Graduate students have demanded NYU fire Professor Avital Ronell, who was suspended for a year in August 2018 for sexually harassing a student and is set to return this fall.
The Graduate Student Organizing Committee — a union of graduate student workers at NYU — has said it is not enough for NYU to suspend the German and Comparative Literature professor for a year. Instead, GSOC has demanded Ronell be fired and the Title IX Office be overhauled in a petition signed by almost 200 students at the time of publication. The union charged the university with failing to “ensure a safe working and learning environment,” and has demanded more funding for the Title IX Office and additional features such as anonymous reporting of offenses and a restorative justice option for victims to pursue.
This comes after Nimrod Reitman, a former doctoral student in the German department, filed a complaint in 2017 against Ronell alleging that she had nonconsensually touched and kissed him repeatedly over a three year period. The New York Times had access to excerpts of Retiman’s Title IX report, including emails in which Ronell referred to Reitman as “Sweet cuddly Baby” and “cock-er spaniel,” among other things. An 11-month investigation by NYU’s Title IX Office found Ronell responsible for sexual harassment and suspended her for a year.
“[NYU is] literally permitting harassment,” GSOC steward for the Graduate School of Arts and Science Zach Rivers said. “This is a permissive environment for harassment: there aren’t consequences.”
GSOC’s petition states that Ronell’s return warrants an attack on survivors of sexual abuse and creates a hostile environment for students and staff, which is against NYU policy. The union cites the fact that her interactions with students will be supervised as a tacit acknowledgment by the university that she is a danger to students.
In a statement to WSN, NYU spokesperson Shonna Keogan refuted the idea that the university sees Ronell as a threat.
“NYU takes the issue of sexual misconduct very seriously, and we are intent on addressing it seriously and rigorously,” Keogan said. “In the case of Professor Ronell, there was a thorough, months-long investigation by the NYU Office of Equal Opportunity . . . If the University believed a faculty member’s presence in the classroom presented a threat to his or her students’ well-being, we would not permit him or her to teach.”
GSOC steward for the STEM department Kate Storey-Fischer suggested that the university is more concerned about appearances than students well-being.
“A lot of [the Title IX process is] about NYU protecting itself, protecting its reputation,” Storey-Fischer said. “Rather than actually protecting the victims.”
GSOC’s list of demands notes that other universities, such as John Jay College and Harvard University, have had allegations of sexual misconduct against professors. The fact that a situation like Ronell’s is not unique to NYU is something Storey-Fischer said is evidence of a larger, institutional problem: that a professors’ influence over a student’s future career creates a harmful power imbalance between the two parties.
Storey-Fischer said that NYU has a chance to be on the forefront of solving this issue.
“I think NYU has an opportunity right now to step in and be one of the leaders in changing the system,” Storey-Fischer said. “We’d like NYU to take this seriously . . . and think about how they can actually support graduate students instead of just trying to clean up the messes after they happen.”
Ronell did not respond to a request for comment by time of publication.
Email Victor Porcelli at [email protected].