Professor ‘sabotaged’ harassment accuser’s research

Former Columbia University academic Enrichetta Ravina awarded $1.25 million (£953,000) in damages

August 1, 2018
Columbia University
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Columbia University

A professor of business at Columbia University retaliated against a one-time colleague who accused him of misconduct, a US federal jury has ruled.

Enrichetta Ravina, a former assistant professor of business at Columbia who was denied tenure in 2016, sued the university and Geert Bekaert, a professor of business, for discrimination and retaliation.

Dr Ravina was awarded $1.25 million (£953,000) in damages, which Columbia will have to pay.

Dr Ravina, who studies US investor data on retirement and other topics, began an assistant professorship in the business school’s finance and economics division in 2008. She alleged that she was doing “cutting-edge” work with large datasets in her field when Professor Bekaert, a mentor with ties to the company that owned a key dataset, began to subject her to sexual harassment. She said that he infused their conversations with sexual content, including comments about how often he watched pornography, how prostitutes were essential to men’s sexual satisfaction, his own sexual experiences and how he was “horny” and she was “sexy”.

Professor Bekaert also allegedly pursued a sexual relationship with Dr Ravina, touching her inappropriately and requesting that she meet him off campus at coffee shops and restaurants.

When she rejected his advances, Dr Ravina said, Professor Bekaert allegedly “sabotaged” her research through undue delays in responding to her work and told her that the project could proceed faster if she were “nicer”. As a result, she said, she fell about two years behind in her research.

Dr Ravina said that she reported her concerns to the university, including to two senior colleagues and deans, but was accused by some of those colleagues along the way of flirting with Professor Bekaert, told that he was “blunt” because he was Belgian and offered “life advice” to give up her research agenda and start over. One colleague who specialised in gender law advised administrators to intervene through a series of steps designed to disentangle Dr Ravina’s research from Professor Bekaert’s, she said, but the administrators did not adopt the plan. They did assign a “relationship manager” to monitor interactions between the pair, but Dr Ravina said that the manager was not empowered to intervene on her behalf.

Columbia formally investigated the situation, but found no evidence of any campus policy violation on Professor Bekaert’s part, just a “communication” breakdown.

Dr Ravina also alleged retaliation on Columbia’s part, saying that it suddenly revoked the paid leave she took in 2015-16 and put her tenure review on an accelerated timeline. It also denied her request to delay her tenure review for two academic years, to make up for the time that she says she lost.

She was denied tenure in 2016, which the university argued in court had nothing to do with discrimination, but rather Dr Ravina’s slim publication record. It also argued that Dr Ravina did not complain about Professor Bekaert by name until after spring 2014, when she was warned about that slim record in relation to her upcoming tenure vote, according to trial reporting by Bloomberg.

The court eventually dismissed her gender discrimination charges but let the retaliation claim stand. After her initial filing, Dr Ravina alleged that Professor Bekaert continued to bad-mouth her as “crazy” and “evil” to colleagues around the world, damaging her reputation.

Professor Bekaert’s lawyer, Edward Hernstadt, told jurors that Dr Ravina was not “credible,” since she had at times complimented his appearance, evidenced by emails presented at trial. (Dr Ravina had alleged that Professor Bekaert demanded such affirmation, however.) Mr Hernstadt acknowledged that some of what Professor Bekaert wrote to colleagues about Dr Ravina was “rude”, but that he was merely defending his own reputation.

After deliberating for a day, the jury found that Professor Bekaert had retaliated against Dr Ravina for complaining about him. 

Professor Bekaert, who is still an active member of the faculty, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did his attorney.

A Columbia spokesperson declined to comment on the case, other than to say that the jury found that Columbia “neither discriminated against [Dr] Ravina nor retaliated against her through its actions. The university’s decision to decline [Dr] Ravina’s tenure appointment was not called into question.”

Dr Ravina, who had been seeking $30 million in damages, is now a visiting assistant professor of finance at Northwestern University.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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