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A Lengthening Silence: What an Unusual Title IX Case Reveals About Power in Academia

A queer, female professor of German and comparative literature at New York University (NYU) is found guilty of sexually harassing a gay, male former graduate student and advisee. Has there ever been a story as easily weaponized in the service of reactionary agendas as Avital Ronell’s?

The story first surfaced in May 2018, when philosopher and legal scholar Brian Leiter leaked a leaked letter on his blog, Leiter Reports. The letter, which had been circulated widely among left-leaning scholars, was a defense of Ronell, whom NYU’s Title IX office had investigated for sexual harassment. NYU was then in the process of determining her sanction. Fifty-one academics had signed their names in support of Ronnell.

The letter’s language was lightly, politely threatening. It charged the complainant—Nimrod Reitman—with “malicious intent” and made pointed note of Ronell’s “international standing and reputation.” Signatories included a host of more-or-less-leftist luminaries like Columbia University’s Gayatri Spivak and renegade philosopher Slavoj Žižek. The letter writers’ identities are unknown—perhaps because the circulation of details prior to sanction is a violation of Title IX confidentiality rules—but feminist theorist Judith Butler later became the letter’s unofficial spokesperson and apologist: she was its first signatory, not to mention one of the most prominent scholars alive.

Writing to the editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Butler explained the letter’s diction and her own position: “Our aim was not to defend her actions — we did not have the case in hand — but to oppose the termination of her employment as a punishment. Such a punishment seemed unfair given the findings as we understood them,” she said. She added, “The letter was written in haste. … We all make errors in life and in work.”

Leiter’s blog post disturbed the surface of the small pond of academia. Numerous professors claimed that the letter they agreed to sign was not the letter that Leiter leaked. Some said they had been told that Title IX had cleared Ronell of all charges (in fact she’d been found guilty of sexual harassment) and that NYU was nonetheless moving to unjustly fire her within three days (Ronell was eventually suspended, without pay, for a year). One email had stated that a lack of response would constitute consent to sign.

In other words, bad faith was rife. Edward Sullivan, an art history professor at NYU, told The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The author was totally unauthorized to add my name to the letter. I have brought it to her attention. I know nothing further about this affair.” Other professors have not been so firm in retracting their support. Spivak told BLARB, the blog of the Los Angeles Review of Books, “I’d rather not comment … Loyalty gets in the way of the law.”

The story dipped back into obscurity until August, when The New York Times published Reitman’s account of Ronell’s sexual harassment, in a story titled, “What Happens to #MeToo When a Feminist is the Accused?” The article detailed physical and virtual harassment, excerpting emails where Ronell called Reitman her “cock-er spaniel” and demanded that his language be more sexual and amorous. Two further articles—one written by a graduate student in the Comparative Literature department and published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the other written by the German department’s former dean and published in Salon—portrayed Ronell as a narcissist and tyrant for whom sexual harassment was only one of multiple means of abuse and control.

***

For a while, I didn’t think to look at the letter. But when eventually I did, my breath stuck in my throat. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might know anyone on the list personally, as I do Paul North, professor of German at Yale. He’d been my favorite professor in the spring of 2018, when he co-taught a course on critical theory in Latin America. Another Yale professor of German, Rudiger Campe, was also among the signatories.

To this day, North, Campe, and the German department have not issued public statements on the subject of the letter, although, according to graduate students, they have offered private explanations—claiming that the letter they signed was not the letter Leiter leaked—in department meetings.

These explanations may have sufficed for the students and faculty members I did not speak to. But for the graduate students I did communicate with, the lengthening silence has evidenced a failure far more unsettling than the misinformed offering of a name to a cause: the failure to take seriously the precarity of graduate students and to take stock of power in academia.

It is somewhat misleading that the Ronell case was framed as a quirky variation on the theme of #MeToo, when the inequality that it manifested arose not from the patriarchy, but from the hierarchical structure of academia. According to a report by the American Association of University Professors, 73 percent of all faculty positions in 2016 were off the tenure-track, which largely translates to minimal job security, low pay, and no benefits. The casualization of academic labor and the resultant hyper-competitiveness of the job market render graduate students particularly reliant on anything that might secure their futures. The Ronell case is a disturbing illustration of the extent to which graduate students’ livelihoods hinge upon their advisors’ goodwill.

