Junot Díaz Cleared of Misconduct by MIT

Posted June 20, 2018 12:12 a.m. EDT

Last month, after writer Zinzi Clemmons accused Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Díaz of forcibly kissing her when she was a graduate student, the fallout was swift.

Díaz immediately withdrew from his planned public appearances at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in Australia, which he and Clemmons both attended. The Cambridge Public Library and the Boston Children’s Museum canceled scheduled events with Díaz. The Pulitzer Prize board opened an independent review of the accusations against him, which has not yet been resolved, and Díaz voluntarily stepped down as the board’s chairman. Some independent booksellers said they would no longer carry his books.

But in the weeks since the allegations surfaced, the literary world has been sharply divided over the controversy, with some writers and professors voicing their support for Díaz, and others siding with his accusers.

That debate is likely to grow more contentious in the wake of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s decision to keep Díaz on its faculty. On Monday, the university, where Díaz teaches writing, announced it had concluded a review of Díaz’s behavior toward students and staff, and found no evidence of misconduct.

“To date, MIT has not found or received information that would lead us to take any action to restrict Professor Díaz in his role as an MIT faculty member, and we expect him to teach next academic year,” the university said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the university said MIT officials reached out to current students Díaz had taught and encouraged them to come forward with any concerns about harassment or misconduct, and had “extensive conversations with Professor Díaz and his colleagues.”

While some applauded the university’s decision, others saw it as a setback for the #MeToo movement that might discourage others from speaking out about sexual harassment.

Novelist Monica Byrne, who came forward in support of Clemmons last month and described how Díaz had yelled “rape” in her face during an argument at a dinner party, said she was deeply disappointed by MIT’s judgment.

“I cannot believe MIT is putting Díaz back in a position of power over and access to young women,” she said in an email. “It is staggeringly irresponsible. I’m so ashamed of my alma mater.”

Díaz declined to comment on the university’s decision. Last month, in a statement provided through his literary agent, Nicole Aragi, Díaz said he took responsibility for his past behavior. “I am listening to and learning from women’s stories in this essential and overdue cultural movement,” he said. “We must continue to teach all men about consent and boundaries.”

MIT’s conclusion of its internal inquiry comes on the heels of a similar decision by the Boston Review, which recently announced that Díaz would remain in his position as the magazine’s fiction editor. “During his 15-year tenure as fiction editor, we have never received any complaints about Junot’s conduct, either from our staff or from writers,” editors Deborah Chasman and Joshua Cohen wrote in a letter announcing the outcome.

Their statement prompted an outcry on social media. The board of directors for VIDA, a nonprofit feminist organization that advocates for women in the literary arts, published a letter denouncing the review’s decision, which received hundreds of signatures. The Boston Review’s three poetry editors, Timothy Donnelly, B.K. Fischer and Stefania Heim, quit in protest.

“It was painful to leave but we couldn’t stay where we felt deprived of a vote and a voice, especially on such an important issue,” the editors said in a joint statement to The Times. “We believe that editors can make a significant difference by creating safer and more equitable spaces in the literary world. We think gatekeepers in publishing have a responsibility to their readers and their writers to set a precedent of accountability and real transparency so that women and especially women of color can be heard.”

Of all the messy #MeToo controversies that have upended the publishing industry, including allegations against best-selling authors like Sherman Alexie and James Dashner, the debate about Díaz has become perhaps the most contentious and divisive within the literary world.

Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey, Díaz has been celebrated as a daring and stylish writer who broke boundaries with his novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. He received a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2012. In January 2017, he was one of five prominent novelists invited to meet with President Barack Obama to discuss literature, politics and media over lunch.

The controversy over his treatment of women erupted this spring, after he published an essay in The New Yorker detailing how he had been raped as a child, in which he described how the ensuing shame and trauma led him to have troubled relationships with women. The essay was widely praised as a brave and honest account of his painful past, but others saw Díaz’s account as an effort to pre-empt allegations that he had mistreated women. In May, Díaz was on a panel at the Sydney Writers’ Festival when Clemmons stood up during a Q&A, and asked him about his essay, and questioned why he had behaved inappropriately toward her years earlier. She later wrote about the allegations on Twitter, prompting other women to come forward with allegations against Díaz, ranging from misogyny to verbal bullying.

In a later interview with The Times, Clemmons said the encounter occurred when she invited Díaz to lead a workshop on race and representation in literature at Columbia, where she was a graduate writing student. After the event, as she walked him out of the building through a stairwell, he cornered her against the wall and kissed her, she said.

“I was an unknown wide-eyed 26-year-old, and he used it as an opportunity to corner and forcibly kiss me,” she wrote on Twitter. “I’m far from the only one he’s done this to, I refuse to be silent anymore.”

Several prominent writers expressed their support for Clemmons, including Cheryl Strayed, Alexander Chee, Celeste Ng and Jesmyn Ward. But other academics and writers came to Díaz’s defense, arguing that he had been targeted by a social media mob. A letter published in the Chronicle of Higher Education that was signed by dozens of professors and writers criticized the news media coverage of the controversy as overblown, racially tinged and unfair to Díaz.

Some of the women who have come forward to support Clemmons and detailed their own uncomfortable encounters with Díaz say they have been harassed on Twitter as a result.

The writer Carmen Maria Machado, who tweeted about a heated debate she had with Díaz at a literary event when she asked him about misogyny in his books, has faced accusations that she lied about the nature of the exchange, after audio of the discussion was posted online. In an interview, Machado said she stands by her characterization of the back and forth as “contentious and fraught,” and says she tweeted about it not to identify herself as “a victim of Junot Díaz’s” but to make a point about how misogyny and condescension toward women can be intertwined with abuse and harassment.

Machado said she found MIT’s decision to retain Díaz depressing but not surprising, and worried that it would discourage other women from coming forward with allegations against men who have the backing of powerful institutions.

“Institutions historically are very bad at protecting people,” she said. “This is why people are scared.”