Harassment and Power

The messy NYU case -- in which a feminist scholar is accused, and in which evidence continues to come out -- morphs into a debate about academic stars.

August 20, 2018
 
Avital Ronell

The Me Too case that’s captured the morbid interest of academe got more complicated late last week, when Nimrod Reitman sued New York University and his former adviser there, Avital Ronell, and Ronell and her supporters fired back with intimate details about the pair’s relationship.

Reitman, now a visiting fellow at Harvard University, says in the lawsuit that he chose NYU over numerous other graduate institutions specifically to work with Ronell, a professor of German and comparative literature and a “superstar” of feminist philosophy. "Dreams of working with a world-class scholar, however, turned into more than three years of continuous and unabated sexual harassment, sexual assault and stalking," the lawsuit says.

Reitman was required to spend “countless hours either in Ronell’s presence (predominantly at her university-owned apartment) or communicating with her by voice or video call, text and/or email, and was berated by her if he failed to do so to the extent that she felt appropriate,” he alleges. “He was required to be available to her all hours of the day and night, and to schedule his life around her wants and needs.”

Ronell forced Reitman to distance himself from friends and family, and she would often “burst into a jealous rage when his attention was with them and not fully devoted to her,” according to the lawsuit. “Ronell would become distraught when Reitman would travel away from New York, often becoming angry and punishing him professionally for it. While he was away, she would contact him constantly, and again become upset when he was not available for her.”

Throughout Reitman’s time at NYU, Ronell also “would touch, grab, fondle and kiss Reitman (over his objections), and often demanded that he act in kind, otherwise she would refuse to work with him. She also demanded that he communicate with her in over-the-top, effusive language, including that he constantly express his love for her.” Failure to do so would result in Ronell “angrily reprimanding him and refusing to work with him,” Reitman alleges.

Ronell also allegedly used her standing in academe as a threat against Reitman, “often bragging about her sphere of influence and how she could ‘make or break’ careers,” and even referring to her own “mafia” capabilities.

Ronell wrote in emails to Reitman, for example, “I am a bit weepy and confused, a normal aftermath I suppose, and also a response to the separation from you … But I will try to gain some ground with a visit to shrinky-winky and see if I can’t develop another kind of report for you! … So many kisses for my guardian angel.”

And, “I am having a hard time letting you go and want, if possible, to retrieve the idea of a ‘date’ … Please be kind to me as only you know how …”

And, “I didn’t mean to sound desperate. If you need space it’s OK, just tell Me what’s right for you. I can’t figure it out without your help and Insight and prompts! I want what’s best for you. Pls help me with this. Love, -a.”

Ronell and some of her supporters responded to the lawsuit by releasing a statement asserting that Reitman presented himself as a willing party to a quirky but loving relationship.

Ronell's Defense

“The type of language Ronell used in her emails to Reitman is no different from the language that she used with many others and that Reitman used with her, to which there was no sexual context whatsoever,” the statement says. “Reitman saw in this use of language an opportunity to manipulate Ronell by adopting and encouraging a tone between them while simultaneously denouncing her in starkly vicious terms to others.”

The statement includes a series of emails Reitman allegedly wrote to Ronell while he was her graduate student, from 2012 to 2015. “Mon Avital, beloved and special one, I only now relieved [sic] your beautiful and exquisite message … I thank you for your infinite understanding and sensitivities which are always beyond measure, all of which I reciprocate with tenderness and love. I thank you so much for walking me through this catabasis. I don’t know how I would have survived without you. You are the best !!! I love you so much. You are the best, my joy, my miracle. Kisses and devotion always. Yours -- n.”

Asked for proof of such communication, Ronell forwarded a photo of a book inscription Reitman allegedly wrote to her following their visit in Paris in 2012. Reitman has since alleged that Ronell assaulted him there with unwanted sexual touching. The inscription says, “For my most wonderful Avital, indeed we would always have Paris for yet another aspect of our own private musical ‘Grapheme’ -- tenderly -- always -- ever -- Nimrod Paris 12.5.12.”

A sappy handwritten note in a book doesn’t necessarily mean anything, especially since Reitman alleges that Ronell forced him to mirror her language and behavior. NYU’s own investigation under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender-based discrimination, also found that Reitman attempted to establish boundaries with Ronell, to little avail. That investigation resulted in a finding of harassment against Ronell -- and her current yearlong suspension.

She was cleared of Reitman’s stalking and retaliation claims, however. Ronell’s statement says that’s because NYU found most of their meetings were initiated about work, and because Reitman filed his complaint two years after graduating, after Ronell tried to help him find a job. Reitman's lawsuit alleges that Ronell boasted about her department's placement of graduates in desirable faculty jobs but that Reitman failed to land a single interview for a tenure-track position, however. He alleges that Ronell interfered in his search, and told at least one department not to hire him. Reitman also alleges retaliation since he filed his Title IX complaint, including a "disinformation campaign" against him and his removal from an NYU departmental alumni email group.

Ronell maintains no wrongdoing on her part, saying via email over the weekend that “There was no harassment to speak of. These allegations remain stupefying and incomprehensible to me. The relentless pursuit is deeply unfortunate!”

She added, “What’s at stake is the fate of feminism, theory, the personality and singularity of any given professor, due process in Title IX cases. Did I say misogyny?”

