September 17, 2018

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Prof. Caruth clarifies decision to sign letter re: NYU prof. found guilty of sexual harassment

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To the Editor:

I have recently had meaningful discussions with several graduate students from Cornell, who have encouraged me to explain to others what I have said to them about the signing of the letter concerning Avital Ronell. I am grateful to these students for their willingness to speak and to listen and to allow me to do the same. I explained to them that, although I have offered to the Cornell students to speak to them either individually or, by anonymous request, as a group, I have previously been reluctant to issue a formal statement or be interviewed for a paper. This is because of the likelihood of distortion in these contexts and because of the tendency for explanations to appear to be excuses, or to appear as attempts to purify oneself by condemning others. Nonetheless, as the students have indicated to me, they found it helpful to hear some of the context for my signing (and that of others), so I am reiterating my comments here. This context includes the fact that the letter that appeared in public was not a letter of which many of us approve. Several of us, indeed, never read the final form of the letter that was ultimately submitted. The reasons for this are varied among the signers I know, and we are all aware of the problems surrounding such hurried action. As I told the students, many of us had fragments of information last spring (only fragments were possible because of the privacy rules surrounding such investigations) amounting to the following: that a colleague, who was in many cases also a friend of the signers, had been found guilty of sexual harassment as a result of some e-mails deemed inappropriate; that she was either fired or about to be fired; and that any response to this must be made immediately to be effective. Those of us (including me) who have worked hard to bring forward Title IX and other harassment cases on behalf of students or other faculty, or who have observed the results of investigations led by universities, were aware that there are times when a university may seem to be focused more on protecting its bottom line than on adjudicating properly and with care, thus leaving either the accuser or accused with an unjust result. We thus agreed to sign a letter whose aim would be to alert the university to our awareness of the procedure and to urge the university to take care in deciding upon a punishment that was just and in proportion to the offense. As many of us understood it, the letter would not be focused on either accuser or accused (on the intent of the accuser or on the fame or the accused) but rather on the process, one that should be followed regardless of who accuser and accused happened to be. Upon reading the letter that appeared, many of us felt that the letter was improper and that we certainly did not (and do not) wish to appear to condone any attempts to silence or defame accusers or to condone abuses of power by those who have it. As a person who works on trauma, I am particularly aware of the forms of denial that either purposely or inadvertently emerge in the public sphere and of the problem of creating environments where speaking out feels dangerous. As I have frequently discussed with students and in my work, it is always important to listen, even when listening is hard and most of all when it challenges our assumptions.

 It is for this reason that I express gratitude, again, to those at Cornell and elsewhere who are engaging in the difficult process of listening and speaking. My students were relieved to hear that there are other signers who may share my feelings but, for reasons similar to my own, have not come forward because of their own concerns about not being heard, rather than because of a desire to double down on support for this letter. What this case reminds us is that rushing to judgment, or to action, in an emergency, of believing we can afford not to think under these circumstances — or not to listen in a crisis — usually leads to unfortunate consequences.

Prof. Cathy Caruth
Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters