Prof. Avital Ronell And The Lie of The Feminist Academy

When law and philosophy prof Brian Leiter revealed academic and feminist superstar Judith Butler’s disgraceful and flagrantly hypocritical letter defending her sister superstar, NYU prof Avital Ronell, I was ready to pull the trigger. I have a post, dated June 13, 2018, fully written, but never published. I knew something Leiter didn’t.

At the time the Butler letter was sent around for signatures, threatening NYU with the wrath of scholars if Ronell wasn’t exonerated, the university had already found Ronell responsible. The only remaining question was what to do about it, one of the university’s brightest academic lights had sexually harassed a gay male student under her care.

This wasn’t one of the faux Title IX cases of post-hoc regret, but the real deal. Ronell was grad student Nimrod Reitman’s doctoral adviser. He came to NYU because of her, to study under her. And from the start of his graduate studies, she turned him into her boy toy upon the implicit threat of destroying his career. And it continued throughout his graduate studies, as proven by Ronell’s emails.

Professor Avital Ronell used her academic power over Reitman to coerce him to be her sexual plaything for years, or else.* And the feminist academy, via Judith Butler and myriad other signatories to a letter, demand that NYU lay off Ronell, or else. And it’s incredible to believe that the finding of responsibility wasn’t the impetus for the threat letter. Yet, these scholars sought to coerce a university into silence and impotence to conceal Ronell’s conduct.

The New York Times has the story, so there’s nothing to hold me back now.

“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.

“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,” the professors wrote.

What’s wasn’t known at the time Leiter posted the letter was that Ronell “guilt” was already found. Ronell certainly knew it, although NYU never publicly announced its findings, and then this letter, maligning the victim, extolling the irrelevant virtues of the abuser and threatening the school, appeared. It was worse than Leiter imagined. It didn’t just seek to influence the outcome, but to challenge NYU to bury Ronell’s actions or become an academic pariah. It was an extortion letter and it’s inconceivable that its authors and signatories, and Ronell, didn’t realize it.

So why didn’t I post about this at the time Leitner revealed the letter? Reitman’s lawyer, Donald Kravet, is my oldest and dearest friend. He was the best man at my wedding. I was the best man at his. He had consulted with me about the case well before this happened. When Leiter blew the lid off the letter, he ultimately decided that it wasn’t in his client’s interest to go public with the fact that Ronell had already been held responsible.** So I bit my tongue. Confidences are what lawyers keep.

So now it’s out, and how do Ronell’s cronies defend her harassment of her academic advisee?

Diane Davis, chair of the department of rhetoric at the University of Texas-Austin, who also signed the letter to the university supporting Professor Ronell, said she and her colleagues were particularly disturbed that, as they saw it, Mr. Reitman was using Title IX, a feminist tool, to take down a feminist.

In the minds of purported feminists, Title IX is no law protecting against sex discrimination in academia, but a “feminist tool.”

“I am of course very supportive of what Title IX and the #MeToo movement are trying to do, of their efforts to confront and to prevent abuses, for which they also seek some sort of justice,” Professor Davis wrote in an email. “But it’s for that very reason that it’s so disappointing when this incredible energy for justice is twisted and turned against itself, which is what many of us believe is happening in this case.”

For those who claim the mantle of “justice,” it’s justice for them, not for anyone else. When one of their own gets caught dirty, it’s justice “twisted and turned against itself,” for justice is what these feminists want from others, not what they do to others.

Professor Avital Ronell has been suspended for one year by NYU, likely a deeply considered ploy by the university to impose a punishment significant enough to create the appearance of seriousness without invoking the wrath of feminist academia on behalf of their beloved friend, colleague and sexual abuser.

Had this been a male professor, even a superstar, who sexually abused a female student under his care, he would have been immediately fired and his career obliterated to the deafening cheers of feminist academia. But then, this isn’t about preventing sexual abuse by scholars of their students, but a feminist tool.

Forget the jargonized rhetoric about power dynamics and oppression. To these feminist scholars, Title IX is just a bludgeon to beat men into submission, and they fought to protect one of their own from facing the consequences of her sexual abuse. And largely succeeded.

