Time’s Up on Victim Blaming in Ronell Case

Janice Lee

At the end of an 11-month Title IX investigation, NYU Professor Avital Ronell was deemed responsible for inappropriate behavior toward her former doctoral advisee, Nimrod Reitman. Detailed as sexual texting and inappropriate physical contact, the behavior has resulted in Ronell’s suspension without pay for the upcoming academic year.

Ronell is a respected feminist scholar and, following Reitman’s accusation, had over 50 fellow academics jump to defend her character. Among them are members of NYU’s faculty and professors of other prestigious universities around the world. This group wrote a beaming letter addressed to President Andrew Hamilton and Provost Katherine Fleming, referring to the allegations as “a malicious campaign” and highlighting Ronell’s accomplishments and contributions to the humanities.

The group’s attempt to uphold Ronell’s reputation is sadly predictable. To defend someone, especially a person who has earned professional respect, is almost a reflex, one that’s fallible but undeniably relatable. And it’s one we’ve seen before. Take the case of Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Junot Díaz from earlier this year — after being accused of sexual misconduct by writer Zinzi Clemmons and several other women, fellow writers and professors were swift to take sides. Díaz was ultimately cleared of misconduct  — largely based around accusations of forced kissing — by M.I.T.; a decision that was heavily criticized for condoning harassment and misogyny.

Ronell’s case is eerily similar to Díaz’s, except that she is a woman and a renowned feminist. There’s much that can be said of the potential double standards in the handling of the two cases and what institutional action is truly appropriate in such situations. These concerns are valid and urgent. Yet as unfortunate as the lack of consistency may be, people’s experiences don’t change depending on who is the accuser and what disciplinary action is taken and pursued. Accountability and justice must begin somewhere, meaning that victim blaming is never acceptable. We must move beyond that instinct.

To see NYU faculty readily invalidate the distress of a member of the NYU community is extremely concerning. Between a professor’s integrity and a student’s dignity, it seems that the former takes precedence at NYU and other academic institutions. It’s problematic how we’re still largely at a point in society where we discount a victim based on the accuser’s previously observed character and success. NYU, as a thoughtful academic community, can do better. Even when expectations turn out to be false, it’s our individual responsibility to adjust accordingly to the new, truest reality. As an NYU student, I should expect nothing less than informed thought from the leaders of our university and the world.

 

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 26 print edition. Email Janice Lee at [email protected] 

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Great article which goes to the core of the matter. As a professor at another institution, I am appalled that NYU does not side with the victim. The defense letter signed by NYU faculty is retaliatory and perhaps a separate title IX investigation should be made against those professors that willingly signed this letter with its retaliatory remarks, accusing the victim of having malicious intent. This shows that these professors do not understand title iX investigations and pose a risk to the student population. A reprimand is in order.

  2. There is no comparison between Ronell and Junot Diaz. Ronell’s relationship with her graduate student is very well-documented . Anyone who reads their correspondence can swiftly infer these two were involved. Junot Diaz’s accusers have no such evidence and they met him once. Carmen Machado’s claims were debunked when an audio of her Q&A exchange surfaced in which JD was courteous and thoughtful. Zinzi Clemmons wrote JD a cordial thank you note the day after the workshop at Columbia. Her prof says she was delighted. Someone else said he was rude at a dinner party they crashed. There is no patriarchy in MIT’s decision because the accusations were baseless.

  3. I am a retired Stanford Professor of English and have just written on the Ronell affair for BLARB. I agree with all Janice Lee says. The most disappointing facet of the case was the Judith Butler sponsored letter defending Ronell. Butler has now written a second letter saying she’s “sorry,” and is also sorry that people reading the letter thought she was speaking for the MLA of which she is second vice-president. She apologized for this and the MLA Executive Council simply accepted her apology. This is absurd because the damage was done. Saying I’m sorry in such a case won’t cut it. I hope Janice and others will contact the President of MLA, Ann Ruggles Gere and tell her Butler should have to resign the upcoming presidency. There is also a petitiion going around to that effect.
    Actions have consequences!!

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