When Academics Defend Colleagues Accused of Harassment

The recent case of Avital Ronell, an NYU professor suspended for sexual harassment, and the scholars who rallied to support her highlights the intense politics of academia.

Students walk along a street with NYU banners
Students walk along West 4th Street in front of the Jeffrey S. Gould learning center, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016, in New York. (Julie Jacobson / AP)

A famed professor. A student claiming they were sexually harassed. A months-long internal investigation.

Many of the particulars of the case against Avital Ronell, a professor of German and Comparative Literature at New York University who an internal investigation found responsible for sexually harassing Nimrod Reitman, a former graduate student of hers, are familiar. Reitman accuses Ronell of kissing and touching him repeatedly, as well as sending inappropriate email messages, among other things. After its investigation, the university found that Ronell’s conduct was “sufficiently pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of Mr. Reitman’s learning environment,” according to The New York Times, and suspended her for the upcoming academic year.

In the #MeToo era, versions of this story have played out with other prominent academics. But the twist here is that the alleged harasser is a woman, when so often these cases involve male professors, and a feminist who’s the target of a complaint filed under Title IX, a federal policy created to advance gender equity. But the responses to Reitman's accusations against Ronell from her fellow academics in some ways echoed the defenses that male scholars, from MIT’s Junot Díaz to Boston University’s David Marchant, have gotten when faced with similar accusations, and is a striking example of the power structures at work in academia.

Among those who rallied to Ronell’s defense were a host of prominent philosophers, led by one of the country's most notable feminist scholars, Judith Butler. They wrote a letter to the university asserting Ronell’s innocence and arguing that Reitman harbored malice towards the professor. “We deplore the damage that this legal proceeding causes her, and seek to register in clear terms our objection to any judgment against her,” they wrote. In a draft of the letter, which was published by Brian Leiter on his philosophy blog, Leiter Reports, the professors admitted that they did not know all of the details of the case. But Joan A. Scott, a signatory and professor emerita at the Institute for Advanced Study, a research center in Princeton, New Jersey, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that “many people who signed the letter knew more than they could say.”

Ronell did not respond to a request from The Atlantic for comment. In a statement to the Times, Ronell said: “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.”

This is not the first time a group of academics have come to the aid of a prominent intellectual accused of sexual misconduct. When Díaz, who in addition to teaching at MIT is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, was accused of forcibly kissing one female writer and verbally abusing others—the university ultimately cleared Díaz after an investigation—a handful of academics wrote an open letter, published in The Chronicle, excoriating the press and social media users for its treatment of the writer:

We do not intend to dismiss current or future accusations of misconduct by Díaz or any other person. We also acknowledge the negative and disturbing effects of verbally or psychologically aggressive acts or toxic relations on the women who experience them.

Instead, they argued, they were taking issue with the way the accusations were being characterized and situated in the broader #MeToo conversation. (A response to that letter, also published in the Chronicle, argued that by publishing the letter criticizing the media, the group of faculty was sending “the very message they claim they do not want to convey”—that they were endeavoring to protect Díaz. )

While it’s unclear how much demonstrations of support from one’s colleagues determine the outcome for the person accused of misconduct, there have been several examples of powerful men in academia who faced disciplinary action but were allowed to stay on the job. In some cases, male professors managed to skirt punishment altogether for years, even as egregious allegations of sexual harassment mounted.

It’s hard to know exactly how the social dynamics and power structures of any given university affect the handling of harassment allegations. But research that has mapped the strange caste system academics inhabit could offer some insight into the dynamics that might lead them to band together in support of a prominent colleague.

One factor: Universities are hierarchical. At the apex is the chief executive officer—often a president or chancellor—and under that person are the deans of individual schools within the university; then there are the heads of the school’s often-decentralized academic departments, who typically enjoy immense influence over departmental decisions, from salaries to curriculum. Less officially, tenured professors hold a great deal of sway, determining their own research and teaching priorities while getting some say over departmental decisions. At the bottom: the untenured academics—hourly wage adjuncts, grant-funded researchers, contracted instructors, and the like. Overseeing all this are a school’s governing bodies—boards of trustees, for example—which are often composed of leaders from outside the university who come with their own set of financial interests, political beliefs, and personal networks. This leads to a tendency toward tribal politics, in which professors tend to be loyal to their discipline and department.

In his 1998 book on the dynamics of higher education in the U.S. and around the world, the Australian social scientist Brian Martin argued that in academia, like any other hierarchy, “people exercise power not by virtue of their personal talents but by virtue of the position they occupy.” With some exceptions, he suggested that a professor's position on the university pyramid—and their “informal alliances”—determine the extent to which the individual can escape accountability for his or her actions. Academics in lower tiers “are very dependent on the good graces of their supervisors” and others with influence over promotional decisions. If an academic in the upper echelons of the power structure commits some wrongdoing, his or her subordinates might feel pressured to disregard it or to come to the professor’s defense. This dynamic also, according to some adjuncts, enables bullying.

What effect, if any, this hierarchical system has on internal investigations such as NYU's of Ronell, it's impossible to know. But it is a feature of universities—present in other organizations, but seldom as pronounced—that is important to consider whenever complaints are alleged, buried, and/or disputed. And it isn't hard to see how when someone toward the top of the pyramid is accused of sexual misconduct, the other people making up the pyramid might be more concerned with the position of the accused than the details of the case.

There's a persistent phenomenon in academia, known as Sayre’s law, which in one version goes, “academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” Various political scientists, including Henry Kissinger, a former Harvard professor and Secretary of State, cited this idea when expressing frustration with academic politics. Some scholars argue that the exact opposite of Sayre’s law is true, with viciousness in higher education owing itself not to low but to high stakes—the threat of a lost promotion, for example, or of exclusion from an academic “tribe.” Few stakes could be higher than professors being accused of harassing students, so it makes sense that, in such a situation, the vicious, ever-present tribal dynamics could be inflamed.