It’s not often that a literary theorist lands on page one of the New York Times. The August 13 story about Avital Ronell, Professor of German and Comp Lit at NYU, who the Times described as “one of the very few philosopher-stars of this world,” was shocking: NYU was suspending her without pay for a year after finding her responsible for sexual harassment of a male grad student, Nimrod Reitman. He complained that for three years she had sent him unwanted emails referring to him as “my most adored one,” “Sweet cuddly Baby,” “cock-er spaniel,” and “my astounding and beautiful Nimrod” — and insisted that he reply in kind.
Avital, as she is known in the profession, defended herself in a statement quoted in the 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.”
The Times page one story also quoted his description of an afternoon in Paris, the summer before he enrolled at NYU, when she invited him to her room and then, he said, “pulled him into her bed.” There she “put my hands onto her breasts, and was pressing herself — her buttocks — onto my crotch… She was kissing me, kissing my hands, kissing my torso.” That, he said, was sexual assault. He confronted her the next morning, he told the Times: “I said, look, what happened yesterday was not O.K. You’re my adviser.” But when he got to New York and started his graduate studies, he said, she didn’t stop: after Hurricane Sandy made her NYU apartment uninhabitable, in October 2012, she showed up at his apartment, he said, despite his objections, slept with him in his bed, and, the Times reported, “groped and kissed him each night for nearly a week.”
The Times also reported that “Professor Ronell denies all allegations of sexual contact in their entirety,” quoting her lawyer, Mary Dorman. Avital said she did stay at his apartment, but at his invitation, and only for two nights. And she emphasized that NYU did not find her guilty of sexual assault on that occasion, or any others.
The Times did not quote Nimrod’s emails to Avital, but a press release she distributed did: he had called her “Mon Avital, beloved and special one,” writing “You are the best, my miracle. Sending you infinite love, kisses, and devotion.” And “Sweet Beloved, I was so happy to see you tonight … our shared intimacy was a glorious cadence…thank you for these moments of togetherness and utter and pure love!” Avital took these emails as evidence that hers were not unwanted but rather reciprocated, and thus did not constitute sexual harassment. Nimrod insisted she had pressured him into replying in this way, citing emails she sent him. In one, for example, she wrote “‘I love you too’ does not cut it darling,” and “You occupy an immense place in my life, in my heart, and I need to hear from yours.” He said he hated seeing and writing her, but participated because she was his prestigious advisor with the power to make or destroy his career.
A crucial element in the case is the emails he wrote at the time to friends, declaring that her demands made him “want to throw up from disgust and I am fearful about how I can continue like this… I feel caged here and don’t know how I can escape the New York prison.” In other emails he called her “the monster,” a “witch,” “evil,” “psychotic,” and a “bitter old lady” (she was in her 60s, while he was in his 30s). These quotes provide strong evidence her attentions were “unwanted” — but most of them were provided in her press release, which declared that “this duplicity undermines his claim to have been sexually harassed by her.”
Avital offered an explanation for her emails in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education: “He calls himself a thanatophile, which means he’s drawn to death,” she said. “He’d turn to me with his despair and his extreme anxiety. He’d say no one loves him. I’d write stupidly, because I had nothing to hide, ‘I love you.’ If he had a migraine, I’d say, ‘Let me stroke your head, calm you down.’ He’d say, ‘That’s magical — you’re a healer.’”
Avital’s attorney says Nimrod never complained to any NYU officials, but his attorney says he did complain to the Vice Provost, an official Title IX officer required to report complaints of sexual harassment or assault. He is suing NYU for failing to act on his complaint. He didn’t file his own formal Title IX complaint with NYU — the one that led to the recent ruling — until two years after getting his Ph.D. Avital says that’s because he concluded he was not going to get a job as an assistant professor, and blamed her for that; his complaint was a form of revenge for his own failure on the job market. He says he delayed filing a complaint because he needed her support on the job market, but that she wrote a pro forma, generic letter of recommendation in retaliation for his “leaving” her, and at that point he decided to complain formally.
