Avital Ronell, a superstar professor, was found by N.Y.U. to have sexually harassed a male grad student. But his charges have met disbelief from some feminist scholars.
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Nimrod Reitman accused his former N.Y.U. graduate school adviser, Avital Ronell, of sexually harassing him, and the university found her responsible. But some leading feminist scholars have supported her in ways that echo the defenses of male harassers.CreditCaitlin Ochs for The New York Times
The case seems like a familiar story turned on its head: Avital Ronell, a world-renowned female professor of German and Comparative Literature at New York University, was found responsible for sexually harassing a male former graduate student, Nimrod Reitman.
An 11-month Title IX investigation found Professor Ronell, described by a colleague as “one of the very few philosopher-stars of this world,” responsible for sexual harassment, both physical and verbal, to the extent that her behavior was “sufficiently pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of Mr. Reitman’s learning environment.” The university has suspended Professor Ronell for the coming academic year.
In the Title IX final report, excerpts of which were obtained by The New York Times, Mr. Reitman said that she had sexually harassed him for three years, and shared dozens of emails in which she referred to him as “my most adored one,” “Sweet cuddly Baby,” “cock-er spaniel,” and “my astounding and beautiful Nimrod.”
Coming in the middle of the #MeToo
movement’s reckoning over sexual misconduct, it raised a challenge for feminists — how to respond when one of their own behaved badly. And the response has roiled a corner of academia.
Soon after the university made its final, confidential determination this spring, a group of scholars from around the world, including prominent feminists, sent a letter to N.Y.U. in defense of Professor Ronell. Judith Butler, the author of the book “Gender Trouble” and one of the most influential feminist scholars today, was first on the list.
“Although we have no access to the confidential dossier, we have all worked for many years in close proximity to Professor Ronell,” the professors wrote in a draft letter posted on a philosophy blog in June. “We have all seen her relationship with students, and some of us know the individual who has waged this malicious campaign against her.”
Critics saw the letter, with its focus on the potential damage to Professor Ronell’s reputation and the force of her personality, as echoing past defenses of powerful men.
“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 professors wrote.
Mr. Reitman, who is now 34 and is a visiting fellow at Harvard, says that Professor Ronell kissed and touched him repeatedly, slept in his bed with him, required him to lie in her bed, held his hand, texted, emailed and called him constantly, and refused to work with him if he did not reciprocate. Mr. Reitman is gay and is now married to a man; Professor Ronell is a lesbian.
Professor Ronell, 66, denied any harassment. “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,” she wrote in a statement to The New York Times. “These communications were repeatedly invited, responded to and encouraged by him over a period of three years.”
Two years after graduating from N.Y.U. with a Ph.D., Mr. Reitman filed a Title IX complaint against his former adviser, alleging sexual harassment, sexual assault, stalking and retaliation. In May, the university found Professor Ronell responsible for sexual harassment and cleared her of the other allegations.
Mr. Reitman’s lawyer, Donald Kravet, said he and his client have drafted a lawsuit against N.Y.U. and Professor Ronell and are now considering their options.
Both Mr. Reitman and Professor Ronell’s descriptions of their experiences echo other #MeToo
stories: In Mr. Reitman’s recollection, he was afraid of his professor and the power she wielded over him, and often went along with behavior that left him feeling violated. Professor Ronell said that Mr. Reitman desperately sought her attention and guidance in interviews she submitted to the Title IX office at N.Y.U., which The New York Times obtained.
The problems began, according to Mr. Reitman, in the spring of 2012, before he officially started school. Professor Ronell invited him to stay with her in Paris for a few days. The day he arrived, she asked him to read poetry to her in her bedroom while she took an afternoon nap, he said.
“That was already a red flag to me,” said Mr. Reitman. “But I also thought, O.K., you’re here. Better not make a scene.”
Then, he said, she 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.” That evening, a similar scene played out again, he said.
He confronted her the next morning, he said.
“I said, look, what happened yesterday was not O.K. You’re my adviser,” he recalled in an interview.
Professor Ronell’s defenders pointed to her “keen wit” and her “international standing and reputation,” after she was accused of sexual harassment.
When he got to New York, the behavior continued, he said, when after Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, Professor Ronell showed up at his apartment because her power had gone out. He said that, despite his objections, she convinced him that they could both sleep in his bed together. Once there, she groped and kissed him each night for nearly a week, he said.
“Professor Ronell denies all allegations of sexual contact in their entirety,” Mary Dorman, Professor Ronell’s lawyer, wrote in a submission to the Title IX office. Professor Ronell said she only stayed for two nights after the hurricane, at Mr. Reitman’s invitation.
The Title IX report concluded that there was not enough evidence to find Professor Ronell responsible for sexual assault, partly because no one else observed the interactions in his apartment or her room in Paris.
In the semesters that followed, Mr. Reitman said he was expected to work with Professor Ronell, often at her apartment, during lengthy work sessions nearly every weekend. Professor Ronell frequently detailed her affection and longing for him, according to emails from her that Mr. Reitman provided to The New York Times.
“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?”
In a submission to the Title IX office, Professor Ronell said she had no idea Mr. Reitman was so uncomfortable until she read the investigators’ report.
Mr. Reitman also said that Professor Ronell retaliated against him for complaining to her about her behavior, in part by sending pro forma recommendations on his behalf, thwarting his job prospects. But the Title IX report found that her recommendation letters “were comparable to those for other former students” and he did secure two postgraduate fellowships.
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.
Diane Davis, chair of the department of rhetoric at the University of Texas-Austin, who also signed the letter to the university supporting Professor Ronell, said she and her colleagues were particularly disturbed that, as they saw it, Mr. Reitman was using Title IX, a feminist tool, to take down a feminist.
“I am of course very supportive of what Title IX and the #MeToo
movement are trying to do, of their efforts to confront and to prevent abuses, for which they also seek some sort of justice,” Professor Davis wrote in an email. “But it’s for that very reason that it’s so disappointing when this incredible energy for justice is twisted and turned against itself, which is what many of us believe is happening in this case.”
Title IX was intended to address a long history of sexual harassment and assault of women at school, according to Dana Bolger, a co-founder of Know Your IX, a national advocacy group that teaches students about their Title IX rights.
“I would say that the vast majority of Title IX cases are protecting male victims from male perpetrators, or female victims from male perpetrators,” Ms. Bolger said.
In addition to the suspension, which the university never publicly announced, N.Y.U. is investigating further claims of retaliation related to the professors’ letter.
John Beckman, a spokesman for the university, wrote in a statement to The Times that N.Y.U. was “sympathetic” to what Mr. Reitman has been through.
But, Mr. Beckman added, “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.”
Both Professor Ronell and Mr. Reitman feel they have been miscast in this #MeToo
Mr. Reitman said he never intended to become any kind of public figure in a national conversation about gender, and that he started the process before the movement took off. “It didn’t come from #MeToo
,” he said.
In March 2018, Professor Ronell pointedly complained that Mr. Reitman had a penchant for “comparing me to the most egregious examples of predatory behaviors ascribable to Hollywood moguls who habitually go after starlets.”
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Female Professor, Her Male Student and the Limits of #MeToo
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