Sunday Times caption: Colleagues of Avital Ronell, who is said to have kissed and groped a student, praise her ‘grace’ and ‘scholarship’
A piece by Josh Clancy in today’s Sunday Times, emphases ours:
It is a story that has become ever so familiar in the #MeToo era: a powerful professor is accused of harassing a younger student.
Friends and support network rally round, insisting on the professor’s genius and integrity, maligning the accuser. But then the evidence becomes too damning and the powerful transgressor is brought to justice.
What is different about the case of Avital Ronell and Nimrod Reitman is that the powerful professor in this instance is a woman and the aggrieved grad student is a man. Furthermore, Ronell identifies as queer and is a lesbian, while Reitman is gay and married to a man.
Sunday Times caption: Reitman ‘acquiesced because he did not want to anger his supervisor’
Ronell, 66, was recently found guilty of sexually harassing Reitman, 34, by the authorities at New York University (NYU), where she is a professor of German and comparative literature. She has been suspended for the coming academic year.
The disciplinary hearing was held in private but the case continues to become more toxic, and public, as both sides leak damning information about the bizarre antics of the other.
Last week messages from Ronell to Reitman appeared in The New York Times. In them she described him as “my most adored one”, “sweet cuddly Baby”, “cock-er spaniel” and “my astounding and beautiful Nimrod”. He was also her “most honey bunny”.
A letter written in support of Ronell by a large group of her mostly female colleagues has also been leaked and has led to accusations of double standards: that they have committed the otherwise forbidden act of victim-blaming because the victim happens to be a man.
It is a poisonous brew of boundary-crossing, betrayal and hypocrisy that could be found only in the hallowed quadrangles of academe.
The known facts of the case are these. Reitman was Ronell’s doctoral student between 2012 and 2015. Two years later he lodged what is known as a Title IX complaint against Ronell, alleging sexual harassment, non-consensual sexual contact, stalking and retaliation.
Reitman, who is now a visiting fellow at Harvard, claimed that Ronell had kissed and touched him repeatedly.
During a trip to Paris, he alleged, she had 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.”
When Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, Reitman claims, Ronell turned up at his flat because her own domestic power supply had failed and, ignoring his objections, slept in his bed for several nights, groping and kissing him.
Reitman says he acquiesced in part because he did not want to make a scene and anger his powerful supervisor. When he did complain about Ronell’s behaviour, he claims that she retaliated by thwarting his job prospects.
After 11 months’ deliberation, NYU found Ronell guilty of sexual harassment, both verbal and physical, but not of retaliation or unwanted sexual contact.
The case took on a wider significance in June when, as Ronell’s fate was in the process of being sealed, a large group of supportive academics came together to write a letter in her defence. Prominent signatories included the gender theorist Judith Butler and the feminist critic Gayatri Spivak.
Ronell’s colleagues emphasised their “enduring admiration” for the professor’s “brilliant scholarship”, “grace”, “keen wit” and “spirit of intellectual generosity”. They asked that she “be accorded the dignity rightly deserved by someone of her international standing and reputation”.
Nowhere, however, did they address the substance of the accusations, which has brought scorn upon them.
“Her friends are basically saying she’s too important and accomplished to be punished,” said Brian Leiter, a professor in philosophy at the University of Chicago Law School. He had first leaked the confidential letter on his blog. “It’s called hypocrisy,” he added. “That’s the way power operates.”
Christina Hoff Sommers, a philosopher and scholar in residence at the American Enterprise Institute, called the letter “clueless”.
She said: “Most of the signatories are literary or critical theorists who made their names ‘excavating’ hidden power. They profess to speak for the marginalised and dispossessed. But now, when a member of their elite little circle is in trouble, they suddenly sound like imperious aristocrats worried that the authorities will mistake one of their own for mere riffraff.”
Some of the letter’s signatories have stood by their statement. “Many people who signed the letter knew more than they could say,” Joan Scott, a historian at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, told The Sunday Times.
“The idea was to somehow testify that this was somebody who was beyond reproach not because of her international reputation, but because there have been no other allegations of this kind against her.” [J4MB: In plain English, a woman is innocent of an allegation, she’s “beyond reproach”, if there have been no previous allegations of the same kind made against her.]
Ronell is certainly not going down without a fight. Following the leak of her communications to The New York Times, her lawyer released a statement to illustrate the other side of the story showing how affectionate Reitman could also be.
“I send you love, music and kisses,” Reitman said in one message, reflecting on their trip to Paris. “Mon Avital, beloved and special one,” he also wrote. “I don’t know how I would have survived without you. You are the best, my joy, my miracle. Sending you infinite love, kisses and devotion.” Of one trip to Germany, he said: “Our shared intimacy was a glorious cadence to our time in Berlin.”
Ronell has sought to explain the communications as the interaction 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”.
In an interview, she told The Chronicle of Higher Education that the NYU inquiry “felt like Guantanamo”. She added: “I was in a kangaroo court, and now I look completely like a caricature of predatory aggression, which is a joke to anyone who knows me.” [J4MB: Ah yes, the time-honoured “joke to anyone who knows me” defence. The woman is clearly innocent, damn the patriarchy for pursuing this!!!]
The row continues to spill out across the academic world. In an extraordinary intervention, Professor Bernd Huppauf, who hired Ronell at NYU before clashing with her, has written a excoriating feature for a German periodical that will be published soon. In the piece, which has been shown to The Sunday Times, Huppauf describes how Ronell has “sadistic tendencies” and sought to “discredit me” and “destroy me as a person”, at one point claiming that she had publicly labelled him an anti-semite.
Of Ronell’s time in the department, he writes: “Contradiction was heresy and heretics were rebuked or excluded — not always with a smile, often ironic, mocking, sardonic.”
He adds: “Even if one is familiar with the closed world of the university, it is hard to believe how many years had to pass before this abuse of power could reach the public and the sexualisation of her teaching was even mentioned.”
There is no end in sight to the dispute. Reitman’s lawyer said last week that he has drafted a lawsuit against both the university and the professor.
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