The troubling story of NYU professor Avital Ronell has been covered extensively by Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice; Brian Leiter has also broken several items on his blog, including the scholars’ letter on her behalf. A long article in The New York Times and a very sympathetic account in the Chronicle brought the matter to a wider audience. Ronell, 66, is a self-described queer professor accused of sexually assaulting and harassing former student Nimrod Reitman, now 34.
It’s hard not to see a theme of hypocrisy in analyzing the Ronell affair. The first and most obvious example, of course, comes from Ronell’s scholarly defenders. The original letter sent in her defense came from prominent feminist and left-wing scholars—who pronounced her innocence (“allegations against her do not constitute actual evidence”), even as the signatories admitted they had no access to the investigative file in the case. (For good measure, the letter also attacked the character of Ronell’s accuser.)
There’s certainly good reason to worry about the fairness of Title IX proceedings in general, though no evidence exists that any of these signatories had expressed any concerns along these lines before. The basic argument appeared to be that one set of rules should exist for powerful feminist professors and another for accused students.
Once the case went public, Ronell herself appeared to endorse her backers’ pleading for special treatment; she told the Chronicle that the publicity in her case “allows for patriarchy to say, ‘See, there’s a predator woman — they have libidos, too — so now leave us alone so we can go around and have our encounters with 18-year-old girls.” Accusers’ rights activist Dana Bolger seemed to recognize how damaging this line of defense could be for her broader agenda, and attempted to distance herself from it in a tweet-thread. Yet Bolger—in contrast to her general approach when the accused is an undergraduate student—was hardly brimming with outrage on behalf of Ronell’s accuser, either.
Second, Ronell told The Times that she was the victim of a kangaroo court because she couldn’t cross-examine her accuser. The whole affair, she added to the Chronicle, constituted a rush to judgment. One of her supporters, NYU professor Lisa Duggan, claimed that “similarly accused male faculty” received better treatment.
Title IX tribunals certainly can be—indeed, usually are—kangaroo courts. Yet the striking thing from the Ronell affair—based on the information conveyed in The Times article and in the accuser’s lawsuit—is how Ronell, not her accuser, appeared to receive special treatment from NYU. On the most serious allegation, sexual assault, it was Ronell, not her accuser, who received the benefit of the doubt. Duggan’s claim is particularly risible—the comparison between Ronell’s case and that of Northwestern professor Peter Ludlow reveals one procedure (NYU’s) that seemed desperate to credit the accused professor and another (Northwestern’s) that seemed desperate to undermine the accused professor—even though Ludlow presented reams of exculpatory evidence.
Finally, it was hard not to be troubled by a long Chronicle of Higher Education article whose spine was an interview with Ronell. This was a reported piece, not a Ronell op-ed—yet multiple claims by Ronell were accepted as fact. For instance, readers learned that Ronell was hampered by a “confidentiality agreement” she had signed with NYU. Who drafted this agreement? What were its terms? When did it expire? If it existed, why was there evidence— in the form of a letter highlighted by Brian Leiter six weeks before the Chronicle article appeared—that Ronell had violated it?
The article also claimed—citing Ronell—that her accuser’s family welcomed the attention that she showered on him. Yet there was nothing in the article suggesting the family was asked for comment. The Chronicle also asserted that NYU suspended Ronell for a year without pay. Again, the Chronicle appears to have taken Ronell at her word.
Perhaps there was a confidentiality agreement. And perhaps the professor who said she learned about the case from Ronell lied. And perhaps the accuser’s family was happy with how Ronell treated him. And perhaps Ronell was suspended without pay. But evidence for all of those assertions seems murky right now, and Ronell received the type of deference that the mainstream media rarely grants students accused of sexual assault, who faced far more egregious procedures than those faced by Ronell.