After Nimrod Reitman’s case, some are critiquing power imbalances in the application of Title IX

Photo Credit: The Chronicle for Higher Education

It is a familiar story with an unfamiliar twist: a professor and graduate student advisor was found guilty of sexually harassing a former graduate student, but this time, the accuser is a gay man pointing fingers at a female lesbian professor.

Regardless of the gender and sexualities of the accuser and accused, critics are saying that the system of Title IX needs to be revamped to prevent abuse of graduate students, particularly with regards to practices of operating on cultural capital to defend or support world-renowned scholars accused of abuse.

The Title IX case

Over the summer, controversy erupted after an 11-month Title IX investigation at NYU found Avital Ronell, a professor of German and Comparative Literature at New York University, guilty of sexual harassment, both physical and verbal, against a former NYU graduate student who was studying under her wing, Nimrod Reitman.

In the findings, NYU determined that there was sufficient evidence to find Avital Ronell guilty of sexual harassment, but found that there was insufficient evidence for Reitman’s allegations that Ronell sexually assaulted him, stalked him, and acted in retaliation against him, effectively harming his career because he spoke out. Reitman alleges that over the course of more than three years at the university, between the spring of 2012 and June 2015, Ronell repeatedly and forcibly groped, touched, and kissed him, and created a fictitious relationship between them in which Reitman would be forced to participate or otherwise face retributions in his career and studies.

Among the evidence for harassment were dozens of emails in which Ronell addresses Reitman as “cock-er spaniel”, “my most adored one”, “sweet cuddly baby”, “my love”, and “most hunny-bunny”, among other things.

Also in the emails, Ronell writes to Reitman saying things such as:

  • “"Sweet kisses and champagne,”

  • "I bestow a kiss upon you, as we used to, mid-day and afternoons."

  • "Loving you downtown and all around the town!”

  • "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 [sicl hair, soothing you, headache gone. Yes?"

  • "Please do not threaten me or yourself with 'shattering us.'"

  • "I do not like to be 1n the position of supplicating for more of your attention or time."

  • "I wish I could kidnap you."

  • "Baby, let me massage your feet."

On this evidence, NYU wrote in the findings, “While Professor Ronell claims that her language was merely ‘flamboyant’ and not reflective of actual physical contact that had occurred between the two, the Investigators find that it was more likely than not that her language was demonstrative of inappropriate physical contact that had transpired in the past between the two.”

Avital Ronell. Photo Credit Minding the Campus

The letter

Soon after NYU made these determinations this spring, dozens of scholars around the globe, including prominent feminists and ten professors from NYU, signed a letter addressed to NYU in which they defended Professor Ronell. The letter was posted on this blog, where it is available for download. In the letter, signatories write that they do not have access to the dossier, but say that the “the allegations against her do not constitute actual evidence.”

However, much of the letter focuses on Ronell’s academic achievements, seemingly using them as part of their defense of her. Here are two excerpts:

  • “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.”

  • “If she were to be terminated or relieved of her duties, the injustice would be widely recognized and opposed. The ensuing loss for the humanities, for New York University, and for intellectual life during these times would be no less than enormous and would rightly invite widespread and intense public scrutiny.”

The fallout

After the letter was posted, critics denounced it for seeming to mirror defenses long used by powerful men and for seeming to attack the victim by saying that Reitman had “malicious intent” in bringing forward his allegations. In doing so, they said that these scholars became part of a system of power that many of them spent their careers deconstructing and dismantling.

Some, such as James J. Marino, an associate professor of English at Cleveland State University, saw it as hypocritical, particularly for signatories such as Judith Butler, one of the most influential feminist scholars and iconic gender theorist in the twentieth century, who argued in Gender Trouble that gender was merely a performance.

“The letter reads as a page from the old school boy’s playbook rather than a letter from leading gender theorists,” Marino says. “It’s so hard to see Butler and others playing that old boy’s game the exact same way like my god. It’s uncannily like the letters used to defend male harassers. It’s surprising because some of these people’s work has been so important to younger scholars and feminists. Most of the people to whom Butler means the most are exactly the type of people vulnerable to abuse by males.”

David Clinton Wills is a visiting professor at New York University who teaches the work of many of those who signed the letter, agreed. [Full disclosure: I took a course titled Gender and Communication with Wills during my junior year of undergrad, and in that course, we studied Butler’s work extensively.]

“I’m refraining from saying if Judith Butler was right or wrong, but she said, 'I have all this cultural weight and I’m going to throw it into this situation.' She used this identity to support someone,” Wills says. “Judith Butler had no real reason to say anything, actually.”

