Cornell professors Cathy Caruth, Cynthia Chase and Jonathan Culler (left to right) signed a letter of support for NYU professor Avital Ronnell when she was accused of sexual harassment.

September 24, 2018

Cornell Grads React to 3 Professors’ Support of NYU Prof. Suspended for Sexual Harassment

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Graduate students are responding to three Cornell professors’ decisions to sign a letter supporting a New York University professor suspended of sexual harassment — and they are coming to different conclusions.

Profs. Cathy Caruth, Cynthia Chase and Jonathan Culler, all English and comparative literature, were among 51 scholars that signed a letter of support for NYU Prof. Avital Ronell, German studies and comparative literature, in May after she was found guilty of sexually harassing a graduate student by NYU. 

In a letter to the editor published in The Sun on Sept. 17, Caruth explained that the group of scholars only wished to prod NYU to conduct a fair investigation rather than rule to protect their “bottom line,” adding that she never viewed the final version of the letter, which she disproved of.

“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,” Caruth continued. 

Despite Caruth’s clarification, the decision to sign a letter of support disturbed some graduate students. Take for example Peter Shipman grad, who dropped a class he had with Caruth in part because she signed the letter.

Although he said there were additional reasons that he dropped the class, including scheduling and the curriculum, Caruth’s apparent support of Ronell over the claims of Nimrod Reitman, the graduate student involved in the case, pushed him to remove the course from his schedule.

“Her decision to sign the letter definitely influenced my decision to an extent,” Shipman told The Sun.

His biggest frustration comes with the amount of power that advisors hold over graduate students. He advocates for unionization and increased parity in education.

“Tenured professors hold an immense power over grad students careers,” Shipman said. “Professors have the ability to use their power to basically shape, manipulate, and ruin grad students however they please because as grad students we have no check.”

One of the checks that Shipman believes should be implemented is a union for graduate students. Last semester after the vote for graduate assistant union recognition election were certified, the final decision was to not unionize, as previously reported in The Sun. CGSU will not be able to file another unionization election petition for almost a year — until May 25, 2019.

After reading Caruth’s letter to the editor, Shipman is still disturbed by her actions and believes that it is a reflection of her misunderstanding the system of power in the University.

“I am troubled that despite her claims about not approving of the final letter, which openly attacks Nimrod Reitman’s character, Prof. Caruth has still made no attempt to retract her name from it, either now or earlier this summer,” Shipman wrote in an email to The Sun. “I appreciate her willingness to speak on the subject, but both her and Prof. Culler’s comments about the case in my view reflect a gross misunderstanding of the way power operates in the university, and I am deeply disturbed by that.”

On the other hand, Brianna Thompson grad met with Caruth privately. She said she was initially disturbed to see that Caruth had signed the letter. Caruth is a part of her special committee — a group of faculty that help develop the research and academic program for graduate students.

Once Thompson met with Caruth, she was relieved to hear Caruth’s reasoning behind initially signing the letter.

“I went and met with her and she actually said she didn’t stand by the contents of the letter,” Thompson said. “She was very apologetic and also she realized that she and, in her opinion, some of the other folks that signed the letter moved very rashly without information.”

“She basically assuaged my fears because it was really disappointing [to see she signed the letter],” Thompson continued.

Graduate and Professional Assembly representatives for the arts and humanities Becca Harrison grad and Kristen Angierski grad viewed the situation as an example of power dynamics within graduate education.

Angierski believed that language used in the letter signed by the professors mirrors that used by those defending sexual assault. 

“I have to assume these professors are not pro-sexual harassment but rather pro-due process,” Angierski wrote in an email to The Sun. “Nonetheless, some of the language in that letter is reminiscent of sexual assault defense claims that center the assaulter’s ‘potential’ rather than the victim’s experience of abuse.”

This case is indicative of a culture of harassment within academia, according to Harrison, that hinges on the power dynamics between graduate students and professors. However, it is still hard for students to speak out against the power that advisors have over graduate students. Harrison referenced her difficulty in speaking out on the matter knowing those in power may read what she says. 

“The case of Avital Ronell is yet another contemporary case highlighting a culture of harassment and abuses of power in academia,” Harrison said. “As I hope you can appreciate, it is this culture itself that makes it professionally tricky for graduate students like myself to speak out on these power dynamics in academia, which I certainly find to be inappropriate.”

She believes the University has room to be more supportive of graduate students in contrast to the student centered groups on campus that have been advocating for graduate students, such as the Graduate and Professional Students Association.

“In all seriousness, though, I would like to see much more critical, engaged conversation about this very power dynamic within our individual departments, universities, and academia,” Harrison said.

Prof. Joanie Mackowski, an English department faculty senate representative, declined to be interviewed by The Sun.

“I understand the interest in this complex and difficult matter,” Mackowski told The Sun in an email. “I’m not [in] a position to offer any input, though. I have no more information than what’s publically available.”

Prof. Neil Saccamano, the other faculty senate representative from the English department, also declined The Sun’s request for an interview.