The Even-Less-Sexy Truth about this Sexy Scandal

Sometimes the devil doesn’t wear Prada. Sometimes she wears clunky oversized glasses and ostentatiously kitschy t-shirts. At least, that’s the lesson I’m getting from the sad stories oozing out of New York University’s latest scandal. What I don’t understand is why so many academic commentators think the situation is somehow unique to elite academic life. To this reporter, it seems that condemnations of grad studies as “cultish subjection” seem to sidestep the most important point.

Here are the basics: NYU’s comparative literature department is roiled by accusations and counter-accusations in the case of Professor Avital Ronell. Ronell is accused by former graduate student Nimrod Reitman of harassment and abuse. The accusation is littered with kooky emails [here are some examples] and trainwreck-level details about their relationship.

Adding even more complication, several top scholars have come to Prof. Ronell’s defense, claiming special status as feminists.

avital ronell

…you are under my commaaaand…

Former students of Ronell’s have gone public with their additional accusations. According to former student Andrea Long Chu, Ronell really was a mercurial, dictatorial, needy oddball. She insisted her grad students relish their status of “cultish subjection.”

Is this a story a condemnation of elite academic culture? As Corey Robin has argued, is this about more than sex, more than feminism? Professor Robin has argued the case was really about

the question of power. This is a grad student trying to make his way in an institution where everything depends on the good (or bad) word of his adviser.

To my mind, that sounds true enough, but I don’t see how this problematic relationship is unique to academic life. It seems to me that anytime employees are dependent on their boss’s good opinion, exceptions like this will pop up.

I don’t see how this sad scandal tells us anything that we didn’t already know. Namely, in any job in which the employee is willing to do anything to get ahead, some exceptional bosses will take cruel advantage.

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1 Comment

  1. Warren Johnson

     /  September 2, 2018

    The picture and it’s caption is hilarious. Submit to the New Yorker?

    Reply

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