What Avital Ronell’s Statement Says — And Does Not Say

Nathaniel Stetson
Aug 20, 2018 · 14 min read

Those following the story of Dr. Nimrod Reitman and Professor Avital Ronell, may have seen and wondered at her recent statement. Reitman is a doctoral graduate from NYU who filed a Title IX complaint with the university and, later, a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment by Ronell, his advisor. Ronell is a prominent literary theorist at NYU, focusing on feminist and queer studies, psychoanalysis, and deconstruction. The statement is on what appears to be her blog, so it should not be taken as entirely formal, but as the only response she has offered it has generated a flurry of commentary. Applying legal analysis reveals that it is useful less for what it says than for what it fails to say and for the assumptions it reveals.

First, a few disclaimers: I have a JD, but I am not a lawyer (bar results pending). Nothing in this analysis should be relied on as legal advice or a legal conclusion. Please do not sue anyone because I think an argument in this statement does not hold up. I have not read the NYU Title IX Office report — it’s confidential. This analysis focuses on Professor Ronell’s statement published on theoryilluminati.com and the one New York Times article that that statement cites (with two references to Reitman’s complaint). These two documents do not paint a complete picture of the events at issue, but this statement is so far Ronell’s only public written response. Last, I am not an academic, but I have been surrounded by them for the past several years, especially literary theorists. I have also worked on university policy, structure, and governance. Statements about the academy are from the perspective of an informed semi-outsider.

Initially, readers should keep in mind that this statement is not under oath and may contain erroneous information. The statement does not distinguish claims based on Ronell’s personal knowledge from characterizations of the actions of others. In many cases, it is unclear on what basis these characterizations are made. For example, Ronell claims that “[t]he Title IX investigators then conjectured based solely on these emails, that unwanted non-sexual physical contact may have occurred” [sic & throughout], but provides no evidence that the Title IX investigation based its “conjecture” solely on the emails in question. Ronell also offers little evidence to corroborate the claims based on her own knowledge, which should not be surprising in a preliminary statement like this but is worth keeping in mind.

The statement is rhetorically disorganized enough that proceeding paragraph by paragraph seemed the only way to address its claims. There is a summary at the end; the main claims are that there was no sexual contact between Ronell and Reitman whatsoever, that neither Reitman nor anyone else has ever complained about Ronell before, and that Reitman is a manipulative liar seeking revenge for a bad job outcome.

“the first and only such allegations made against Ronell during her forty year career as an educator”

Certainly, if Ronell had a history of students or others making sexual misconduct allegations about her, it would be suggestive in this case. And in fact, Reitman’s complaint alleges that a student previously did file a Title IX complaint against Ronell — and faced harsh retaliation. But every harasser or abuser who is uncovered, no matter how many acts they have committed, can say as much when caught the first time. This is a logical fallacy frequently employed, not just by those accused of sexual misconduct, but by those accused of anything.

“The Title IX investigation took place over eleven months, during which Ronell had no opportunity to confront, question, or cross-examine Reitman regarding his allegations.”

This is disturbing, if true. Ronell — either in person or through a representative (not necessarily a lawyer) — should have had the chance to confront Reitman regarding the evidence against her and present any exculpatory evidence. Most Title IX offices explicitly enshrine that right in their procedural guidelines; it mirrors the Constitutional requirements (not applicable to a private university) of due process. However, if Ronell means that she did not personally get to sit down and grill Reitman face-to-face, that kind of confrontation is not guaranteed by Title IX. In the context of sexual misconduct cases, it would be particularly ill-advised to guarantee it.

“The media has nonetheless pounced on Reitman’s unsustained and unproven allegations as if they were fact, completely ignoring that the investigation found them to be not credible.”

The linked article is the New York Times story, which meticulously distinguishes the one charge on which Ronell was found responsible from the others on which the Title IX office did not find evidence of responsibility. It does not ignore the office’s findings in any way. Furthermore, the allegations are certainly not “unsustained.” (Perhaps the professor meant “unsustainable” or “unsupported”?) Reitman has sustained the allegations up to and including filing a lawsuit. The factual allegations in his complaint are necessarily given under oath.