*Reitman filed his Title IX complaint against Ronell two years after he received his Ph.D., after he refused Ronell’s advances and she punished him with “pro forma recommendations,” the kiss of death in academia.

**To be clear, there were two prongs to the accusations. The first was sexual harassment, which was undeniable based on documentary evidence, the emails. The second was Ronell’s sexual assault on Reitman, to which he testified in detail and was corroborated by the emails. NYU split the baby, preferring not to “believe the victim” as if it was merely a “he said/she said” situation despite the corroboration by delightful emails such as:

“I woke up with a slight fever and sore throat,” she wrote in an email on June 16, 2012, after the Paris trip. “I will try very hard not to kiss you — until the throat situation receives security clearance. This is not an easy deferral!” In July, she wrote a short email to him: “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?”

And yet, NYU found this inadequate.

The Title IX report concluded that there was not enough evidence to find Professor Ronell responsible for sexual assault, partly because no one else observed the interactions in his apartment or her room in Paris.

48 thoughts on “Prof. Avital Ronell And The Lie of The Feminist Academy

  1. Lee

    “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” G. Orwell

    And here all these years, I thought the double standard was something only employed by men against women.

  2. Scott Jacobs

    I suspect NYU doesn’t hold to the requirement of a witness when it’s a guy that is accused…

    1. Vader

      Right. The right decision, in the absence of witnesses or corroboration, is to dismiss the charge of rape. My beef is that that has often not happened when the accused was male.

  3. kemn

    One years suspension? Wow. I wonder how long it took them squirming to justify even that much.

    “Feminist tool”. They’re all tools.

      1. SHG Post author

        An excellent question. NYU refused to tell Reitman’s lawyer what sanction was imposed, though it told the NYT that it was a 1 year suspension, but he has no idea whether it’s with or without pay. It could be a 1 year paid sabbatical for all anyone knows.

  4. Susan MCcG

    From my understanding the Paris trip happened before he was enrolled at NYU- maybe that’s why NYU discounted it? NYT: “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. ”
    So much bizarre and inappropriate stuff, but a factual thing I don’t understand is how he visited her in Paris before he was officially a student–did they some connection in common?

    1. SHG Post author

      The trip was after he was accepted to the program and Ronell was assigned as his advisor, but before school began. It’s all in the Times article.

  5. curmudgeoninchief

    “Forget the jargonized rhetoric about power dynamics and oppression. To these feminist scholars, Title IX is just a bludgeon to beat men into submission, and they fought to protect one of their own from facing the consequences of her sexual abuse. And largely succeeded.”

    Yep. Best one-paragraph summary of the whole case. That’s Title IX, as presently interpreted, in a nutshell.

  6. N. Freed

    Having spent ~10 years in academe as support staff/mathprof, I found two aphorisms about that world to be particularly relevant:

    (1) The fights are so vicious because the stakes are so low.
    (2) The definition of an academic colleague is someone who stabs you in the front.

    1. Alessandra

      (2) The definition of an academic colleague is someone who stabs you in the front.


  7. xerxes arquebus

    If the letter didn’t exist it would be hard to believe that Butler et al. could have been so stupid as to explicitly, and in writing, accuse Reitman of malice.
    They have found the triple point (in the language of phase transitions) where arrogance, entitlement and a fixed belief in one’s own ineffable moral and intellectual rightness all coincide.

      1. B. McLeod

        In Ronell’s Wiki profile, the list of fields to which she contributes ends with, “and ethics.”

  8. MRB

    I feel like we should see some of Reitman’s e-mails in response?

    While I agree with the thesis here – obviously these other feminists rallying to support Ronnell are showing their ass and their bankrupt theology about #metoo and sexual assault, that’s true regardless of the truth between Ronnell and Reitman… but while those e-mails seem to be Slam Dunk evidence, context remains important.

