Gay NYU grad accuses lesbian professor of sexual harassment and assault

A world-renowned queer, feminist scholar teaching at New York University (NYU) was suspended for the coming academic year following a Title IX investigation, The New York Times reported on Monday.

Avital Ronell, a professor or German and Comparative Literature, was accused by former graduate student Niemrod Reitman of sexual harassment, sexual assault, stalking and retaliation in a Title IX complaint filed in 2017, two years after he graduated NYU with a PhD.

The 11-month investigation, carried out by NYU’s Office of Equal Opportunity, found the professor responsible for “inappropriate physical contact” and for sending sexual texts to the student, NYU’s independent student newspaper Washington Square News reported.

Reitman, who is now 34-year-old and married to a man, alleged that over the course of three years, starting from spring 2012, the professor touched him and kissed him without his consent, forced him to share the bed with her, held his hand as well as texting, emailing and calling him constantly.

The first incident, Reitman told the Times, took place even before he began studying at the university. Professor Ronell, who was to become his doctoral advisor, invited him to stay with her in Paris for a couple of days.

Reitman claimed that, shortly after his arrival, she asked him to read poetry to her while she napped, but then she pulled him into her bed. “She put my hands onto her breasts, and was pressing herself—her buttocks—onto my crotch,” he told the publication, adding the professor also kissed him on his hands and torso.

According to the Times, one of the reasons why NYU cleared professor Ronell of assault is that there were no witnesses to the behaviour Reitman described, such as the events in Paris.

The NYU graduate filed a Title IX complaint in 2017 (Nimrod Reitman/Facebook)In subsequent communications, professor Ronell called her student “cock-er spaniel,” “my most adored one,” and “sweet cuddly Baby.”

Professor Ronell denied all allegations of sexual contact in their entirety via her lawyer Mary Dorman to the Title IX office, the Times reported. As for the messages, she characterised them “as florid and campy communications.”

“Our communications—which Reitman now claims constituted sexual harassment—were between two adults, a gay man and a queer woman, who share an Israeli heritage, as well as a penchant for florid and campy communications arising from our common academic backgrounds and sensibilities,” read her statement to the Times. “These communications were repeatedly invited, responded to and encouraged by him over a period of three years,” it added.

Avital Ronell is a world-renowned queer, feminist scholar (Wikimedia Commons)

According to the Times, professor Ronell’s suspension was decided in May but never made public. In June however, University of Chicago Law School professor Brian Leiter published on his blog a post denouncing the content of a letter addressed to NYU President Andrew Hamilton and NYU Provost Katharine Fleming, which defended professor Ronell’s record.

The letter was signed by 50 high-profile scholars based around the world, including influential gender theorist Judith Butler—the first signatory—neomarxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek, and cultural and literary theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. They denounced “malicious intention” and vouched for professor Ronell’s behaviour and contributions to academia, despite admitting they had no access to the Title IX dossier.

Reitman is now considering whether to sue the university and the professor. University spokesperson John Beckman told The Times that NYU was “sympathetic” to what Reitman has experienced—but, “given the promptness, seriousness and thoroughness with which we responded to his charges, we do not believe that his filing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the university would be warranted or just.”