“Reitman alleged that while staying with Ronell during his visit to Paris in May, 2012, he was the subject of repeated and unwanted sexual contact. Shortly after this stay, Reitman gave her a gift of a book by André Gide, a renowned gay writer. His inscription reads: ‘For my most wonderful Avital, indeed we would always have Paris for yet another aspect of our own private musical “Grapheme” — tenderly — always — ever — Nimrod Paris 12.5.12.’
Two years later, in 2014, Reitman also emailed her about his beautiful memories of their time in Paris together: ‘Sending tender love and kisses, I too remember and reminded of our beautiful scenery in Paris — vivid and always occurring I send you music, love, and kisses.’ (11/21/2014).
This email is flatly inconsistent with his claim of sexual contact.”

This claim is difficult to understand. An email that read “I fondly remember those evenings, on none of which we had any sexual physical contact” might be said to be “flatly inconsistent” with claims of sexual contact. One that states “we would always have Paris,” let along for “an… aspect of our own private musical,” sends a rather different message. So do the tenderness and the kisses. Elsewhere, she refers to him as her “cock-er spaniel.”

“Reitman alleged further sexual contact in October 2012, when he insisted that Ronell stay with him for two days during Hurricane Sandy, while her apartment was without power or water. The Report found his allegations unproven and, by definition, not credible.”

An allegation that is not proven is different from one that is not credible. In the legal world, the credibility of an allegation (as opposed to that of a witness) is generally not discussed, as the term is confusing and redundant. What reports like this one mean is that Reitman did not provide enough evidence to meet his burden of proof on the issue of sexual contact on that occasion. Presumably he did provide enough evidence for them to consider the claim at all.

“Reitman also submitted ‘medical records’ to the Title IX investigators in an attempt to corroborate his claims. These were incomplete, unilaterally redacted by him and, bizarrely, some records were in his own handwriting. The investigators found the medical records of ‘questionable reliability,’ calling the truth of his allegations into serious question.”

Reitman’s reason for providing these records is not given, but possibly he was providing them to show his psychological reaction to the alleged misconduct, including possible physiological symptoms. It is not surprising that Reitman would choose to redact his medical records to protect his privacy, allowing the Title IX office to judge him on what he did submit. Nor is it surprising that such records would be in his handwriting, if, for example, he was keeping a symptom journal. However, we don’t know what the records were, as they are confidential along with the rest of the report.

“Reitman’s allegations of retaliation against Ronell — — that she negatively impacted his professional career since his graduation from NYU in the spring of 2015 by actively thwarting his job prospects — — were also determined to be unfounded. Reitman had never made a complaint, so there was nothing for Ronell to retaliate against. Further, Reitman admitted that Ronell actually helped him secure two post-graduate positions.”

The lack of a formal complaint does not mean that Ronell had “nothing… to retaliate against.” In the NYT article linked above, Reitman claims that he told Ronell he was uncomfortable with their first interaction in Paris, after he had been accepted as her student but before the term began. Ronell might have retaliated against him on the basis of that alone. Furthermore, as described below, Reitman expressed displeasure with Ronell to friends and colleagues. Anyone familiar with the virulence of gossip in the academy can predict how long it might have taken Ronell to pick up on that displeasure. The implication, that there must be a formal complaint to the Title IX office in order for there to be something to retaliate against, is indefensible.

“The Title IX Report found that in her emails to Reitman, Ronell used pet names and made statements of an intimate nature, which they determined to be unwanted by Reitman, and were violative of NYU’s sexual harassment policies. However, these emails were written in a particularly non-sexual context, and an even cursory review of Reitman’s emails to Ronell show that if he was not initiating, then he was at least encouraging the type of language he later claimed constituted harassment. Ronell, a lesbian, describes the correspondence between herself and Reitman, who is gay, as largely gay-coded, with literary allusions, poetic runs and obviously exaggerated expressions of tenderness that were often initiated and returned by Reitman. Her emails to him contain nothing of a sexual nature….”

