What Are We to Make of the Case of Scholar Avital Ronell?


By many accounts, the New York University professor Avital Ronell—a German and comparative literature scholar and a superstar in her corner of academia— is a brilliant woman and a sought-after advisor. Former students who have taken her classes describe her as “original” and “inspiring.” Ronell, who is in her 60s and has taught at NYU for more than two decades, inspires a kind of admiration that some have called “mystical.” She is the kind of professor whose classes students don’t want to end.

But, for the past year, Ronell has also been the subject of a sexual harassment investigation by NYU’s Title IX office, initiated after a former graduate student, Nimrod Reitman, alleged in a complaint filed last September that she had sexually harassed him over a period of several years. On August 13, the New York Times reported that after an 11-month investigation, the university has found Ronell responsible for sexually harassing Reitman while he was earning his Ph.D. The university has suspended her for a year without pay and has also mandated that any future meetings she has with students will be supervised upon her return. Reitman and his attorney are considering filing a lawsuit against NYU, as well as Ronell.

it is almost certain that much of this now very public and

News of the sexual harassment complaint against Ronell surfaced earlier this summer, after a group of prominent academics—including the noted feminist scholar Judith Butler, Slavoj Zizek, and Gayatri Spivak—sent a letter of support to NYU officials, rallying to Ronell’s defense and decrying what they describe as a “legal nightmare.”

The letter, which was never meant to be public, was subsequently posted on the philosophy blog Leiter Reports, with the title, “Blaming the victim is apparently OK when the accused in a Title IX proceeding is a feminist literary theorist.” It is likely that without the publication of this letter, and without the signatures of so many influential and feminist scholars, many if not all of the details of Reitman’s complaint would have remained confidential—it is almost certain that much of this now very public and increasingly messy case would have been swept under the rug (a situation that I suspect NYU officials would have preferred).

In the letter, dated May 11, 2018 and addressed to NYU President Andrew Hamilton and Provost Katharine Fleming, the signers acknowledge they had “no access to the confidential dossier,” but believe that Reitman was waging a “malicious campaign” against Ronell and that “the allegations against her do not constitute actual evidence.”

The letter lays out a series of defenses for Ronell similar to the arguments used to justify sexual misconduct committed by powerful men: “We wish to communicate first in the clearest terms our profound an enduring admiration for Professor Ronell whose mentorship of students has been no less than remarkable over many years. We deplore the damage that this legal proceeding causes her, and seek to register in clear terms our objection to any judgment against her,” the letter states.

Lauding her “brilliant scholarship” and “intellectual generosity” and noting that the French government recently bestowed a prestigious award upon her, the writers continue, “We testify to the grace, the keen wit, and the intellectual commitment of Professor Ronell and ask that she be accorded the dignity rightly deserved by someone of her international standing and reputation.”

If she were to be fired or “relieved of her duties,” they continue, “the injustice would be widely recognized and opposed.”

The insular world of academia, like many other industries in which a hierarchical power structure offers rewards and protection to those at the top and enacts a steep price on those with little institutional clout, is beginning to reckon with the rampant sexual harassment and abuses of power that are endemic within its walls. In October of last year, The Atlantic posed the question, “When will the ‘Harvey effect’ reach academia?” Two months later, a crowdsourced project asked people to submit stories of sexual harassment they had experienced while in academia; to date, it has collected more than 2,400 entries.

More students—almost always women—are beginning to speak out about the harassment they face from professors and those in power—almost always men. The institutional response has been unsurprisingly uneven, often determined by the value of individual faculty to a university.

But even as sexual misconduct has commanded the news cycle, Ronell has many high profile defenders who are quick to point out the upside-down optics of a man using Title IX protections to accuse a woman of sexual harassment as a data point in their broader defense of her innocence. For some, Ronell’s Title IX case is proof that the goals of #MeToo have been weaponized by the right. Kathy Slade, who says that she studied under Ronell at the European Graduate School in 2014, wrote in a public Facebook post on August 5 that “[w]e must reflect on the current climate in academia at NYU and beyond and see this for what it is: a take down of a powerful, radical, queer, feminist, professor who has always spoken out for the marginalized in society.”