Judith Butler. Photo Credit: The Cut

Because Butler used her title as President-Elect in her signature for the letter, seemingly to add to the cultural weight of her argument, but without the MLA’s consent, Marino started an online petition to remove Butler as the President-Elect of the Modern Language Association (MLA). Since then, Butler has acknowledged her regrets about the letter in a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

She wrote, “We ought not to have attributed motives to the complainant, even though some signatories had strong views on this matter.” She then recognized that the tactic of discrediting the complainant often prevented legitimate claims from going forward. Secondly, she wrote, “We should not have used language that implied that Ronell’s status and reputation earn her differential treatment of any kind.” Lastly, she apologized for listing her position at the MLA in the letter.

Still, Marino says the larger problem is the system of power at play that works against graduate students.

“Individual cases don’t matter as much as the system. We need a system with letter like that to go away,” he says. “Rounding up signatures for a letter defending your coworkers is bad because we’re allowing senior staff to use their scholarly reputation to protect senior people accused of mistreating junior people, this perpetuates abuse in academy.”

Marino reasons that faculty will have more powerful friends to defend them than graduate students. He adds that graduate students are often subject to retaliation, and may be shunned by powerful academics if they speak out against their friends.

“Graduate students are in many ways more vulnerable to sexual harassment than undergraduates because they’re more dependent on a single professor. If you’re writing a dissertation, the dissertation advisor is a crucial gatekeeper and you can’t get a job if your advisor withholds support,” he says. “Switching advisors can be career ending. Changing from a high-profile advisor to a lower-profile advisor that isn’t harassing you makes it look like you didn’t make it. It can be read as, 'Oh, he’s not good or talented enough to write a dissertation with the most talented advisors.'”

In addition, Marino says that often, the specialized fields that graduate students work in are extremely small, such that in some cases, there may not be other options for advisors, or other advisors may be unwilling to work with the student because they are friends of the original abusive advisor.

After the Title IX investigation at NYU, Nimrod Reitman first found out about NYU’s punishment for Ronell from the New York Times article reporting on his case. Ronell was suspended for a year, with a mandate that any future meetings she might have with students be supervised. However, as evidenced by a Facebook posting made by Lisa Duggan, a professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU, rumors have circulated that the letter defending Ronell signed by other academics helped Ronell get a lesser punishment.

Facebook posting made by Lisa Duggan regarding the letter defending Ronell

“It turned into some kind of slap on the wrist rather than real punishment,” says Donald Kravat, Nimrod Reitman’s attorney.

These claims are so far unvaried by NYU.

Nimrod is taking further action

Now, there is a new, pending lawsuit against Avital Ronell and NYU by Nimrod Reitman that restates the full breadth of allegations that Reitman has made against Ronell, and makes allegations against NYU including the following:

  • “NYU has failed to acknowledge that during that period Reitman informed a NYU Vice Provost, among others, about Ronell’s misconduct, and that NYU failed to take any action and thus prevent further harm to Reitman.”

  • “The determination not to find that Ronell had engaged in sexual assault (referred to under NYU Policy manuals as “non-consensual sexual contact”) and stalking, was intentional and motivated by gender bias and the product of a discriminatory animus.”

One of the key arguments Reitman makes for his allegation that NYU acted discriminatory with regards to his gender involves the use of corroborating witnesses. In Reitman’s lawsuit he says that NYU’s Title IX Report found that because he did not have any “corroborating witnesses”, there was “insufficient evidence to find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Professor Ronell engaged in prohibited non-consensual sexual contact.” However, Reitman argues that New York law has not required a corroborating witness to prove a claim of sexual assault since 1974, and that the standard of having a corroborating witness for sexual assault claims has not been applied since then.

Because this standard has not been required in other sexual assault cases in which victims were female, Reitman argues he was treated differently as a male.

“Title Nine is for everyone, regardless of sexuality, and should be regardless of gender as well,” he told me.

On the note of possible gender biases, Wills mused that this was a larger problem within the #MeToo movement.

“The #MeToo movement has yet to figure out what to do with male accusers against female subjects. If the situation was reversed, no one would even try to do this,” he says.

As a queer, black, Jewish man, Wills believes the problems in applying Title IX laws go beyond just gender discrimination. Wills himself has filed two separate Title IX cases, one of which was while he was at NYU, against a more senior faculty member.

“At NYU my own experience of when I filed a complaint was a poor one,” he says “I don’t think Title Nine protects people from sex, gender and race discrimination.”

Partially, he theorized that this was because as universities grow more and more diverse, straying from a previous demographics of having a majority white straight-male student body, universities do not know how to fully handle the diversity of the victims that are making accusations.

In terms of gender discrimination, Marino was unsure what judgement call to make, but said that some of the problems Reitman faced in making his Title IX case are more widespread.

“I don’t know what would’ve happened if it was a straight male harassing a woman but I’m not sure a lot of universities are handling Title Nine great so far,” Marino says. “Universities have a natural desire to keep things quiet because they thrive based on their reputation. It’s about avoiding public scandal.”

Nimroad Reitman. Photo Credit: the New York Times

Ronell’s defense

In a statement to the New York Times, Ronell defended herself.

