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The Perils of the Academic Star System


What we have here is a clear-cut case of sexual harassment:

In the Title IX final report, excerpts of which were obtained by The New York Times, Mr. Reitman said that she had sexually harassed him for three years, and shared dozens of emails in which she referred to him as “my most adored one,” “Sweet cuddly Baby,” “cock-er spaniel,” and “my astounding and beautiful Nimrod.”


The problems began, according to Mr. Reitman, in the spring of 2012, before he officially started school. Professor Ronell invited him to stay with her in Paris for a few days. The day he arrived, she asked him to read poetry to her in her bedroom while she took an afternoon nap, he said.

“That was already a red flag to me,” said Mr. Reitman. “But I also thought, O.K., you’re here. Better not make a scene.”

Then, he said, she pulled him into her bed.

“She put my hands onto her breasts, and was pressing herself — her buttocks — onto my crotch,” he said. “She was kissing me, kissing my hands, kissing my torso.” That evening, a similar scene played out again, he said.

He confronted her the next morning, he said.

“I said, look, what happened yesterday was not O.K. You’re my adviser,” he recalled in an interview.

When he got to New York, the behavior continued, he said, when after Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, Professor Ronell showed up at his apartment because her power had gone out. He said that, despite his objections, she convinced him that they could both sleep in his bed together. Once there, she groped and kissed him each night for nearly a week, he said.

The emails themselves establish seriously inappropriate action. Which makes this all the more revolting:

Soon after the university made its final, confidential determination this spring, a group of scholars from around the world, including prominent feminists, sent a letter to N.Y.U. in defense of Professor Ronell. Judith Butler, the author of the book “Gender Trouble” and one of the most influential feminist scholars today, was first on the list.

“Although we have no access to the confidential dossier, we have all worked for many years in close proximity to Professor Ronell,” the professors wrote in a draft letter posted on a philosophy blog in June. “We have all seen her relationship with students, and some of us know the individual who has waged this malicious campaign against her.”

Critics saw the letter, with its focus on the potential damage to Professor Ronell’s reputation and the force of her personality, as echoing past defenses of powerful men.

To state the obvious, to acknowledge that you “have no access to the confidential dossier” but then to state unequivocally that the claims of  graduate student against a very powerful academic are “malicious” and to “register in clear terms our objection to any judgment against her” is…not defensible:

Don’t worry, though — in a follow-up distancing himself from some of the more absurd premises of the letter (most obviously, that Ronnell’s accomplishments as an academic are material to the question of whether she harassed a student), Slavoj Žižek says that he has some TOP SEEKRIT evidence that proves her innocence. And, at any rate, he’s “a hard-line Lacanian Hegelian” so even when his arguments sound like more pompous re-writes of a Bari Weiss column rest assured that he is leftier than thou could ever fathom:

Avital was accused of harassment, and reactions to the letter focused on the question: how can we, the signatories, support her when we concede that we don’t know the details of the accusation against her? As one of our critics put it, her academic achievements are not an argument. After all, Harvey Weinstein also produced many good movies…

So why did I sign the letter? For a very simple reason: I DO know the details of the accusations against her, and I find them utterly ridiculous. How did I learn them? Not from Avital herself, of course: she all the time maintained a dignified silence. I was in New York (teaching at NYU) for 2 weeks in the period when the procedure in her case (interrogations of NYU personnel and students) reached its peak; many of those caught in this process, in shock and awe, talked to me privately and showed me some notes. Because of the complex legal situation and because of confidentiality (I was told and shown things on condition that I do not render them public), I am, of course, not in the position to say anything more.

The reason I am making this public statement is to make it clear that – contrary to the impression that one may get from the letter – nothing is stranger to me than the idea that Avital’s work and personality can be an argument against concrete accusations of harassment. To be brutally honest, Avital and I are not members of the same theoretical “gang”: she is a deconstructionist while I am a hard-line Lacanian Hegelian totally immersed in my topic; she is a feminist while I am very critical of the predominant version of US feminism. To be even more brutally honest, if the situation were to be the one described by the critics of the letter of support (the Politically-Correct feminist gang of “theorists” usually full of sympathy for a victim quickly closes ranks when one of them is suspected of harassment), I would gleefully take a good seat close to the arena and watch Avital’s downfall. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Since I know Avital personally, I must add another reason for my sympathy with her (which did not affect in any way my decision to sign the letter). In her dealing with colleagues and friends, Avital definitely is a type of her own: acerbic, ironic, shifting from funny remarks to precise perceptions of an injustice, mocking others in a friendly way… In short, she is a walking provocation for a stiff Politically Correct inhabitant of our academia, a ticking bomb just waiting to explode.

I won’t deny that he’s a bullshit artist.

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