Ronell has many high profile defenders who are quick to point out the upside-down optics of a man using Title IX protections to accuse a woman of sexual harassment 

Diane Davis, the chair of the Department of Rhetoric at the University of Texas at Austin, was one of the signatories to the letter of support. In a statement she wrote to the Times, she states her support for Title IX and the #MeToo movement, support which she reiterated to The Chronicle of Higher Education. “I stand with—I mean, obviously—every male, female, transgender, and nonbinary victim of abuse, sexual or otherwise, inside or outside of the academy. I’m relieved, and we should all be relieved that cultures of abuse are finally being aggressively exposed and challenged everywhere,” Davis wrote in a statement to The Chronicle.

Still, as she told the Times, “But it’s for that very reason that it’s so disappointing when this incredible energy for justice is twisted and turned against itself, which is what many of us believe is happening in this case.”

Ilan Safit, a visiting German scholar at NYU who has as known Ronell for decades, told Jezebel that he refused to believe the allegations against her. “She’s not that kind of person,” he said. He added: “It’s not the same thing to accuse a male person in power versus accusing a woman. It’s just not the same thing, because we’ve got a culture and a very long history in which males were dominant and abusing their power.”

Reitman, who is now a visiting fellow at Harvard University, detailed to the Times the harassment he experienced from Ronell:

The problems began, according to Mr. Reitman, in the spring of 2012, before he officially started school. Professor Ronell invited him to stay with her in Paris for a few days. The day he arrived, she asked him to read poetry to her in her bedroom while she took an afternoon nap, he said.
“That was already a red flag to me,” said Mr. Reitman. “But I also thought, O.K., you’re here. Better not make a scene.”
Then, he said, she pulled him into her bed.
“She put my hands onto her breasts, and was pressing herself — her buttocks — onto my crotch,” he said. “She was kissing me, kissing my hands, kissing my torso.” That evening, a similar scene played out again, he said.
He confronted her the next morning, he said.
“I said, look, what happened yesterday was not O.K. You’re my adviser,” he recalled in an interview.

He also told the Times that “she kissed and touched him repeatedly, slept in his bed with him, required him to lie in her bed, held his hand, texted, emailed and called him constantly, and refused to work with him if he did not reciprocate.”

According to the Times, who saw excerpts of NYU’s Title IX report, Reitman told the university that Ronell sexually harassed him for three years, and shared emails with investigators in which she referred to him as “my most adored one,” “Sweet cuddly Baby,” “cock-er spaniel,” and “my astounding and beautiful Nimrod.”

In separate email exchanges that he provided to the Times, Ronell writes of her desire to kiss him:

“I woke up with a slight fever and sore throat,” she wrote in an email on June 16, 2012, after the Paris trip. “I will try very hard not to kiss you — until the throat situation receives security clearance. This is not an easy deferral!” In July, she wrote a short email to him: “time for your midday kiss. my image during meditation: we’re on the sofa, your head on my lap, stroking you [sic] forehead, playing softly with yr hair, soothing you, headache gone. Yes?”

Reitman, through his attorney, declined to be interviewed by Jezebel.

Ronell, for her part, has denied all allegations of sexual contact and sexual harassment between her and her former graduate student. (Neither she nor her lawyer has responded to numerous requests for interviews from Jezebel.) In a statement to the Times, she described the email exchanges as mutual conversations between two consenting adults. (It’s worth noting that she doesn’t dispute the content of their emails, but rather Reitman’s framing of them as harassment): “Our communications — which Reitman now claims constituted sexual harassment — were between two adults, a gay man and a queer woman, who share an Israeli heritage, as well as a penchant for florid and campy communications arising from our common academic backgrounds and sensibilities. These communications were repeatedly invited, responded to and encouraged by him over a period of three years.”

She doubled down on those claims in a response published in the German publication Welt, describing the emails they exchanged as “hyperbolic gay dialect.”