Nothing in this statement or in the NYT article remotely supports the claim that Ronell’s emails were written in “a particularly non-sexual context.” An observer with no knowledge of their relationship or orientations, reading these emails, would likely assume they were in a sexual relationship. This does not mean that sexual contact necessarily happened — people, especially literary theorists, may employ the word “intimate” differently from other communities — but the lack of any evidence to support the claim that their interactions were “particularly non-sexual” is noteworthy. Nor is it impossible for a lesbian woman to sexually harass a gay man. We all know, for example, that straight men sexually harass gay men in whom they have no interest (see every locker room ever). Similarly, straight women obviously can and do sexually harass gay men and lesbian women, and gay men harass straight and lesbian women. The idea that there must be attraction going one or both ways for there to be sexual harassment egregiously misunderstands what sexual harassment is.

“Almost all of the emails from Reitman included a request to review and edit his writings. He had chosen Ronell as a luminary in his field and was clearly exploiting her in that regard. Indeed, in his acknowledgments section of his (unpublished) thesis he wrote: ‘I thank Avital’s teaching, careful reading, sensitive support…and her unremitting listening to all my whims.’ (10/15/2015).”

Here we come to the heart of the matter. It is an obvious if transparent stratagem to portray the graduate student desperate for any chance in the brutal humanities tenure-track job market as the exploiter, and the established, tenured professor 30 years his senior as easily manipulated with honeyed words. However, requests from a graduate student that their advisor review and edit their writing are not so much exploitation as a request that the advisor — their mentor and boss in one — do the job they signed up for. Many a graduate student’s dreams have foundered on the rocks of an absentee advisor, even — or especially — when that advisor takes an undue interest in the personal aspects of the advising relationship.

This relationship offers another explanation for Reitman’s reciprocation of Ronell’s flowery language and “tender” “kisses”: without her goodwill and support, almost 30 years of school and dedicated research would go down the drain. He was terrified of upsetting her by pushing back on her treatment of him, but still wanted to protect himself from her stalking and abuse. This second explanation may not ultimately prove to be the true one, but it is certainly consistent with the facts presented.

“Ronell had no reason to believe that any of her correspondence with Reitman was objectionable. He persistently wrote to her with expressions of ‘love and infinite gratitude,’ exalting her intellectual powers and she lobbed back similar appreciations. These mutual emails, devoid of any sexual language or context whatsoever, provide the sole basis for the Title IX findings. This alone should be cause for concern.”

According to Reitman (see the NYT article), Ronell had many reasons to believe that her conduct was objectionable. Again, Ronell presents no evidence for this claim, nor for the claim that the emails provide the sole basis for the findings. And, once again, to describe an email saying “Sweet beloved, I was so happy to see you tonight, and spend time together” and calling their “shared intimacy” a “glorious cadence” (his words) or “I will try very hard not to kiss you — until the throat situation receives security clearance. This is not an easy deferral!” (her words) “devoid of any sexual language or contact whatsoever” is quite the stretch. The one external reference I will make is to Reitman’s legal complaint, in which he provides excerpts from emails in which Ronell told him quite clearly to reciprocate her language (linked at end). Coming from his boss and the sole dictator of his career prospects, this demand may have felt impossible to disobey.

“Witnesses with personal knowledge of Reitman and Ronell (including colleagues, students and co-workers of the relatively small NYU Department of German), and of their academic and public appearances, uniformly and categorically refuted any indication or observation of any untoward sexual or harassing conduct between them. On the contrary, many witnesses relate conversations with Reitman in which he praised Ronell and who testified to his pursuit of her time and attention.”

In general, people do not commit sexual misconduct in front of their colleagues. The spate of corroborated sexual misconduct claims against professors and Hollywood figures shows that colleagues, peers, and close family and friends are often ignorant of the misdeeds committed by those with every reason to keep them secret. This behavior is not for public consumption.

“The type of language Ronell used in her emails to Reitman is no different from the language that she used with many others and that Reitman used with her, to which there was no sexual context whatsoever. Reitman saw in this use of language an opportunity to manipulate Ronell by adopting and encouraging a tone between them while simultaneously denouncing her in starkly vicious terms to others.”

Yet again, this language is not non-sexual to the casual observer. Nor is it relevant that Ronell used the same language with other students. Maybe it is a harmless eccentricity of her communication style; maybe she harasses those “many others” as well. And yet again there is talk of Reitman manipulating Ronell, but given the power dynamic implicit in the graduate advising relationship, the burden is surely on Ronell to show some kind of evidence that any manipulation did not run the other way.

