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The Avital Ronell Case

Topics/tags: Miscellaneous, academia

Each day, I spend a few minutes reading Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. I find it useful to know what is happening more broadly in academia. Many issues are relevant to Grinnell, such as guidance on Title IX issues, comments on teaching approaches, challenges to academic freedom, and broader concerns about the public’s perception of higher education. Even when the issues seem distant from Grinnell, such as the Silent Sam statue at UNC, it’s helpful to know what others are facing.

One of the current controversies that’s getting a lot of press is the Avital Ronell case at NYU. It’s a big enough case that it’s spilled out from the pages of Chronicle into The New York Times and The Los Angeles Review of Books. There’s even a hatchet job at

In part, the case is one that feels all too common these days: A student has accused a faculty member of sexual harassment under Title IX. But a few things make this case more enticing to a broader audience. First, it’s an atypical case: The accused faculty member is female, and the graduate student is male. Both are homosexual. Second, a group of powerful faculty members from across the world, including the incoming chair of the MLA, wrote to the institution to challenge the case. Brian Leiter, a noted ’blogging philosopher who regularly criticizes literary theory released a draft of the letter. Leiter and other critics of the letter suggest, among other things, that such a letter would never have been sent if the accused were male.

In any case, it’s been fascinating to watch [1]. I’ve been thinking about what, if anything, I might write in response. While I have a basic understanding of power dynamics, I’m not steeped enough in theory to comment deeply on those dynamics. I don’t generally consider it my place to comment on A said/B said situations [2]. And it seems difficult to address Title IX issues without offending someone.

But I’ve collected a few quotations that I found useful or telling. And my muse suggests that I should gather them together. I share them with you, along with my comments, in the hope that you also find them useful or telling.

The second-most popular NYT Picks comment from the New York Times article is from Lady Professor from Los Angeles [3].

Q: Is it ever OK to get in bed with your advisee?

A: No. It is never, ever OK to get in bed with a student. You should not get in bed with ANY student from your institution. If the student is in a class you are teaching, or is your advisee, you should refrain from getting in bed with them until they have graduated…

Q: How about going over to my student’s apartment when my electricity goes out?

A: Don’t you have other friends who can help you in this situation? Remember that your student and advisee does not have power in this relationship and cannot easily turn you away or ask you to leave. Don’t go there. I repeat: don’t go there…

Q: I’m campy and flirty. I want to send campy, flirty emails to my advisee.


Q: But I just want to say that he’s a sweet cuddly baby!

A: Do not do it. NO. Keep it professional.

Q: But we share culture and he will understand my sly and playful flouting of convention.

A. What is wrong with you?

I enjoyed the tone of this commentary. However, in many places, it does seem to assume that the student’s story is correct. For example, I’m pretty sure that Ronell denies sharing a bed with the student and reports that he invited her to stay at his place during the storm [4].

Now that I reread the comments, I find them a bit extreme. I can believe that Ronell thought that she and the student were using an acceptable in group form of communication and did not reflect on the fact that the student may have, nonetheless, felt forced to use that form of communication. So What is wrong with you? is probably an excessive response. Nonetheless, Ronell should have reflected on the ways in which one person’s power can compel someone else to behave. Perhaps, Don’t you understand power dynamics?

The BLARB [5] article also quotes Jonathan Culler, Distinguished Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Cornell.

[Culler] pointed out that if [student] had been upset by the emails, "he could have chosen to work with someone else’ — which indeed often happens with grad students.

Perhaps my understanding of graduate school is different than his. You don’t lightly choose to work with someone else, even when the relationship is stressful. If you’ve been privileged to have one of the top theorists take you on as a grad student, how will you be judged if you decide to switch advisors? Poorly, I think. Plus, the student notes that he was always wary of retaliation if he did not stay with Ronell. So no, I don’t think he really could have chosen to work with someone else.

Perhaps my favorite quotation comes from a Chronicle article on the effect of the case on the classroom. Adrath Whynacht, a professor of sociology at Mount Allison University writes about the authors of the draft letter.

These are scholars who talk a lot about power, violence, and vulnerability — their academic credentials should be called into question. The ethical approach would be encouraging students to explore how it’s possible that our […] experts on power, violence, and gender seem to miss what’s plainly obvious to a lot of folks.

Nope, I have nothing to add to that.

I didn’t say that there were a lot of quotations that caught my eye. These three just seemed to be the most telling to me. And, as I said at the beginning, I don’t find that I have much to add about the case. Nonetheless, I hope you found it worthwhile to read those three quotations.

Postscript: If you want to read more about the case, the BLARB piece is pretty good. Because it came a bit later, it could draw upon more from other places and additional context. If you want to read long pieces by people who feel wronged by Ronell, you can find an article in by the former chair of her department who she replaced and comments in Chronicle from a graduate student who was served as Ronell’s TA. The Leiter piece addresses the letter and is worth reading just for the context. There’s also a Web site created by supporters of Ronell.

Or maybe you’re more sensible than me and will avoid the topic entirely.

[1] Well, to read about. Or, as Grammarly would have have it, About which to read.

[2] I’m not sure how to refer to such situations. It used to be he said/she said. But the situations can happen between people of the same sex or people who do not identify on the gender binary. A said/B said seems like a reasonable compromise.

[3] You’ll also find the quotation in the Los Angeles Review of Books article. I wonder if there’s a connection.

[4] If that’s the case, she should have declined that invitation.

[5] Love that acronym.

Version 1.0 of 2018-09-09.