“Reitman v. Ronell/N.Y.U.”

New York University has become the setting for a high-profile examination of hot button issues.

As Masha Gessen explains in The New Yorker, they include:

The special institution higher education is in the U.S.

What constitutes sexual harassment

Should allegations about sexual harassment be investigated internally

The nature of power, especially between advisors and those they advise, as it actually operates.

In addition, those issues could also receive an examination in a strictly legal context.

One of the parties in the events which triggered these questions has filed a lawsuit. He is Rimrod Reitman. The complaint is against his advisor Avital Ronell and New York University. Here is a copy of that lawsuit, filed August 16, 2018.

The backstory is complex. Ronell is an influential feminist as well as a literary scholar at N.Y.U. She is also a lesbian. Reitman had been her former doctoral student. He is gay. She is 66 years old. He 34.

As Gassen reports:

“Their relationship, as documented in numerous e-mails, was the subject of an eleven-month university investigation, which found the sexual harassment claims against Ronell credible and cleared her of more serious charges. N.Y.U. has suspended Ronell for a year without pay …”

The specifics of the story are almost cartoonish.

Why, in this era of hyper awareness of the abuse of power through sexual harassment did Ronell leave herself open to this kind of mess? For instance, during a hurricane when power went out in her housing she stayed with Reitman for days. What teacher bunks with a current student?

In addition, Reitman seems to have a theatrical bent. That even enters the rhetoric of his lawsuit. He also had the option of switching from having Ronell as an advisor.

Of course, the bottom line on all this is that for years now colleges and universities have banned romances between professors and students because of the unequal power. Why the heck wasn’t Ronell self-protective and made it her business to avoid even the appearance of an intimate relationship?

Already, this bizarre development at an elite university has received plenty of media attention. If the lawsuit is allowed to go to trial, it will become of great interest to the legal community. Meanwhile, N.Y.U. could be dragged through the mud.

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