they might get in touch..

  16. What an abuse of power by someone who should have known better. I’m so sorry this predatory creep singled you out and I hope writing about it gives you comfort. She should be ousted from the city council as well – nothing worse than a smarmy, hypocritical, self-righteous “leader.”

  17. This makes me think a bit about the documentary stolen youth on Hulu about the father of the student at Sarah Lawrence, who took advantage of a number of students there, all the while making them feel incredibly special. I see Olivia as being in the tender stages similar to the students in the documentary when they are just beginning to question the reality that they were given to accept as real by the older trusted adult in power. I think it is very brave and powerful for her to speak out. Her performance on moth was really amazing.

  18. I was at Stanford and had the same individual as dean. In the fall of my junior year I had some social anxiety issues and didn’t know where to turn on campus – I was very lost. People always talk about how many resources there are available etc, but at the time, it seems beyond me. I had just declared my major the end of the previous academic year but I wasn’t sure it was the right move, or if I was sufficiently “passionate” about it. I ended up cold emailing the dean and we met up for 1 on 1 session in her office to talk about academic pursuits.

    She was open and friendly and we ended up having a number of more academic meetings on campus together. A few meetings in she had asked me to go on an off campus hike in the redwoods and a meal. I was 20 at the time and at the time I felt was a bit odd. I didn’t take her up on it (being a busy undergrad, it was very easy to have or claim scheduling conflicts). Looking back now more than 10 years later, it sounds like may have been date.

    I don’t have much to report as nothing happened, but I wonder if I dodged a bullet.

  19. Thank you for writing this. I was in a relationship with a professor for a brief period of time, and the processing that happened afterward was so complicated.

    I discovered he was a serial predator, and the grief I felt made me feel both embarrassed and confused. So often I was left with the thought: if there was no affection or care, even in some twisted, fucked-up way, then all I’m left with is a few months of abuse. And somehow that always felt worse.

    For people wondering why this doesn’t name the dean or why those comments are deleted, I’m not saying this is the reason why (particularly since she knew the article was coming and encouraged it), but as someone who did go through a defamation lawsuit after naming that professor, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

    And people should also be able to write about their experiences (yes, even in matters of injustice and harm) without it turning into a scavenger hunt. I’m sure Olivia and Drew discussed boundaries around this piece and the comments before it was published. So the comments that are being deleted are probably being done so primarily to respect Olivia’s boundaries and to protect her wishes around sharing this narrative. And it is her story and her life.

    So often, people are called brave of resilient for responding with grace to things outside of their control, so I always hesitate to use that as a compliment, but I do think you are brave, not just for putting your experiences to words but for capturing all the nuances that come with this—when it’s someone you looked up to, when the relationship made you feel loved, when you found that it opened up something new in you. It’s never so simple as every memory is a bad memory, even when age and time and experience makes you view it through a new lens.

    I think of Fleabag saying, about her mother who’s passed, “I don’t know what to do with [all the love I have for her]. I don’t know where to put it now.”

    Obviously, relationships that involve abuse, manipulation, and/or emotional harm, aren’t death, but a feeling of profound loss can come from it. When the veil is lifted, what do you do with all those memories and emotions? If the relationship helped you define parts of yourself, how do you preserve those parts when the circumstances that led to those things have soured?

    Sometimes, all you can do is hold space for all the complicated, contradictory emotions. It can feel isolating when those who see it from the outside speak in theoretical terms of harm and justice or try to define what the right way of processing that sort of pain is.

    The feelings I have toward the professor that assaulted me aren’t as complicated anymore. He revealed his true colors after I named him and then again through the defamation lawsuit, but I still sometimes feel guilty when I think of any memories associated with that relationship as positive. I still hear his influence when I listen to certain music, and since he taught a form of writing that I still do, I wonder how much his classes formed how I write. It can feel easier sometimes when I’m angry and my emotions can be summed up as “fuck him,” but being that angry constantly takes energy I don’t have or want to spend on him.