John Beckman, NYU spokesperson, said via email that when Reitman first came to the Title IX office, "two years after he graduated, the staff there took his reports of sexual misconduct very seriously and conducted a thorough investigation that concluded that he was, in fact, the victim of sexual harassment." Ronell was suspended from the university as a result and and any meetings she has with students "at some future time must be supervised." Reitman's newer claims of retaliation are currently being investigated, he said.

NYU takes the issue of sexual misconduct seriously and training on sexual misconduct is universally required, Beckman added. "We have tried to work with Reitman to help him put this unfortunate chapter behind him, and we are sympathetic to what he has been through. However, given the promptness, seriousness, and thoroughness with which we responded to his charges, we do not believe that his filing a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the university is warranted or just." 

Reitman sent a statement through a spokesperson which reads, in part, “I now want to help make sure this does not happen to anyone else. The personal and professional price of filing a complaint against a prominent professor is heavy, but I would like to encourage other students in my position to speak up if they feel safe to do so and know that harassment is never okay, and is a result of an abuse of power.”

Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor in comparative literature and critical theory at the University of California, Berkeley, also last week responded to demands that she step down as president-elect of the Modern Language Association for including the MLA in her title as a signatory to a controversial letter of support for Ronell. That May letter, signed by others, urged NYU to consider Ronell's scholarly record and the "malicious campaign" against her in adjudicating her Title IX case.

Butler told Inside Higher Ed that at the time the draft letter was published online, she was in “direct communication” with MLA officers to apologize for including the organization after her name. "I indicated that the letter was put together by a group of people, but acknowledged that I should not have allowed the MLA affiliation to go forward with my name," she said. "I expressed regret for any confusion or concern that the mention of the MLA has caused, and my colleagues accepted my apology."

Paula Krebs, executive director of the MLA, confirmed that account.

Taking Aim at the Academic Solar System

While unusually plentiful for a harassment case, the new details are also kaleidoscopic, even dizzying: look at the details one way and get one picture, then shift the view and get another.

But if anything has shaken out thus far in terms of public opinion, and how academe continues to understand Me Too, it is power. That is, there seems to be a growing consensus that gender (Ronell is female and Reitman is male), sexual orientation (both are gay), politics (whether this case -- as alleged by some -- has exposed Me Too and feminism as fraudulent) and maybe even sex are just distractions. And that what matters most is the power that senior scholars continue to wield, for better or worse: the sway that a star philosopher such as Ronell had over a mere graduate student such as Reitman, and the sway senior scholars continue to have within academe, especially when they act as a group.

As Corey Robin, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said in a lengthy Twitter thread, “Even if one-half or one-quarter of what Reitman describes here is true, it suggests a more intense, more extreme, more abusive instance of a pervasive imbalance of power in academia. One that many graduate students have had to negotiate. And should not have to negotiate. And that for all the revelations of sexual harassment within academia that we’ve seen in the past few years, we continue to leave to gradate students, as individuals, to negotiate.”

As Esther Wang, of Jezebel, wrote, “Ronnell’s [sic] 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.”

As Leonard Cassuto, professor of English at Fordham University, told The Times in a follow-up story, “This sense of dependency that a student has on an adviser is a holdover from the medieval roots of academia, when the student is in the thrall of the master.”

As James J. Marino, associate professor of English at Cleveland State University, wrote in a blog post explaining why he’d started a petition against Butler’s presidency of the MLA, “Protesting against one instance of punishment is only a means to the larger end of preserving senior faculty's privilege of impunity. That is what needs to end … [Butler] was standing up for an old, corrupt, and long-standing way of doing business. The time for doing business that way is over. We should never look back.”

And as writer Amy Elizabeth Robinson said on Medium of Butler's and other colleagues' letter of support, the entire text is "saturated with a devotion to rank, privilege, reputation, acclaim, but above all a devotion to knowing [emphasis hers]. ‘How could they fall prey to their own aporia?’ lamented my fellow feminist historian, about these scholars who wield such ‘knife-sharp dissections of power.’ But I don’t think they ‘fell prey’ to aporia. I think they were trying to climb out. Justice would have been better served if they stayed put. If they had acknowledged the horizon they desired, wondered at their own bewilderment (and Ronell’s quite literal displacement), yet found the moral courage and ethical discipline to put down the pen, and just not know the truth.”

Lisa Duggan, professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU, differed somewhat from these observers in her own analysis of the case, arguing that Ronell’s gender and sexual orientation matter. As “queers are hypersexualized in the public imagination," she wrote, "they are targets for sexual accusations.” 

Still, Duggan said, even if the emails exchanged between Reitman and Ronell were “fully consensual, and no indication of sexual contact, they raise the question of boundaries in advisor/student relationships. Can the tremendous power of the advisor ever be compatible with this kind of expression? If not, where is the line? This is a general question that commonly plagues academics.”

Weaving together different commentary threads on her website, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, director of digital humanities and professor of English at Michigan State University, also suggested that the Ronell matter is about power -- but specifically when it is concentrated among the few. The "academic star system" into which Fitzpatrick's has done "inordinate institutional damage through the kinds of privilege it has created and upheld, and thus the kinds of labor that it has allowed to roll off of some shoulders and to land on others," she said.

The Ronell case, “whatever it may in actuality be (and I do not at all think I have a picture that is either complete or accurate),” Fitzpatrick added, “is symptomatic of something fundamentally broken at the heart of our institutional structures.”

Right now, she said, those structures “are in very large part for the creation and maintenance of stars.” And changing that is going to require “entirely new ways of understanding who and why we are together, and what it is our institutions of higher education are for.”

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