To the Editor:
I can only speak for myself since the signatories of the letter addressed to the NYU administration regarding the sexual harassment charges brought against Avital Ronell are not a group with a single view, and different authors helped to craft the draft version of the letter that appeared online without our consent (“Battle Over Alleged Harassment Escalates as Former Graduate Student Sues Professor and NYU,” The Chronicle, August 16). When the signatories learned that termination of employment for Ronell was under consideration by NYU, we were bewildered by the severity of this possible sanction. We understood she was accused of conducting a “romantic friendship” and that her emails had been scrutinized for evidence of a sexual relationship.
Our aim was not to defend her actions — we did not have the case in hand — but to oppose the termination of her employment as a punishment. Such a punishment seemed unfair given the findings as we understood them. In hindsight, those of us who sought to defend Ronell against termination surely ought to have been more fully informed of the situation if we were going to make an intervention.
Moreover, the letter was written in haste and the following are my current regrets about it. First, we ought not to have attributed motives to the complainant, even though some signatories had strong views on this matter. The claims of sexual harassment have too often been dismissed by discrediting the complainant, and that nefarious tactic has stopped legitimate claims from going forward and exacerbated the injustice. When and where such a claim proves to be illegitimate, it should be demonstrated on the basis of the evidence alone.
Second, we should not have used language that implied that Ronell’s status and reputation earn her differential treatment of any kind. Status ought to have no bearing on the adjudication of sexual harassment. All faculty should be treated the same under Title IX protocols, that is, subject to the same rules and, where justified, sanctions.
Immediately after the confidential draft letter was published online, I was in direct communication with the MLA officers (the executive director, the president and the first vice president) to apologize for the listing of my position within the organization after my name. I acknowledged that I should not have allowed the MLA affiliation to go forward with my name. I expressed regret to the MLA officers and staff, and my colleagues accepted my apology. I extend that same apology to MLA members.
We all make errors in life and in work. The task is to acknowledge them, as I hope I have, and to see what they can teach us as we move forward.
Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory
University of California at Berkeley