A New York University (NYU) professor of German and Comparative Literature Avital Ronell, 66 has been found responsible of sexually harassing her former graduate student Nimrod Reitman, 34 who is male.
According to New York Times, an 11-month Title IX investigation found Ronell responsible for physical and verbal sexual harassment, saying that her behaviour was “sufficiently pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of Mr. Reitman’s learning environment.”
The university subsequently suspended Ronell for the coming academic year.
Reitman said the harassment went on for three years. He also shared text messages where Ronell referred to him as “my most adored one,” “Sweet cuddly Baby,” “cock-er spaniel,” and “my astounding and beautiful Nimrod,” the New York Times report said.
According to New York Times, Reitman said 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.
In a statement to New York Times, Professor 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.
Reitman and his lawyers have drafted a lawsuit against the university and Professor Ronell following the university’s decision.
Reitman said that he only went along with Professor Ronell’s behaviour because of the power she wielded over him even though he felt violated.
Professor Ronell said that Reitman “desperately sought her attention and guidance,” New York Times quoted her as saying in interviews she submitted to the Title IX office at N.Y.U.
According to Reitman, the harassment started in 2012 before he started school, when Professor Ronell invited him to stay with her in Paris for a few days.
He said that the day he arrived, she asked him to read her poetry in her bedroom while she takes a nap.
“That was already a red flag to me. But I also thought, O.K., you’re here. Better not make a scene,” Reitman said, adding that she later pulled him into her bed.
“She put my hands onto her breasts, and was pressing herself — her buttocks — onto my crotch. She was kissing me, kissing my hands, kissing my torso,” Reitman said, adding that a similar incident took place that evening.
He said he confronted her the next morning about the incident and said he wasn’t comfortable with it.
He said that the behaviour continued when he got to New York and one time, after Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, Professor Ronell came to his apartment because her power had gone out.
He said she convinced him that they could sleep on his bed together, despite his objections, adding that she groped and kissed him each night for nearly a week.
Reitman shared emails where Professor Ronell wrote in June 2012:
“I woke up with a slight fever and sore throat. I will try very hard not to kiss you — until the throat situation receives security clearance. This is not an easy deferral!”
Another email, dated July, 2012 read: “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?”
Professor Ronell’s lawyer Mary Dorman said she (Ronell) “denies all allegations of sexual contact in their entirety” in a submission to the Title IX office.
Professor Ronell added that she stayed just two nights in Reitman’s house on his invitation after the hurricane.
Professor Ronell told the Title IX office that she didn’t know Reitman was uncomfortable until she read the investigators’ report.
New York Times reports that 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.”
Professor Ronell, in March 2018, said that Reitman had a penchant for “comparing me to the most egregious examples of predatory behaviours ascribable to Hollywood moguls who habitually go after starlets.”
Reitman however said that he complained about being uncomfortable but she resisted. He accused her of sending pro forma recommendations on his behalf, making him difficult for him to get jobs.
Title IX investigations later found out that her recommendation letters “were comparable to those for other former students”. Reitman also got two postgraduate fellowships.
An NYU spokesperson in a statement to New York Times said that the university was “sympathetic” to what Reitman has been through adding that “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.”
Following the university’s decision, friends and colleagues of Ronell, including “prominent feminists,” according to New York Times, wrote a letter to the university in her defence.
The draft letter was published on a philosophy blog in June, and it had the signature of Judith Butler, described as “one of the most influential feminist scholars today”
Although we have no access to the confidential dossier, we have all worked for many years in close proximity to Professor Ronell and accumulated collectively years of experience to support our view of her capacity as teacher and a scholar, but also as someone who has served as Chair of both the Departments of German and Comparative Literature at New York University. We have all seen her relationship with students, and some of us know the individual who has waged this malicious campaign against her.
We wish to communicate first in the clearest terms our profound an enduring admiration for Professor Ronell whose mentorship of students has been no less than remarkable over many years. We deplore the damage that this legal proceeding causes her, and seek to register in clear terms our objection to any judgment against her.
We hold that the allegations against her do not constitute actual evidence, but rather support the view that malicious intention has animated and sustained this legal nightmare.
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.