    I hope your relationship with the former dean has helped you process and that writing his piece has helped you heal in some small way (I knew the process is messy and non-linear). I feel like these relationships often leave you picking open old scabs, and even if that’s true, I hope you feel like you can get go of some of that grief.

  20. as someone who lived through a very similar experience, I really appreciate this piece (as well as Sasha’s lovely and deeply relatable comment). but sheesh, the comments really are a reminder that navigating these kinds of things publicly (whether through formal channels such as Title IX legislation) or informally (with the general public) can be just as fraught, exhausting, and emotionally taxing as living through the thing itself. I understand people have mixed feelings about Drew hiding so many comments, but honestly keeping up with this piece/its comments has left me realizing why sometimes articles have comments turned off entirely. thanks to Autostraddle for making space for a complicated essay about a complicated thing, Drew for editing it, and many thanks to Olivia for sharing her experience. I’ve written a lot about what happened to me, and read a lot of personal essays/books on the same theme, and I’m continually struck by the often overwhelming similarity of the language/metaphors/ideas that are invoked when describing these kinds of events. Olivia, best of luck as you continue in the process of healing from this.

  21. This reminds me a lot of the novel “What We Do We Do In The Dark”, by Michelle Hart. It centres a student who has a relationship with an older professor and (spoiler), when the protagonist later reflects on things, she also refuses to villainise her former lover, despite what those around her say.

    I like how you’ve written about your complex feelings, and I feel conflicted reading about the situation. If you were my friend, would I be happy to know you had gone through this? Probably not. But I would also trust and support you if you told me you were okay with this so… Life is messy! It’s allowed to be. I’m glad to have read this, and I hope you are well.

  22. As a former academic, I can say these things are rarely isolated. Deans, directors, and professors get off on the power they hold over their students, and this hubris shows itself in many ways. Not all cross boundaries, but the insecurity is real. Most students and young people in academia want to impress senior-level faculty and management; this dynamic is built into the system of power in academia. It’s pretty gross and strange, and sadly, the constitutive logic of star academics and abuse of power are almost to be expected. I would not be surprised if we learned that other students also had this experience with her.

  23. A fascinating article. I had a much more brief affair with my resident director when I was a second year student all the way back in 1985. She was the first woman I had ever slept with and I was wildly infatuated with her. The sex itself was lack luster but I felt (and even now viscerally remember) so thrilled about every part of it. Partly this was such a different era and everything about being queer was so different and hidden anyway. Partly it was that I was out as a lesbian but had not yet slept with a woman while she–beautiful, butch, athletic and extremely self confident–was a trifle amused at my inexperience. I very much felt as though she was doing me a favor. It *did* feel different than straight relationships in that being younger wasn’t *better*–it was far better to be her, helping me understand what queer sex was all about. Here’s what’s a bit worse: I was an advanced student and so I was only 17 years old when it happened… I felt like an adult but I was definitely not. And then again–she seemed *so old* at the time and was only 24, herself a recent college graduate. Anyway, thanks for the anonymous space to process all of this. Even 39 years later and with teenage kids myself heading off to college, knowing how wrong it is and was, it is hard to really feel that way about it. The great delight of the first woman who “brings you out.” And yet how much we are under the sway of charismatic people. And yet we are all human beings, being human together. It is complex. (Also to add–in those days it would have been *unfathomable* to discuss this with one’s parents.)

  24. I am a middle-aged Black bisexual woman. I can well understand the allure of an older bisexual married Black woman’s attraction to a young White woman inexperienced with women in the bedroom. i am puzzled, however, by this young woman’s bizarre attraction to a homely, overweight Black woman who looks like an animated cartoon character. Then again, with her gangly body, droopy chin, and prosaic features, she is hardly the picture of pulchritude. i guess she wanted a woman’s approval. Any woman. Who knows what these women got out of this weird relationship. My only question is whether the Dean only had ONE affair. Or were there others? I wish she would come clean and tell the world the whole story.

  25. Explore the complexities of a secret queer relationship with a well-known dean at a university. Follow the journey of a young person navigating love, secrecy, and the pressures of senior year in this compelling narrative.

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