“… 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. This duplicity undermines his claim to have been sexually harassed by her.”

This is yet another difficult claim to understand. What duplicity does Ronell allege? That Reitman had a different opinion of her than the one he shared with her? How is that duplicitous? Everyone talks nice to their boss. And how does this behavior “undermine… his claim to have been sexually harassed”? It does not reflect one way or the other on his credibility or on any of the facts underlying the alleged harassment. And victims of harassment, sexual or otherwise, very frequently attempt to protect themselves by minimizing conflict with the harasser. Trusted friends will obviously hear a different perspective.

“Further undermining his claims, is that Reitman, over a period of three and one-half years, never once complained to anyone at NYU about Ronell’s alleged harassment. Nonetheless, Reitman stated to the Title IX investigators that he had complained to the Chair of the German Department and the administrative assistant in the Department, but they each denied such complaints.”

This actually does bear on Reitman’s credibility. If Ronell can show that he did not, in fact, complain to the people mentioned, that would be an indicator of willingness to lie. It would not discredit him entirely, but it would be quite relevant. Of course, the alternative explanation is that the Chair and administrative assistant in the German Department did not take his complaint seriously and are now avoiding embarrassment for themselves and the university by claiming it never happened. Or Ronell’s longtime friend and colleague is covering for her, and the assistant is following the boss’ lead. Hopefully more evidence will be revealed.

“Reitman never availed himself of NYU’s well-publicized procedures for complaints of sexual harassment, crafted to allay such conduct and shield complainants from retaliation. Reitman, who claimed to be the subject of almost “daily” acts of sexual harassment and unwanted physical contact by Ronell, failed to make a single complaint until August 2017 — — two years after he secured his doctoral degree and only then, when he was unable to secure a tenure- track position.”

It is stressful for victims to use even the best-designed and most compassionate reporting system, and Reitman’s delay in coming forward does not bear on his credibility. Especially not as he seems to have waited until Ronell’s ability to further harm his career had mostly ended — not an unreasonable motivation, if that was his thinking.

To summarize: Ronell claims repeatedly that there was nothing sexual at all about the emails between her and Reitman. This may in fact be true, but it is contrary to the only evidence presented, namely, quotes from the emails. They all read as fairly sexual, at least to this straight non-literary-theorist reader, and my past few years immersed among effusively affectionate queer lit students only backs up that perception. Having read others’ writing, including first-hand accounts from former students in the department, I do believe that her actions were motivated primarily by power and emotional control rather than sexual attraction. Nonetheless, their communications were sexually charged. If in fact Ronell was harassing Reitman, that harassment had a sexual component.

Ronell also claims that Reitman is “duplicitous” and was manipulating her. One piece of evidence is provided for the former claim, as well as several that do not hold up to even casual scrutiny, and none at all for the latter. Ronell claims that she must be innocent because no colleagues knew of misbehavior; this is an illogical assertion. Ignoring the immense and one-sided power dynamic inherent in the advising relationship requires willful blindness.

In short, while this statement may conceivably be accurate, there is almost no way to meaningfully evaluate its claims. It is conclusory and takes for granted the accuracy of its circular arguments. It offers only one assertion that is relevant to determining the truth of Reitman’s credibility or of what happened between him and Ronell. As a piece of persuasive writing, it is woefully lacking.

Readers should not draw many conclusions from it, but might consider the following: First, Ronell has or claims to have an anomalous idea of what constitutes “sexual” conduct or language. She claims that Reitman shares that view and has provided evidence (his language in response); external evidence suggests otherwise. Second, Ronell does not seem to understand what actually implicates someone’s credibility as a sexual misconduct reporter, which would not be surprising were she not a theorist. Third, Ronell — a tenured professor and something of a star — claims to have been manipulated by her decades-younger, professionally precarious graduate student over whom she had almost complete academic and professional control that she extended into the personal. Again, for someone who studies systems of power, this is a dubious claim.

For context missing from this statement, readers should most definitely see Reitman’s complaint and the account of a former student in the department, as well as a whole lot of commentary.

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