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.