To the Editor:
The case of Avital Ronell raises interesting issues for gender scholars (“New Disclosures About an NYU Professor Reignite a War Over Gender and Harassment,” The Chronicle, August 15). For those who have watched for decades as men destroyed women’s careers while continuing to receive the profession’s greatest accolades, the #MeToo movement could not have come soon enough. Title IX is finally being used to protect individuals from sexual harassment and abuse. Women’s voices that were previously silenced by systemic discrimination are now being amplified.
At the same time, when accusations are made against a woman, particularly one working in gender studies, there is concern that this may be yet another opportunity for a man, in this case a student, to bludgeon a woman in authority. And women should rightly question the male schadenfreude that surrounds this case.
No wonder so many women, led by Judith Butler, rushed to sign a letter in defense of Ronell. Concern that the system was again being manipulated to negatively impact a female scholar must certainly have motivated many of the signatories to publicly support her.
But Ronell is not the innocent victim of a conspiracy. She is a senior faculty member with a distinguished career in a position of authority over a subordinate graduate student. Even if they had a romantic relationship of mutual attraction, the imbalance of power should have marked out the behavior as unsuitable. And if a relationship was to be pursued by consenting adults, Ronell should have recused herself from any future professional or supervisory role. By not doing so, by continuing to ignore the power dynamics, ones which she as a gender scholar would have been particularly aware of, she engaged in abusive behavior.
The letter extolls Ronell’s many virtues, and threatens retaliatory action for her potential dismissal, even as the scholars claim not to have the facts of the case before them.
Ronell will be treated by NYU according to the rules and customs that they choose to apply. Only then will it be possible to consider whether she was treated equitably and with the same degree of accountability as the men with whom she now keeps company in the rosters of the #MeToo movement. But what of the scholars who supported her, without evidence, and who described the student making the accusations in terms designed to discredit his testimony? “We have all seen her relationship with students, and some of us know the individual who has waged this malicious campaign against her.” Has such a letter silenced others who may have been victims of Ronell and who will now refuse to come forward?
As president-elect of the Modern Language Association, the largest organization of humanities faculty, Butler has put the organization in an untenable position. Would any victim willingly come forward to report abuses of power knowing that his or her reputation might be discredited by leading scholars, and that a senior faculty member is likely to be supported and defended? Butler’s actions have a chilling effect on reporting sexual harassment in the humanities, and undermines inroads made by Title IX advocates.
In the interests of the profession, and in the interests of the many victims who continue to remain silent in fear of the professional and personal price that coming forward continues to demand, Judith Butler must step down as future president of the MLA. To not do so is to betray the decades of work that women have done to be treated equally, fairly, and without fear of harassment.
Rachel S. Harris
Associate Professor of Israeli Literature and Culture, and Comparative and World Literature
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
MLA Delegate Assembly Representative for Women and Gender Studies