Rehabilitating Ronell

The Chronicle of Higher Education has always had a decidedly progressive tilt, which is hardly surprising. After all, it’s about higher ed, and what could be more higher ed than social justice? But in the case of Avital Ronell and her sexual abuse of her student, it was harder to figure out on which side of your social justice toast to put the butter.*

On the one hand, you had a victim of sexual harassment, even if NYU managed by bury the more serious claim of sexual assault pretending that it wasn’t sufficiently proven even though the evidence was overwhelming compared to the evidence in cases involving lesser scholars. The victim was gay, so that was an extra point, but then, the abuser claimed to be a lesbian (not that it should matter, but Ronell raises it at every turn), even if Salon recounted when she wasn’t so lesbian and had an affair at 27 with the 16-year-old son of her mentor, Jacques Derrida.

On the other hand, you had a philosophy “superstar,” renowned throughout a certain segment of academia for whom coherence and logic were foreign concepts.** Backing Ronell means they get the appreciation of a wealth of “renowned” scholars. Reitman brings nothing other than the ugliness of what Ronell did. There are no friends to be made, no debts to be paid, by treating a star like Ronell poorly.

It’s unclear whether the Chronicle writer, Katherine Mangan, realizes what she’s done. She’s a writer, not a lawyer, so she may be inclined to an uncritical view of the information she’s being fed. Though even as a writer, her failure to source claims is revealing.

Ronell, a professor of German and comparative literature at New York University, believes that her writing is what ultimately did her in, causing her to be suspended for a year without pay after being found responsible for sexually harassing Reitman.

Has Ronell been “suspended for a year without pay”? Mangan’s link to prove it goes to Mangan’s unsourced claim in her own earlier post. Another, who appears to have some inside info [edit: per CHE, the writer is Lisa Duggan, a professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU ], says it’s with pay, so a paid vacation. Others don’t know because NYU has refused to release the sanctions it imposed. Yet Mangan is spreading what could be an outright lie, but if she says it twice, it magically becomes fact.

Similarly, she lavishly spreads Ronell’s claims.

It was, she said in an interview on Friday, a rush to judgment in an era when legitimate concerns about sexual harassment can veer off into “sexual paranoia.” Silenced until now by a confidentiality agreement with the university, she said she was tired of being portrayed as a predator when in fact, she insisted, there had been no inappropriate physical contact between herself and her doctoral advisee, and the communications he objected to were freely reciprocated.

Was Ronell silenced by a confidentiality agreement? Where’s the agreement? Was an eleven-month investigation, to which Ronell never registered a peep until after she was held responsible, after her cabal wrote the absurd threat letter, after she realized her star power wasn’t good enough to overcome the disgust of her conduct, a “rush to judgment”? If she now has an issue with NYU’s handling of her Title IX case, even though she never complained before, her remedy is to sue NYU. But she’s not suing NYU. She’s attacking her victim. She’s fabricating excuses for her abuse.

A journalist would have asked for the confidentiality agreement upon which Ronell relies. Mangan didn’t. A journalist would have challenged the “rush to judgment” claim, which conflicts with every known fact. Mangan didn’t. A journalist would have asked why, if she now complains the proceeding was unfair,*** she wasn’t suing NYU. Mangan didn’t. A journalist would have asked for evidence of the punishment imposed by NYU, the actual, official, notification of sanctions, before spreading a story that it was a suspension without pay, and then using the baseless claim to respread the story as if saying it once proved it the second time.

Mangan didn’t.

Instead, she wrote:

Reitman, now 34, never indicated that he felt oppressed by such talk, Ronell insisted, and freely doled out similar expressions of affection. Both Reitman and Ronell are gay, and playful and over-the-top banter is how she talks with her friends in Manhattan’s West Village, she said.

Except he not only “indicated,” but complained to a vice provost of her sexual assault years earlier while he was still a student as set forth in his complaint. And Ronell, in her press release, inexplicably notes that while he acquiesced to her demands that he only engage her with the “love talk” she demanded, he told others that she was a monster.

Yet, shortly thereafter, Reitman sent an email to Gregory Lennon (unknown to Ronell) dated July 20, 2013 stating: “Tomorrow, I see the monster.”

On further occasions, he wrote to others referring to Ronell as “witch”, “evil”, “psychotic”, “bitter old lady” and other derogatory terms, while simultaneously bubbling over with effusive affection in his communications with her.

