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.”
Colleges foretold the #MeToo Movement
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.