“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 told the New York Times. “These communications were repeatedly invited, responded to and encouraged by him over a period of three years.”

When I reached out to Ronell for comment, she responded quickly in an email, saying she was not able to engage the arguments made against her publicly due to Reitman's pending lawsuit.

A few days after defending herself to the Times, Ronell told the Associated Press that the language she used with Ronell was merely affectionate, not sexual, and called them a “gay-coded” correspondence.

Duggan supported the idea of the emails being “gay-coded”, writing in a nuanced blog post that these forms of intimacy outside of courtship and marriage are common among queers.

She wrote, “The correspondence between Ronell and Reitman, full of literary allusions as well, can be read literally as an indicator of a sexual relationship. This is a culture clash.”

She quickly followed, “Though that is not to say the correspondence is not “problematic” as we academics like to say…and it does not establish that there was not a sexual relationship either.”

But, using arguments that the emails were “queer-coded” fails to take into account that one of the queer people in the relationship, Reitman, did not feel comfortable with the language used, Marino says.

“The defense that these are queer codes that straights don’t understand leaves out the student’s perspective,” Marino says.

Ronell offered another defense of the exchanges to me via email.

“The emails are off chain, out of context distortions, tilted against me in the sequencing without frame,” she writes. “A main point is that I've been exonerated by an 11-month interrogation of charges of sexual assault, stalking, and retaliation. My responsive-in-kind emails do not refer to any contact of a sexual nature. I feel as if my life has been trifled with.”

Reitman still alleges that Ronell kissed and groped him on numerous occasions, forced him into an inappropriate relationship with her, and stalked him by demanding all of his time and threatening him if he did not give her what she wanted.

Here are some claims against Ronell from Reitman’s lawsuit:

  • “Ronell forced Reitman to distance himself from friends and family, and she would often burst into a jealous rage when his attention was with them and not fully devoted to her. Ronell would become distraught when Reitman would travel away from New York, often becoming angry and punishing him professionally for it.”

  • Ronell also used her standing in the academic community as a threat against Reitman, often bragging about her sphere of influence and how she could “make or break” careers in academia. Though she bragged about getting her students teaching positions at “the best” schools, she also told Reitman stories of how she enacted vengeance against those who had wronged her. She referred to this as her “mafia” capabilities.

  • “To his horror, Ronell continued to grope Reitman both over and under his clothing. At one point, while facing away from him, she pushed her buttocks into his groin. Ronell also kissed Reitman’s neck and mouth, several times attempting to engage in an open-mouth kiss. During this time Reitman’s body remained tense, and he repeatedly attempted to move away from Ronell. Each time, however, Ronell would pull him close again. He was so shocked and taken aback by Ronell’s actions – as well as intimidated by the fact that this was his doctoral adviser and a pillar in his chosen academic field – that he feared to tell Ronell to stop, despite his extreme discomfort and objection to what was happening.”

  • “Ronell also grabbed Reitman’s hands and put them on her breasts, holding them in place with her own hands.”

  • “For the first few weeks he was in New York, Ronell demanded that Reitman spend almost every evening with her, often at her NYU-owned apartment. During this time, she would insist on giving him massages, over his objections, and would repeatedly ask him to take off his shirt, which he always refused. Undeterred, Ronell would reach under Reitman’s shirt and massage him, or massage his feet. Ronell would also repeatedly kiss Reitman on his mouth, neck, ears, and upper body, and touch and grope his buttocks and lower back. As he had done in Paris, Reitman would stiffen his body and/or attempt to gently push Ronell away or avoid her advances, but he also started voicing his objections to Ronell’s physical assaults. Ronell would respond by demanding that he ‘do this for [her].’”

  • “Despite being coerced by Ronell into participating (unwillingly) in the fictional relationship that she had imagined between them, Reitman attempted to draw boundaries with her. Though Ronell acknowledged his complaints and requests, they had no effect on her behavior towards him, nor upon her demands.”

  • “By the start of the spring 2013 semester, Ronell had ramped up her control and surveillance of Reitman. She would call and/or text him multiple times most days. She constantly asked about his activities and demanded to know everything that he was doing, everyone he was meeting, and everywhere he was going.”

The entire lawsuit is 56-pages. Ronell referred me to other scholars whom she said would be able to offer her perspective or defend her on these matters. At the time of publication, The Rational Creature has been unable to get in touch with these scholars.

Another Title IX case, with similar issues

Reitman’s case is one among many for graduate school students. Lisa Anderson, the Executive Director of the Atlanta Women for Equality, a legal non-profit that represents women who have experienced sexual assault, harassment, and other gender discrimination at schools, read about Reitman’s case. She says it felt extremely familiar.

Roughly fifteen years ago, Anderson alleges that she was raped by her own dissertation advisor, Dragan Kujundzic, a professor of Russian studies, during her first week at the University of California at Irvine (UCI) where she was planning to study Russian literature.

“I’m still getting over what happened to me,” she says.