The Malta Independent 8 December 2021, Wednesday

#MeToo – Rules for Thee, but not for Me

Jeremy Micallef Sunday, 28 October 2018, 08:00 Last update: about 4 years ago

Professor Avital Ronell, a New York University professor, philosopher and feminist who was recently suspended for sexually harassing a male student, is to speak on abandonment at a public lecture today at the National Library.

The European Graduate School, in collaboration with Valletta 2018 - European Capital of Culture, organized a month of lectures at the National Library for the month of October. The topics discussed in these lectures come from a variety of fields such as philosophy, the arts, and media.

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On 16 August, Nimrod Reitman, who was the victim and ex-student of Ronell's alleged advances, filed a lawsuit against the university and the professor for turning his dream of working with a world-class scholar "into more than three years of continuous and unabated sexual harassment, sexual assault and stalking".

This lead to a conversation in the progressive-feminist community as they tried to comprehend how it could be that a female in a position of authority could possibly abuse that power herself, in their world-view of intersectionality where women are above men on the matrix of domination/oppression. This was particularly delicate in the MeToo period, where certain individuals frequently overlooked the "innocent until proven guilty" ethic in these cases by resorting to the court of public opinion, usually using social media platforms as outlets for their accusations.

This case also led to a group of about 50 scholars and prominent feminists from around the world to send a letter to NYU defending their colleague. Three of these individuals were also invited to speak at the National Library - Manthia Diawara, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Judith Butler. More about this letter later on in the article, as this caused a controversy of its own.

Ronell v Reitman NYU Title IX Case

Reitman made the formal complaint last summer, two years after he graduated in 2015, which led to NYU opening an investigation into the claims made by the ex-student.

In the final report, obtained by The New York Times, dozens of emails were revealed in which Ronell referred to him as "my most adored one," "sweet cuddly baby," "cock-er spaniel," and "my astounding and beautiful Nimrod". He also accused her of kissing and touching him repeatedly, holding his hand, forcing herself into his bed, calling and emailing him nonstop, and refusing to work with him if he did not comply.

Reitman alleges that the harassment began when Ronell invited him to stay with her in Paris, before he had even moved to New York from Berlin to begin his studies. He says that she first asked him to read poetry to her while she took a nap, and then went on to pull him into her bed and kiss him, reacting angrily when Reitman reminded her that he was gay and in a relationship with someone else.

"She put my hands onto her breasts, and was pressing herself - her buttocks - onto my crotch," he said. "She was kissing me, kissing my hands, kissing my torso."

Ronell's lawyer submitted a response to NYU in which she denied any physical contact with Reitman, and that he had been free, and encouraged by department policy, to change advisers during his time at the university.

With regard to why Reitman waited so long to file a complaint, on page 26 of the lawsuit it states that another student had a filed Title IX complaint against Ronell for racial discrimination. Ronell allegedly "admitted to Reitman of having spread untruths about the complainant at other universities in an effort to sabotage the student's career. Ronell refused to give the complainant's name and instead referred to her as 'the skunk' to other students and faculty, and explicitly told Reitman and others (in Reitman's presence) that she would ruin the student's career for having reported her." (Ronell denies these allegations).

Although the Title IX report from NYU concluded that there was not enough evidence to find Ronell guilty of sexual assault due to lack of witnesses both in Paris and in Reitman's apartment, the email and text messages were sufficient evidence of inappropriate verbal contact.

Letter and fallout

As previously mentioned in this article, a group of about 50 scholars and prominent feminists from around the world had a letter they were planning to send to NYU in defence of their colleague leaked through a philosophy blog.

The letter was essentially 500 words of Ronell's achievements, and how "she be accorded the dignity rightly deserved by someone of her international standing and reputation".

The letter includes such lines as - "There is arguably no more important figure in literary studies at New York University than Avital Ronell whose intellectual power and fierce commitment to students and colleagues has established her as an exemplary intellectual and mentor throughout the academy. As you know, she is the Jacques Derrida Chair of Philosophy at the European Graduate School and she was recently given the award of Chevalier of Arts and Letters by the French government.

"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. If she were to be terminated or relieved of her duties, the injustice would be widely recognized and opposed."

Butler has since expressed regret about the letter, mainly for writing on limited information, attributing motive to Reitman, and implying that "Ronell's status and reputation earn her differential treatment of any kind".

Statement from European Graduate School

Answering questions made by this newspaper, Dean Christopher Fynsk stated: "EGS is of course quite aware of this case and has given its circumstances and implications all due consideration".

"Let me say simply that if you seek to be fair in your reporting and in your judgment of whether this famous professor should be allowed to speak in Malta, I would urge you to look closely at what is actually named "sexual harassment" in the judgment of NYU in this case."

Fynsk also said that "Professor Butler is greatly respected in Malta, and it would seem inappropriate to deny the residents of Malta the opportunity to hear this very distinguished speaker on the basis of this incident."

"I'm sure you will conclude it would not be appropriate to censor this speaker on the basis of that episode after her description of the circumstances, the actual statements, and her open acknowledgement of error."

A request for comment was also sent to the V-18 but no reply was received until day of writing.

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