Allowing for Ronell’s Return Creates Culture of Contradiction

NYU’s decision to allow Professor Avital Ronell to teach again directly conflicts with its own clearly stated stance on sexual misconduct.

Editorial Board

This past week, WSN reported on a professor returning to teach at NYU this coming fall after she was accused of sexual harassment by former graduate student Nimrod Reitman. Avital Ronell, a Professor of German and Comparative Literature in the College of Arts and Science, was suspended during the 2018-2019 school year after an 11-month Title IX Investigation found evidence that she initiated inappropriate verbal contact with Reitman. In his subsequent lawsuit against NYU and Ronell, Reitman also accused her of non-consensual physical contact.

NYU has yet to comment — beyond its no-comment comment that the university does not discuss individual personnel matters — on placing Ronell back on their staff. But as representatives of an institution that prides itself on progressive values, the NYU administration and faculty should be blatantly aware of the irony in not only reinstating, but also defending someone who would inevitably create an unsafe environment for students. Knowingly placing anyone found guilty of misconduct within an institution sends a message of complacency regarding the greater issue of sexual harassment on college campuses. 

After the investigation ended, prominent feminist scholars came to the defense of Ronell, writing a letter of support that goes directly against how we should respond to sexual assault allegations — by discrediting the victim and citing the abuser’s credentials as reason for her innocence.

The most blatant defense of Ronell manifested last summer following the publicization of Reitman’s case, when more than 50 NYU scholars signed a letter arguing that terminating Ronell would be an “injustice.” Renowned feminist scholar Judith Butler — also a signatory of the letter — has since apologized for potentially implying that the accolades of Ronell’s career should warrant her protection from termination. 

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The university issued a statement to the New York Times last year that recognized Ronell’s harassment of Reitman and reiterated its choice to suspend her for a year. But believing that a year would be enough time to allow the situation to pass by, and be forgotten by the student population, would be a drastic underestimation.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time NYU has had an insufficient response to sexual harassment. Earlier this semester, allegations surfaced against Michael Steinhardt — an NYU trustee and the namesake of the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. In response, the Board of Trustees opened an investigation, yet no time frame or concrete steps have been specified. Similarly, the university was criticized in November for hosting a performance piece by Jan Fabre, who has been accused of multiple allegations of sexual harassment. 

Despite those incidents, NYU has previously taken stances to protect victims of sexual harassment. In February, NYU’s Senior Vice President of University Relations and Public Affairs Lynne Brown argued for NYU’s opposition to Betsy DeVos’s proposed Title IX changes, which would mandate procedures for cross-examinations that NYU thought would be potentially harmful to victims. The university’s hard stance was embraced as a way to avoid a system that could create damaging experiences for victims caught within the Title IX process. To take such an extensive, clear stance on this issue, only to later allow and keep relatively silent regarding Ronell’s return is hypocritical. 

As we have stated before, NYU’s policy toward sexual misconduct specifically outlines that NYU seeks to maintain a “safe learning, living, and working environment” and to “foster a community in which such conduct is not tolerated.” If NYU is, in fact, dedicated to creating an atmosphere that not only allows students to feel comfortable but also stands against those who threaten such an atmosphere, then how can it allow Ronell to resume her career here?

We could call for the administration to make an overt statement against Ronell’s return, but there is no foreseeable scenario in which Ronell would receive public condemnation from the university but continue to teach. It is not enough for the university to apologize or make a statement and suspend her. Failing to terminate Ronell’s position as a professor is an act of direct contradiction against the safe environment NYU claims to cultivate.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 29, 2019, print edition. Email the Editorial Board at [email protected] 

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