    1. KDub

      Unless the emails from Reitman to Ronnell are of the “please send me the most inappropriate email you can imagine; I’m just asking for a friend!” sort, I cannot imagine that anything in them would exonerate Ronnell. This is a classic “good for the goose, but NOT for the gander” situation. Reitman is a “rockstar” in the words of her colleagues; Reitman was a lowly first year grad student. She was the one with all the power. She even claims that his motivation for the suit is that he was simply not smart enough to cut it in academia! (Why she would be coddling such an inferior intellect, and showering him with affection, is left unanswered.) The fact that she thinks it inconceivable that she be compared to the predatory men of recent notoriety is telling: because of her politics/social status, she views herself as immune from any moral hazard in using her position of power.

      1. gush

        Seems to be is that in truth she preyed on him for no other reason than the ease of it.
        But the ease of it was for no other reason than he having something to gain from it.
        Or more precisely, if not for feminist bastardization of the word rape/sexual assault this would not be anyone else’s problem. But for the sake of fairness it’s made into one.

        1. SHG Post author

          Doesn’t every student “exploit” grad school (including his mentor) to gain an education and whatever benefits accrue with it? If there was no benefit, no one would get a Ph.D. But even the feminist bastardization of rape/sexual assault wouldn’t change the claims as to physical sexual contact alleged in the complaint. That would constitute sexual assault by legal definition.

          1. Esteban Cafe

            What’s Curious, but unsaid, is that the student is apparently full on gay; to what extent could she derive from him any sexual favors?

            1. B. McLeod

              Diabolical cleverness on her part. He could not realize how unattractive she is, as to him, all women are unattractive.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s anticipated that suit will be filed Friday, but under state law causes of action rather than Title IX.

      1. xerxes arquebus

        IANAL so this query will certainly reflect ignorance: might Ronell face criminal charges?

  9. jonas johns

    Check out this youtube video (starting at 2:40) in which former student and colleague Prof. Baer introduces Ronell confessing that he was over at her apartment as a freshman to the laughter of the audience. He tries to amend the statement by saying that while he was a freshman, he was already a bit older and not 18. Again more laughter at Deutsches Haus, NYU where everyone knew Ronell and chose to look away from her commonly know behavior.

    1. B. McLeod

      This could really undermine her “lesbian” credentials, and she’ll be hounded like the “Batwoman” actress who is apparently suspected by some of sailing under false colors.

      1. SHG Post author

        There’s a new story at Salon (of all places) detailing an affair Ronell had when she was 27 with the 16 years old son of Jacques Derrida, a famous philosopher. So she may now claim to be a lesbian, but she wasn’t then. And as we know, that doesn’t change.

          1. SHG Post author

            My wife asked me to take out the garbage last night. I informed her that I now identify as gender fluid. She gave me the stink eye.

  10. Quixote

    Those who signed the threat letter defending Professor Ronell include NYU dean emeritus Catharine Stimpson, who is also known for her testimony on behalf of another colleague of hers at the “criminal impersonation” trial of Raphael Golb. The argument there was similar: the notorious allegations of misconduct against the NYU faculty member who was Golb’s principle “victim” didn’t need to be investigated, because the academic in question had denied the allegations and (as another dean testified) had a “reputation for honesty.” Judge a scholar by his reputation, not by his actions or the actual quality of his work. It would thus appear that, according to Dean Stimpson and many of her postmodernist collaborators, drawing attention to allegations of misconduct through the use of inappropriate irony, sarcasm, mimicry and parody is a criminal transgression punishable by jail, but Professor Ronell’s “norm-breaking” conduct is just fine.

  11. Anonymous

    There has been an over supply of PhDs for decades. I don’t know why people bother especially when they have to put up with this kind of nonsense.

    1. SHG Post author

      Anonymous? Are you hiding from the Mossad or suffer from complete lack of imagination. As for your comment, who cares?

  12. Pingback: Feminists Demand Fair Trials

  13. wutom

    Diane Davis, the numbskull “Chair of Department of Rhetoric” at UT-Austin is a well-known groupie of “Rock Star Theorists”. A product of entirely forgettable commuter schools, she’s managed to claw her way to this position by relentless self-promotion and posturing. I hope she’s recognized by more for the fraud “tool” she is.

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