“I never touched or hurt Reitman,” she told Welt, before labeling him “miserable” and “needy.” As for their student-mentor relationship, Ronell claims that Reitman asked her to help turn his dissertation into a book. In rough translation, she said: “He was incredibly angry because I did not have time for that.” She added, “I did not expect the unstoppable attacks that came then.”

Ronell has continued to go on the offense. On Thursday, she released a statement through her attorney that detailed her interactions with Reitman and the language he used in email communications with her. In the emails, Reitman purportedly called her “beloved and special one,” “baby,” “sweet beloved.” Her statement questions why he waited until graduating to file his complaint and notes that he was unable to find a tenure-track position before concluding that “[t]he inability of Reitman to find a job and not any actual or perceived, sexual harassment of him by email, is what this case is about.”

The kind of behavior Reitman alleges against Ronell is not an isolated incident, but rather, thrives in a system in which professors wield a wildly disproportionate amount of power over their students, particularly graduate students. Advisors, especially senior faculty like Ronell who are highly regarded in their field, have the ability to dictate the futures of their mentees post-graduation when they enter a market where jobs—especially tenure-track jobs—are increasingly scarce. This is exacerbated by a situation in which the blurring of lines between the personal and professional in the relationships between professors and their graduate students is, if not the norm, not particularly frowned upon and often encouraged. “People know that she is very friendly and open and crosses traditional boundaries in relationships with her students,” Safit, Ronell’s friend and NYU colleague, told Jezebel.

it’s ultimately a more familiar story of deeply fucked up institutions where star professors hold too much power to determine the future of their protégés

A similar defense of Ronell was offered by Slavoj Zizek in June. For him, supporting Ronell amounted to a defense of a certain type of eccentric, prickly academic that Zizek feared was rapidly disappearing from academia. “In her dealing with colleagues and friends, Avital definitely is a type of her own: acerbic, ironic, shifting from funny remarks to precise perceptions of an injustice, mocking others in a friendly way,” he wrote. He continued:

[Ronell] is a walking provocation for a stiff Politically Correct inhabitant of our academia, a ticking bomb just waiting to explode. A person with minimal sensitivity can, of course, immediately discern Avital’s affected surface as the form of intense vulnerability and compassion. But in today’s academia persons with sensitivity are more and more rare. Avital’s “eccentricities” are all on the surface; there is nothing sleazy hidden beneath her affected behaviour, in contrast to quite a few professors that I know who obey all the Politically Correct rules while merrily screwing students or playing obscene power games with all the dirty moves such games involve.

Again, neither Ronell’s actions nor the defenses offered up by her colleagues are outliers. They both exist in the weird power structures particular to academia, where superstars like Ronell have outsized influence and where colleagues often close ranks around their own. As the writers Dan Solomon and Jessica Luther pointed out in a deeply reported piece for Splinter, the old idea that close relationships between professors and students necessarily fosters an intellectually stimulating environment, helps create the conditions for abuses ranging from small, cruel indignities—like being asked to pick up your advisor’s dry cleaning—to sexual and emotional abuse. It’s hard, after all, to say no to a “friend” who has the power to determine the path of your professional career. “All of this is of great benefit to the people at the top,” Solomon and Luther wrote.

Though Ronell’s case has been framed as one of a “feminist” scholar running afoul of Title IX—and has generated interest because of its reversal of the typical gender dynamic—that framing is perhaps too simple to account for the ways that power accumulates around influential scholars, facilitating abuse and protecting them from any real consequences (as many have pointed out, Ronell is not a feminist scholar; her work largely focuses on canonical men). It’s also not one in which the central question revolves around why a man is using Title IX protections against a woman. Feminists, after all, have long fought for the expansion of Title IX, and if anything, it underscores that abuse, at its heart, is about power.

Rather, Ronnell’s case is ultimately a more familiar story—of deeply fucked up institutions where star professors hold too much power to determine the future of their protégés, and where professional relationships, to the detriment of young academics inhabiting a precarious professional landscape, are often inextricably bound to personal ones.

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