A celebrated female professor of German and Comparative Literature at NYU has been suspended for the coming academic year after an 11-month Title IX investigation found that she had sexually harassed, both physically and verbally, one of her former male students.
The NY Times reported on the story of Prof. Avital Ronell, 66, a star academic in the philosophy world. Former NYU graduate student Nimrod Reitman, 34, filed a Title IX complaint against Ronell, his former advisor, two years after he graduated. In the complaint, he claimed that Ronell had sexually harassed him for three years starting in 2012; he also shared dozens of emails in which she referred to him as "my most adored one," "sweet cuddly Baby," "cock-er spaniel," "baby love angel," and "my astounding and beautiful Nimrod." (NYU ultimately found her guilty of sexual harassment, but not other charges including sexual assault, stalking and retaliation.)
During the investigation, Reitman, who is married to a man, detailed Ronell's allegedly inappropriate behavior including kissing and touching him repeatedly, forcing him to sleep in bed with her, calling him constantly, and refusing to work with him if he did not reciprocate. He also included numerous emails in which she was explicit about her affection for him, such as:
"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?”
Ronell denied any harassment in a statement to the NY Times: "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 added that she did not realize he was so uncomfortable until she read the investigators’ report.
The case has gained national prominence because of two major factors: first because the vast majority of Title IX cases involve a male perpetrator, not a female one. (Though it covers all sex discrimination, Title IX was established in order to address a history of sexual harassment and assault of women at schools.) And secondly, because a significant number of prominent intellectuals and feminists have come to Ronell's defense, often adopting the language of those who have questioned or denied the veracity of #MeToo victims.
The Times writes:
Professor Ronell and some who are backing her have tried to discredit her accuser in familiar ways, asking why he took so long to report, and why he seemed so intimate with Professor Ronell if he was, in fact, miserable. Maybe, Professor Ronell suggested, he was frustrated because he just wasn’t smart enough.
“His main dilemma was the incoherency in his writing, and lack of a recognizable argument,” Professor Ronell said in a January 2018 interview submitted to the Title IX office.
A group of these scholars, including leading feminist and gender theorist Judith Butler and philosopher Slavoj Zizek, sent a strongly-worded letter to NYU defending Ronell. "Although we have no access to the confidential dossier, we have all worked for many years in close proximity to Professor Ronell and accumulated collectively years of experience to support our view of her capacity as teacher and a scholar," it reads. "We have all seen her relationship with students, and some of us know the individual who has waged this malicious campaign against her...We deplore the damage that this legal proceeding causes her, and seek to register in clear terms our objection to any judgment against her. We hold that the allegations against her do not constitute actual evidence, but rather support the view that malicious intention has animated and sustained this legal nightmare."
Critics seized upon the letter as hypocritical victim-blaming from intellectual elites seeking exceptions. "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," the letter reads. "If she were to be terminated or relieved of her duties, the injustice would be widely recognized and opposed." Professor of Philosophy and Law at the University of Chicago Law, Brian Leiter, published the letter in full on his blog, which you can download here.
Reitman added that he is considering filing a lawsuit against NYU and Ronell, though NYU spokesperson John Beckman noted, "given the promptness, seriousness and thoroughness with which we responded to his charges, we do not believe that his filing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the university would be warranted or just."