Damages, Damages

Federal jury says a professor of business at Columbia retaliated against a former junior faculty member when she complained of harassment. Columbia is liable for retaliation on his behalf.

July 27, 2018
 
Geert Bekaert

In one of relatively few academic harassment cases to make its way to trial, a federal jury found Thursday that a professor of business at Columbia University retaliated against a onetime colleague who accused him of misconduct.

The plaintiff, Enrichetta Ravina, a former assistant professor of business at Columbia who was denied tenure in 2016, sued the university and Geert Bekaert, a professor of business, for discrimination and retaliation that same year -- before Me Too became a household phrase. But in closing arguments this week, Ravina’s lawyer, David Sanford, told the jury that “the United States is watching.”

Indeed, the case attracted attention even from news outlets that aren't usually interested in tenure disputes. The New York Post, for example, reported earlier this month that Bekaert said in emails admitted as evidence that “I am dealing with this harassment case. It is so insane. If this is harassment, then Americans really are total p—ies,” and “The laws in this country are screwed up and totally biased against the ‘white privileged man.’” Bekaert is Belgian and Ravina is Italian.

Ravina, who studies U.S. investor data on retirement and other topics, began an assistant professorship in the business school’s finance and economics division in 2008. She alleged that she was doing “cutting-edge” work with large data sets in her field when Bekaert, a mentor with ties to the company that owned a key data set, began to subject her to quid pro quo sexual harassment. She said he infused their conversations with sexual content, including comments about how often he watched pornography, how prostitutes were essential to men's sexual satisfaction, his own sexual experiences and how he was “horny” and she was “sexy.”

Bekaert also allegedly pursued a sexual relationship with Ravina, touching her inappropriately and requesting that she meet him off campus at coffee shops and restaurants.

When she rejected his advances, Ravina said, Bekaert allegedly “sabotaged” her research through undue delays in responding to her work, and told her that the project could proceed faster if she were “nicer.” As a result, she said, she fell about two years behind in her research.

Ravina said she reported her concerns to the university, including to two senior colleagues and deans, but was accused by some of those colleagues along the way of flirting with Bekaert, told that he was “blunt” because he was Belgian and offered “life advice” to give up her research agenda and start over. One colleague who specialized in gender law advised administrators to intervene through a series of steps designed to disentangle Ravina’s research from Bekaert’s, she said, but the administrators did not adopt the plan. They did assign a “relationship manager” to monitor interactions between the two professors, but Ravina said that manager was not empowered to intervene on her behalf.

Columbia formally investigated the situation under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender-based harassment. It found no evidence of any campus policy violation on Bekaert’s part, just a “communication” breakdown, according to court documents. (The university did recommend that Bekaert be trained in professional communication, however.)

Ravina also alleged retaliation on Columbia’s part, saying that it suddenly revoked the paid leave she took in 2015-16 and put her tenure review on an accelerated timeline. It also denied her request to delay her tenure review for two academic years, to make up for the time she says she lost.

She was denied tenure in 2016, which the university argued in court had nothing to do with discrimination, but rather Ravina’s slim publication record. It also argued that Ravina did not complain about Bekaert by name until after spring 2014, when she was warned about that slim record in relation to her upcoming tenure vote, according to trial reporting by Bloomberg.

The court eventually dismissed her gender-discrimination charges but let stand the retaliation claim. Following her initial filing, Ravina alleged that Bekaert continued to badmouth her as “crazy” and “evil” to colleagues around the world, damaging her reputation.

Bekaert’s lawyer, Edward Hernstadt, told jurors that Ravina was not “credible,” since she had at times complimented his appearance, evidenced by emails presented at trial. (Ravina had alleged that Bekaert demanded such affirmation, however.) Hernstadt acknowledged that some of what Bekaert wrote to colleagues about Ravina was “rude,” but that he was merely defending his own reputation.

After deliberating for a day, the jury found that Bekaert had retaliated against Ravina for complaining about him. He alone is liable for punitive damages, yet to be determined. But Columbia is liable by law for retaliation by one of its employees. Ravina is seeking some $30 million.

Bekaert, who is still an active member of the faculty, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did his attorney.

A Columbia spokesperson declined comment on the case, other than to say via email that the jury found Columbia “neither discriminated against Ms. Ravina nor retaliated against her through its actions. The university’s decision to decline Ms. Ravina’s tenure appointment was not called into question.”

Ravina is now a visiting assistant professor of finance at Northwestern University.

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