“There are no jobs,” said one German graduate student at Yale, who wished to remain anonymous. “We are structurally dependent on good letters of recommendation from big-name advisors. If no one writes you that stellar recommendation letter, and if that person doesn’t have a big name in the field, you’re less likely to get one of the scarce jobs that are available. Ultimately one has to ask oneself, why did Nimrod Reitman feel compelled to go along in that situation and to tolerate that abuse of power on the part of Avital Ronell? Probably because he was extremely anxious about his job prospects. And that goes beyond just pure sexual harassment. That speaks to a basic imbalance of power.”

Graduate students occupy an uncertain position whose lack of formalization leaves them largely powerless. Despite their status as university employees, they have no contracts and no unions and are therefore largely unable to advocate for themselves in their departments or to the administration. Despite their status as students, their professorial mentoring can be patchy: no formal structure outlines how much mentoring professors owe each student.

It is particularly ironic that one popular defense of Ronell has ostensibly sought to protect the sanctity of mentorship in academia, even as mentoring relationships are rarely deeply personal, erotically-charged exchanges of ideas. Most often, they are hands-off. If anything they are a little too hands-off.

“I find that I have been mostly left on my own, and most of the time I like that,” said Sophie Duvernoy, a third-year student in Yale’s German department. “But when things get hard, I sometimes wish someone would check in on me, and usually the burden is on me.” As it stands, there are no provisions against either over- or under-involvement.

Meanwhile, professors are, uncomfortably, senior colleagues, advocates, and mentors, all at once. According to the graduate students I spoke to, if anything taints the mentoring relationship, it is not Title IX, and it would not be unionization; it is the fact that professors—rather than a third party, or graduate students themselves—are         currently responsible for advocating for graduate students to the Yale administration on matters of funding and wage inequity. Graduate students in language departments, for instance, teach classes independently, five days a week, and receive the same stipend as students who, in their capacities as teaching fellows, assist one or two professor-led classes and lead one section a week.

“Institutional change that affects our lives is currently dependent on the goodwill of our department and its ability to press against the administration to give them certain things, and that depends on their energy levels and their ability to stretch themselves thinner for a fight that’s not their own,” said Duvernoy.

Another student, who preferred to remain anonymous, said, “I’d just prefer to have a regular intellectual conversation; I don’t want to ask anyone, ‘Can you please advocate  did its part to discredit feminism by calling Ronell a feminist scholar, though she is in fact a Germanist and deconstructionist, more at home with Derrida than with de Beauvoir.

Meanwhile, academics waged smaller skirmishes. Brian Leiter denounced “theory,” seeking to discredit not only all the leftist luminaries who had signed the letter but also their work, dismissing swathes of scholarship on everything from literary theory to marginalized communities. Ronell’s defenders denounced the death, at the hands of Title IX, of the kind of idiosyncratic charisma and life-changing mentorship that Ronell supposedly gave out in spades: “I’m depressed that this seems like the end of any but all but [sic] the most technocratic pedagogy,” wrote Chris Kraus, theorist and novelist. (It did not seem to register that “idiosyncratic charisma” and “life-changing mentorship,” often synonyms for unchecked power and free zones for abuse, were themselves part of the problem).

Other signatories looked to exempt Ronell on the grounds of her gender and her queerness, suggesting that it was for these aspects of her identity, rather than for her wrongdoings, that she was being condemned: “This is misogyny of the variety pervasive on the internet. Misogyny is rife even among the queers and feminists posting personal attacks—they do not do this to similarly accused male faculty,” claimed queer theorist Lisa Duggan, Ronell’s colleague at NYU.

