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Avital Ronell.
Avital Ronell.

New York University Students Protest Return of Professor Accused of Sexual Harassment

When the influential feminist scholar Avital Ronell, a New York University (NYU) professor of comparative literature and German, was found responsible for sexually harassing her doctoral advisee following an eleven-month Title IX investigation in August 2018, she was suspended without pay from the university for the 2018–19 academic year. Since then, more than 250 undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff members, and alumni have signed a petition that opposes Ronell’s return to campus. 

Published by the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC-UAW Local 2110) and the activist group NYUtoo, the document calls for the termination of Ronell’s employment and for institutional reform. “NYU’s decision to continue Ronell’s employment constitutes an attack on survivors of sexual abuse and contributes to a hostile learning and working environment,” the petition reads. “The university already tacitly acknowledges this in making it a condition of Ronell’s return that her future meetings with students be supervised. Moreover, Ronell’s behavior is not isolated to this particular instance, but is part of a long-standing pattern of intimidation and misconduct, as testified by other students and faculty.”

The statement also criticizes the university’s handling of the case and its silence following a “disinformation campaign against Ronell’s accuser in which many prominent scholars, including NYU professors, signed a letter defending Ronell solely based on her scholarly reputation and slandered her accuser’s claims as being motivated by malicious intent. This letter and NYU’s failure to respond to it further highlight the power imbalance between advisors and graduate students, and the barriers that prevent reporting instances of misconduct and being taken seriously.”

Addressed to NYU president Andrew Hamilton, the letter roiled academia further as it became an example for many of the reputation defense. “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,” the professors wrote. Among the signatories of the letter were academics from institutions across the globe, including Barnard College, Brown University, Northwestern University, the University of Strasbourg, and the University of Applied Arts Vienna.

Allegations against Ronell first surfaced when Nimrod Reitman filed a complaint two years after graduating from NYU with his doctorate in 2015. He claims that the abuse began in 2012, before he was even a student at the school, where Ronell has taught for more than two decades. According to a fifty-six-page lawsuit, Reitman alleged that Ronell “asserted complete domination and control over his life” and “subjected [him] to sexual harassment, sexual assault, and stalking.”

Ronell has consistently denied the accusations. She told the New York Times: “Our communications—which Reitman now claims constituted sexual harassment—were between two adults, a gay man and a queer woman, who share an Israeli heritage, as well as a penchant for florid and campy communications arising from our common academic backgrounds and sensibilities. These communications were repeatedly invited, responded to and encouraged by him over a period of three years.”

NYU and Ronell did not respond to Artforum’s request for comment before publication. 

[Update: September 5, 2:44 PM] 

NYU has provided Artforum with the lettter it sent to the graduate student union, GSOC-UAW Local 2110, in response to the petition. It is published in full below: 

Dear GSOC,

Like you, the University believes that the learning environment should be free from harassment, discrimination, and abuse. And we take seriously the issues that you have raised in your letter.

That said, your letter overlooks a number of important steps taken by NYU. For reasons of privacy, it is the University’s practice not to discuss the details of personnel matters (this is true in the case of those represented by GSOC, too). Speaking generally, though, the University responded promptly after hearing from the complainant; investigated the matter thoroughly; and the outcome included a substantial sanction and ongoing supervision, all of which has been reported publicly. 

Following the completion of her year’s suspension, Professor Ronell will be returning to her faculty duties, including teaching, in fall 2019. If we believed that she – or any other faculty member – could not conduct her classroom duties professionally, we would not permit him or her to be in a classroom. In this case, Professor Ronell's interactions with students will be monitored to ensure that she has absorbed the lessons of her misconduct and to ensure that she has rectified her behavior and that her interactions with students are in line with NYU's professional expectations.

This matter has raised broader questions, as you note, about the appropriate, professional conduct that should exist between faculty and doctoral advisees. The dean of GSAS, Phil Harper, has been reviewing this topic, and this past spring GSAS finalized guidelines for faculty on mentoring doctoral students. These will serve as the basis for a handbook on the mentoring of doctoral students across the entire University that will be developed during the coming academic year. 

We have read your letter carefully, and will take your proposals under advisement. With respect to those proposals, we do want to note the following:

     All University employees are required by law to complete online sexual harassment training annually, in compliance with NYS law.

     While we do encourage callers to the Bias Response Line to share their identities, anonymous reports are also followed up. In addition, complaints can be made anonymously though the OEO complaint form and through NYU’s Compliance Hotline (though, again, we encourage people to submit identifying information so that we can follow up).

     NYU has made substantial investments in establishing the S.P.A.C.E resource, and it has proven to be a successful and valuable resource for those in the NYU community who have experienced sexual misconduct. In addition, NYU has extensive counseling resources with counselors specially trained to deal with trauma.

     Diversity, inclusion, and equity have been a priority for the University and remain so. In recent years, NYU appointed its first Chief Diversity Officer, reporting directly to the president, established her office, and expanded and provided additional funding for CMEP. These efforts have included focusing on diversity in hiring, which has significantly improved, and in student recruitment (this year’s incoming freshman class is the most diverse in NYU’s history).

We take this case, like all cases of sexual misconduct, seriously, and respond accordingly.

Thank you for sharing your concerns with us.


John Beckman

Sr. Vice President for Public Affairs