Yet, none of this appears in Mangan’s post, even if Ronell’s grad student “publicist” thought this somehow served Ronell’s defense. The deconstruction of Mangan’s astoundling uncritical, and unjournalistic, CHE post, and Ronell’s self-serving press release, could go on and on, but you get the point.

This isn’t merely a case of a woman accused of sexually harassing, assaulting, stalking and retaliating against a man. This is about a superstar scholar and an unknown grad student whose future relied entirely upon her good will. Yet, she pretends to be his victim.****

And this is about how the Chronicle of Higher Education has uncritically regurgitated Ronell’s bizarre, baseless and belated claims because there is more benefit to be gained by backing the scholar with clout than the now-Ph.D. whom Ronell promised to make a star if he only let her have her way with him. This wasn’t two undergrads having a one-night drunken fling, but a predatory prof who used the threat of her academic “mafia” to abuse her student for years. Not that you would know it from the Chronicle of Higher Education. But then, that’s higher ed for you.

*I note, as I have in my previous posts about this matter, that I am dear friends with Reitman’s lawyer, Donald Kravet.

**This is, of course, my view of Ronell’s writing. Here’s an example of what she wrote for public consumption. You can draw your own conclusions, whether this is brilliant or gibberish.

***Ronell now contends that it was a “kangaroo court,” which isn’t necessarily an unfair assessment, even if her concern only arose when it involved her, a tenured star professor, not powerless male college sophomores.

During an 11-month Title IX investigation, “I was in a kangaroo court, and now I look completely like a caricature of predatory aggression, which is a joke to anyone who knows me,” Ronell said. In another day, “people would say, ‘That’s Avi. That’s how she talks.’”

Then again, NYU used a three-investigator model with Ronell, which was its norm, and allowed Ronell to offer as many witnesses as she desired as to “how she talks.” even though “I sexually harass everyone” isn’t really a strong defense. But then, that was the best spin she could manufacture on short notice, and the existence of her emails made denial an impossibility. Not that Mangan cared.

****In her press release, Ronell says:

He had chosen Ronell as a luminary in his field and was clearly exploiting her in that regard.

Rarely has a professor used the word “exploit” to characterize the function of education.

19 thoughts on “Rehabilitating Ronell

    1. SHG Post author

      I suspect they’ll butter it anywhere it best serves their purpose at any moment. Butter can be very slippery.

  1. Guitardave

    So what is it that makes posts like this a … ?
    What is it? I wish i could make a pertinent comment, but what is there to say? They’re both fucked. I think Mr. Reitman is correct in the accusations of her assholish behavior. But please, can you explain why, when he realized what kind of person she was, that he didn’t run far and fast? Personally, I just can’t wrap my head around why, after seeing who he was dealing with, why he stayed “in the game”? What was he thinking that would make him think staying “in the game” was worth it ? “Put up with her…it will get you somewhere”…sorry, but you get NO sympathy from me for that kind of mindset. Where the fuck is this guys integrity? Even though i think he’s right in the eyes of the law, why it went on for so long before the shit hit the fan just smears the whole thing into a power play…..and Mr. Rietman just looks like Mr.Sour grapes…his gambit of “just put up with her till i get what i want” didn’t play out, so, lets go public…..its bullshit and nobody really cares, and hence……NO COMMENTS (other than this) .
    There’s GOT to be better things to blog about than this pair of douchbags……and most of the time you do, so, well…..ya can’t win’em all.

    1. SHG Post author

      I agree with you, but academic types aren’t us. I wouldn’t have tolerated it. You wouldn’t have. But there is a culture within academia of “getting along so as not to make waves.” Reitman felt he had no option if he wanted to be an academic. If he went to war with Ronell, that would be the end of any hope of being an academic, and if he just suffered through it, he would get past it and achieve his goal. It didn’t work out well.

      1. Guitardave

        I understand. I have been in the “go along to get along” situation….just never with that kind of long game. I should know better than to write a post after the second glass of scotch…. 🙂

        1. SHG Post author

          My “friends” in the Academy despise my bluntness. They indulge in their moderated speech, where a lie is called “curious” and bullshit is called “interesting.” Why won’t I use their temperate rhetoric rather than my vulgar clarity? They truly hate me for it. I make them shudder. And worse, they avoid engaging with me because they can’t bear to have me call them liars just because they lie.

