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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Is THIS What Keeps Conservatives Out of Academia?

It’s not a conspiracy. It’s not even a hiring bias. According to experts like Neil Gross, the reason we don’t have more conservative professors in the liberal arts is mainly self-selection. And in the goofy higher-ed headlines this week we see gossipy confirmation.

gross

Could conservatives make it in this environment?

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, there really is a tilt to most liberal-arts college faculties, at least at the more selective schools. Neil Gross argued, however, that conservative conspiracy theories don’t hold water. It’s not that universities consciously—or even unconsciously—discriminate against conservative intellectuals. Rather, people who think of themselves as conservatives tend not to go into certain academic fields.

One of the most striking parts of a depressingly ugly higher-ed news item this week is the way it seems to offer anecdotal confirmation of this trend.

Here’s what happened: A former graduate student is suing New York University for harassment and abuse during his time there. He had studied with the prominent scholar Avital Ronell. He complains that she wrote him endless creepy emails, kept him from leaving town, and generally over-controlled his life.

In her own defense, Prof. Ronell described their communications this way:

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.

For example, at one point she sent her student this email:

I am a bit weepy and confused, a normal aftermath I suppose, and also a response to the separation from you … But I will try to gain some ground with a visit to shrinky-winky and see if I can’t develop another kind of report for you! … So many kisses for my guardian angel.

And at one point he responded like this:

Mon Avital, beloved and special one, I only now relieved [sic] your beautiful and exquisite message … I thank you for your infinite understanding and sensitivities which are always beyond measure, all of which I reciprocate with tenderness and love. I thank you so much for walking me through this catabasis. I don’t know how I would have survived without you. You are the best !!! I love you so much. You are the best, my joy, my miracle. Kisses and devotion always. Yours – n

Regardless of the legal outcome of this harassment suit, this sort of “florid and campy” style of endless email back-and-forth would be very difficult for most people to keep up with. Why did the student endure these sort of over-the-top emotional expectations? According to all concerned, Professor Ronell was a superstar in her field. She had—and repeatedly reminded her student she had—the power to make or break his career.

And to my eye, that’s where we find the culture-war rub. Very few people of any sort of ideological background would be willing or able to maintain this sort of intense, intimate relationship with a professor. If I were a conservative intellectual with academic ambitions, though (and I’m not), I think I would be discouraged from even applying to the NYU program, especially if I thought Prof. Ronell would not see me as sharing her “florid and campy” cultural style. In this one elite grad program, then, we can see how fewer conservatives might end up applying to a top program and fewer therefore might end up in top tenure-track academic jobs.

Is this case the norm? Not at all. Indeed, it has only attracted so much morbid curiosity because it is an outlier. But it IS the norm for elite graduate programs in the humanities to serve as the only gatekeepers to top academic careers. And if this sad story can tell us anything, it is that only a very specific sort of person could possibly survive, much less flourish, in some of the those graduate programs.