Avital has many defenders, including prominent feminist literary scholars, and their response provided an irresistible focus for the New York Times story. What happens when a man tells a #MeToo story about being victimized by a woman? What happens, in the New York Times reading of this case, is that feminists defend the accused woman in the same terms that some men defended Harvey Weinstein — they believe the denials offered by the accused, and argue that the accuser’s lies are motivated by ill-will. As evidence, the Times pointed to a letter of support for Avital signed by several dozen leading literary scholars.
The letter — published online by University of Chicago philosopher Brian Leiter at his blog, Leiter Reports, had been sent to the NYU president back in May, at a time when the evidence cited in the Times in August had not been made public — so the signers did not know about Avital’s emails to her “cock-er spaniel” or Nimrod’s complaints about being pulled unwillingly into her bed. I asked a dozen of the most prominent signers what they thought about the evidence in the New York Times, and whether it had changed their way of looking at the case.
Those who responded had different arguments. Gayatri Spivak, University Professor at Columbia, wrote, “I’d rather not comment … Loyalty gets in the way of the law.” It’s a reasonable position: she’s not going to criticize a friend publicly. But of course not defending a friend implies the friend is guilty as charged — loyalty and the law would not be at odds otherwise.
Slavoj Žižek, the “Elvis of cultural theory” who, among other things, holds the title “Global Professor” at NYU, published a piece on why he signed the letter. Because he was teaching at NYU while the Title IX investigation was going on, he wrote, “I DO know the details of the accusations against her, and I find them utterly ridiculous.” Avital was being persecuted by the “Politically Correct,” he wrote, people who didn’t understand her “mode of behavior and speech: … acerbic, ironic, shifting from funny remarks to precise perceptions of an injustice, mocking others in a friendly way.” But none of Avital’s emails to Nimrod cited in the court case were about “injustice.” Avital, he concludes, is guilty only of “a pattern of eccentric rhetoric, which was so excessive precisely because it was based on the understanding that there is no actual sex involved.”
Sam Weber, Professor of German at Northwestern, said he signed the letter because “at the time I was told that NYU was about to either fire Avital or give her the option of resigning, and that this would take place in a matter of days … For me, the letter was meant to testify to the respect I have for Avital and her work, not to judge the merits of ‘the case.’” The letter they all signed, however, wasn’t just about the value of Avital’s work. It declared that the signers sought “to register in clear terms our objection to any judgment against her” [emphasis mine].
John Hamilton, Kenan Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Harvard and Chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures there, offered a similar explanation: “I signed the letter to support a friend I’ve known for 30 years and who always acted respectfully. Avital can be flirtatious and I could imagine her crossing lines in a campy way; usually it was nothing more than fun. Obviously this person didn’t feel that way, and these accusations have to be taken very seriously.” And yet the letter also declared that the student who filed the complaint was “animated” by “malicious intention,” despite the fact that most of the signers didn’t know anything about what “animated” Nimrod Reitman.
Different drafts of the letter were circulated to different people; Sam Weber said he “asked that certain phrases relating to the former student in a judgmental way be eliminated, since I knew and know nothing about him and couldn’t sign on to that. I received a version where they were attenuated sufficiently for me to sign … I never saw the final version however.” Judith Butler, Elliot Professor in the Department of Comp Lit at Berkeley and President-Elect of the MLA, explained to me that “my first version was rejected for being ‘too weak,’” and that “about six people” contributed to the final version. But, she told the Chronicle, “We ought not to have attributed motives to the complainant, even though some signatories had strong views on this matter.”
Jonathan Culler, Distinguished Professor of French and Comp Lit at Cornell, wrote, “I think that signatories to Judith Butler’s letter probably varied a lot in how much they knew about the accusations. I certainly don’t regret signing, because I don’t believe the accusations of sexual misconduct. Professor Ronell certainly does write over-the-top emails, as all her correspondents know.” He accepted her defense that Nimrod “reciprocated,” and pointed out that if Nimrod had been “upset” by the emails, “he could have chosen to work with someone else” — which indeed often happens with grad students.