          This is their fantasy world, where never is heard a discouraging word. They’re in it for the long game.

    2. Ash

      I’m not saying I think it is, but your characterization of Reitman is what the SJs would label victim blaming.

      And yet, if Reitman never did tell her “no”, if all he ever did was write back mirroring the same tone, why wouldn’t he bear some responsibility? No strike that, because the answer to such a question could lead to “victim blaming” others.


      > Both Reitman and Ronell are gay, and playful and over-the-top banter is how she talks with her friends in Manhattan’s West Village, she said.

      That rings true, even for feminist lesbians who up until now would be shocked, shocked, shocked to hear that heterosexuals at work might use playful and over-the-top banter as well.

      1. SHG Post author

        If you read the complaint, you would see that Reitman told her no on numerous occasions. And in response, she told him she would destroy him unless he did was he was told. GDs question isn’t why he never said no, but why he didn’t end the insanity anyway. Whether that’s “victim blaming” or not is irrelevant. It’s a fair question based on the facts and allegations.

        As for “both Reitman and Ronell” being gay, is she? Or does she just say she is for tactical purposes? Are all gay people cartoon characters who talk “gay talk”?

        1. Ash

          About saying “no”, thanks. I appreciate the correction, and good for him.

          re: GDs question isn’t why he never said no, but why he didn’t end the insanity anyway. Whether that’s “victim blaming” or not is irrelevant. It’s a fair question based on the facts and allegations.

          Having never been a Ph.D student, and understanding sunk cost theory but always a bit stuck to sunk costs anyway, and having been in some truly shitty situations where it seemed the best thing to do was to muddle on, man up, and “embrace the suck” til I could get out, I’d say its inertia, and the difficulty and reputational problems of finding another advisor (think Lindsay Shepherd considering her career over until another Professor steps in to invite her in.)

          About whether she’s gay or not just because she had at least one other affair with a man, I think she may clearly be bi, and she may be milking the gay angle for her defense for all she can, and she may legitimately have changed in sexual preference over the years.

          1. Ash

            Just to add, not that it matters, I was personally placed (of my own free will) in a terribly abusive marriage, (mental if not physical abuse) that I finally fled from years too late. Why? Because of children. And even so, now, 15 years later, it’s not all that clear to me life has improved. In many ways its gotten even worse due to how the courts treat divorced fathers.

            So I can sympathize with a grad student afraid to ditch his advisor…

  2. xerxes arquebus

    I’m a physical scientist who is sometimes less sorry than he should be to see his colleagues in the humanities make complete asses of themselves. Butler and the other signatories go in the ass category too.
    But this time they’re making us look bad too, by association.

    1. SHG Post author

      This has been most revealing about what goes on within the secret chambers of the humanities, where diva scholars are untouchable and grad students are compelled to cater to their every whim or suffer their wrath. I’m frankly shocked by it, not because of the abuse of power as much as the indulgence that’s tolerated. I didn’t realize that supposedly intelligent adults behaved like spoiled brats, and others acquiesced in their “eccentricities.” So yeah, it makes everybody look bad. Very bad.

      1. B. McLeod

        If the description of her practice to only tolerate flirty happy talk is accurate, she’s basically a female Trump. It’s a staggering level of immaturity for someone who is supposed to be a top-flight university professor.

  3. MonitorsMost

    During the 12-month campaign, “I was in a witch hunt, and now I look like a caricature of a raving asshole, which is a joke to anyone who knows me,” Trump said. In another day, “people would say, ‘That’s Donald. That’s how he talks.’”

    My favorite part about these turned-around cases is how little self-awareness there seems to be about the public statements in defense.

    1. SHG Post author

      The arguments for and against are well worn. The only thing that changes is which side spews them, and that’s merely a matter of whose ox is being gored.

  4. joshua gilman

    I can’t get over the fact (Leiter report) that she already had been through a prior Title IX due to racial discrimination. And if Leiter’s source is reliable, she had been fired from NYU for this new offense until the 50 letters helped to reverse that judgment. I’m curious if these facts can ever be secured or if NYU does everything behind closed doors and with no written records.

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s in the complaint, which was posted here. As for the claim that was to be fired until the Butler threat letter, I’m unaware of any source for that other than the Ronell ally who said so. It’s highly unlikely that there will be any evidence to prove it.

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