Ababiy: Power-relations in the world of academia are not free from sexual assault and misconduct

As sexual assault allegations of a renowned New York University professor surface, it’s evident that the academic community needs to turn an introspective eye to its own power dynamics.

Jonathan Ababiy

With a prestigious professorship at New York University, Avital Ronell was described as a “star” in the academic world. Decades of interesting work in comparative literature had given her an impressive resume full of interactions and friendships with other groundbreaking scholars like Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek. Graduate students, like Nimrod Reitman, a Wallace Fellow at Harvard University, flocked to study under her and learn her brilliant deconstructionism.

No students will be studying under Ronell this school year, though.

In August, Reitman, a graduate student of Ronell’s at NYU, appeared in New York Times with the results of NYU’s Title IX investigation into sexual harassment allegations against Ronell. The details were shocking. Ronell allegedly abused her power as Reitman’s advisor and forced Reitman into feigning a romantic relationship with her. Phone records reveal that she called and texted him constantly, seeking emotional assurances. She allegedly repeatedly kissed and groped Reitman and whenever Reitman objected or his attention was simply elsewhere, she would turn cold, often threatened his career prospects — even “burst into a jealous rage.”

The #MeToo stories we’ve seen in the news have made clear that this kind of injustice is plentiful in other sectors of society, like government, businesses and the entertainment industry. What is particularly striking about the Ronell case is that it finally puts academia under the #MeToo microscope. What we see is academia’s power imbalance and obsession with superstardom creating victims.

Academia, with its tradition and devotion to the religion of knowledge, has an aura of being above it all. Instead, it’s proven to be a grievous offender, one where administrators are slow and reluctant to act, if at all. Ronell is a feminist scholar, after all. She made a career deconstructing and examining structures of power.

There are cases similar to Reitman’s across academia. At the University of California, Berkeley, a prominent astronomer and potential Nobel laureate, Geoff Marcy, was known to have a history of allegedly acting inappropriately and groping female students. Students frequently brought it up to other faculty and administrators. According to what a graduate student told Buzzfeed News, women in the astronomy department even began to discourage other women from working with him. Buzzfeed News also found he was accused of sexual harassment at his previous position at San Francisco State University, too. A subsequent Berkeley investigation substantiated many of the claims against him, but the school only put him on probation. Only after his department wrote a letter protesting the University’s investigation and subsequent decision did Marcy resign, without ever facing real punishment from the University.

These stories continue to happen in academia because professors continue to wield a power imbalance over their students. The academic world, especially within specific fields and niches, can be very insular. Students cannot risk displeasing their adviser.

The careers of Reitman’s and Marcy’s students depended on their professor’s good word. Their professors had the power to assign grades, make assignments and write letters of recommendation. Students had to make sure they toed the line. Put simply, the personal model of advising that academia relies on for graduate school gives professors too much power in the lives of their students. Reporting carries an immense risk and far too often, no one seems to listen.

Academia needs to be more cognizant of the power imbalance inherent within it. As academia has its own #MeToo moment, it needs to ensure that universities hold their employees accountable. Administrators have let professors and researchers in prestigious posts, while avoiding the consequences of their actions for too long. No matter how brilliant or productive they are, our Universities have no place for abusers and the people who enable them.