All of these readings of the events proved wrong, either mostly or entirely. The death of #MeToo did not pan out. The death of “theory,” to the extent that it is happening, owes itself mostly to a lack of humanities funding. As for the deaths of academic stars, academic freedom, academic “integrity”: professors found guilty of sexual harassment or assault tend to retain their jobs, regardless of gender. Ronell’s suspension is a far cry from the revocation of tenure that professors who signed the letter were told was imminent. People are still reading Judith Butler. In this sense, the fallout, though sensational, has been uneventful, like a meteor that doesn’t strike the earth. In the meantime, the true lesson of the Ronell case—that graduate students are vulnerable and that professors, including those who study power, wield power over them—has, in institutions of higher education, remained unlearned.

Why was Title IX Nimrod Reitman’s sole means of recourse? Why, in other words, did it take a case of sexual harassment for Ronell to be held accountable, in however limited a fashion, for what appears to have been serial abuse that was only occasionally sexual in nature? Title IX, previously used to redress sexual harassment as a form of sexual discrimination, now redresses sexual harassment that gives rise to inequality of educational opportunity more broadly. This includes harassment that gives rise to “an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.” However, the fact that Reitman resorted to a means of dealing with case-by-case issues of sex, rather than structural issues in academia, speaks to a paucity of other, more powerful, more pertinent means of redress. It also speaks to the way that problems are typically handled: by isolating them, by narrowing culpability to individual actors, by making them private and small. Ronell’s punishment, though necessary, doesn’t alone solve the problem.

In spite of Title IX’s limitations—or perhaps because of its tendency to individualize problems—it has aroused some fear amongst faculty. In 2016, the American Association of University Professors published a report warning against the possible infringements of Title IX on academic freedom of speech. The report condemns “[t]he failure [of Title IX offices] … to distinguish between ‘hostile-environment’ sexual harassment and sexual assault” and “[t]he use of overly broad definitions of hostile environment to take punitive employment measures against faculty members.”

Eerily, one of the report’s six authors, Joan W. Scott, signed the letter in Ronell’s defense and then stood firmly by her decision to do so: “This is an example of a kind of misuse or abuse of Title IX,” she told The Chronicle. This paranoia loses sight of the fact that few professors have lost their jobs as a result of Title IX investigations, and that graduate students have few other methods of recourse, especially if professors aren’t listening. At worst the report looks to justify faculty exceptionalism, ignores academic hierarchies, and raises the specter of faculty precarity over the reality of graduate student precarity.

Of course, most professors are not Avital Ronell. But universities like Yale not only fail to establish structures that prevent abuse, rather than address it after the fact; they also still actively look to hire “stars”: professors who combine excellence in their fields with charisma that may, in Dean of Humanities Division Amy Hungerford’s words, “invite boundary-crossing, adulation, discipleship.”

Hungerford described the manner in which such stars, left unchecked, may warp the fabric of their scholarly communities. “The qualities that make for a charismatic teacher-scholar can sometimes be the very qualities that lead to the sort of boundary-crossing and power dynamics that we see in the Ronell case. A charismatic person makes others want to connect to them, and their authority comes from the desire of others for that connection. This connection is felt to be seductive or transformative in some way for the less powerful person, for the disciple. Basking in the attention of a charismatic leader is a powerful experience, and losing that attention, or feeling the disappointment of such a leader, can be felt as devastating,” she wrote to me in an email. “In situations where hierarchy and authority are not highly formalized, or where these are complexly structured (academia fits this bill) charismatic authority is particularly potent and compelling to others, and has genuine effects on the careers of those surrounding the charismatic figure.”

In a later email, she added, “I would say that many people contemplating these figures at other places have a healthy perspective on whether outsized charisma is what one needs in a particular department or field at a particular time. Truly charismatic figures are rare and complicated. Sometimes we want them to live among us; sometimes we want to be inspired by them, and then go home to an orderly house.”

Of course, charisma should not endanger students. Neither is it always what students need or want. Mentorship is not a trade-off between teachers who are uncharismatic and unabusive, and teachers who are charismatic and potentially abusive.

There is a different path for professorship, one that does not privilege any single aspect —writing, or research, or solipsistic intellectual output—over the others that equally constitute the work of academia: pedagogy, mentorship, the even-handed administration of a department. In the words of Max Chaoulideer, a fifth-year German Studies student at Yale: “The practice of academia and the theory of academia should not be distinct.”