Another distinguished professor who asked, later, not to be quoted, was concerned about the lack of due process in the procedures under which Avital was found guilty of sexual harassment: “There was no ‘fair hearing’ by AAUP standards,” she said. “Once the student filed the complaint it was handled entirely by the NYU Title IX lawyers — not exactly a jury of her peers. This is generally true of Title IX hearings; they do not respect any established rules or practices of faculty governance.” Under the AAUP standards she supports, Avital would “confront” her student Nimrod before a committee of her peers, who would then rule on his complaint. Of course one can easily see the possibilities for abuse in such a process — that kind of confrontation would be intimidating and frightening to most students who had been sexually harassed by professors.
The same professor was also concerned about the breach of confidentiality: the leak of NYU’s Title IX report to the Times “should make anyone who files a Title IX complaint think twice,” she said, “since confidentiality cannot be assured. NYU lawyers, who swore everyone to secrecy about the settlement, should be punishing the leaker — who had to have been a party to the negotiations.” Most observers assume the leak to the Times came from Nimrod’s side, though, and it is not clear that he can be punished by NYU for telling the world what happened to him as a student there.
Emily Apter, Chair of Comp Lit at NYU, was less forthcoming about the letter of support she signed: “I am not able or willing to discuss the case,” she wrote, a bit cryptically. Cynthia Chase, Professor of French and Comp Lit at Cornell, responded by repeating verbatim the conclusion of the letter: “The allegations against Avital Ronell do not constitute actual evidence, but rather support the view that malicious intent animated and sustains this legal nightmare” — this despite the fact that “actual evidence” was now public in the form of Avital’s emails.
The New York Times also published 943 comments on the article. One of the most striking was from “Lady Professor” in Los Angeles, who wrote “as a feminist … who has been teaching for more than 20 years.” She offered her advice:
Q: Is it ever OK to get in bed with your advisee?
A: No. It is never, ever OK to get in bed with a student. You should not get in bed with ANY student from your institution. If the student is in a class you are teaching, or is your advisee, you should refrain from getting in bed with them until they have graduated…
Q: How about going over to my student’s apartment when my electricity goes out?
A: Don’t you have other friends who can help you in this situation? Remember that your student and advisee does not have power in this relationship and cannot easily turn you away or ask you to leave. Don’t go there. I repeat: don’t go there…
Q: I’m campy and flirty. I want to send campy, flirty emails to my advisee.
A: DO NOT SEND FLIRTY EMAILS TO A STUDENT. EVER.
Q: But I just want to say that he’s a sweet cuddly baby!
A: Do not do it. NO. Keep it professional.
Q: But we share culture and he will understand my sly and playful flouting of convention.
A. What is wrong with you?
So we have a student complaining of unwanted sexual attention and physical contact, which a powerful mentor pressured him to submit to and participate in; and we have a professor arguing that she thought the student’s participation in the relationship was consensual and welcomed, but upon learning that he was telling friends she was a “monster” who made him “want to throw up from disgust,” she concluded that he had been “duplicitous”: manipulating and exploiting her to advance his own career, then turning on her when his career failed to advance.
But the real problem here is not deciding who was exploiting whom. The problem is the failure of this faculty member to keep her relationship with this student on a professional level. It’s the kind of case that led universities to prohibit sexual relationships between faculty and students, and, as Barbara Herman argues — she’s Griffin Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Law at UCLA — it’s precisely the kind of problem that universities intended to address with the sexual harassment policies that implement Title IX: not violent assault or abuse, but rather the acquiescence of students to the sexual demands of faculty members with power over them. The concern always was that an inappropriate faculty-student relationship would end up looking just like Avital and Nimrod.
Nimrod now will have no career in academia. His advisor has been quoted in the New York Times describing the “incoherency in his writing, and lack of a recognizable argument” in his dissertation (a 500-page work titled “On the Serious Motherhood of Men: Dissonance in Music, Rhetoric and Poetry”), and 50 of the top people in his field have signed a letter saying he was “animated” by “malicious intention” — they teach at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, Berkeley, Cornell, Northwestern, Emory, Rutgers, Texas, many European universities, and include 11 from his own institution, NYU. Nimrod is calling it “retaliation,” which — if orchestrated by Avital — is a separate Title IX violation, and NYU is investigating that complaint now. (She denies the charge, but it raises the question: should all 50 of the signers be brought up on charges of retaliation?) Avital meanwhile will be back at NYU in a year. For grad students facing sexual harassment by faculty members, the message is frightening.