Up against the invincible: The first line of defense
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This is part 1 of a three-part series. Go back and read the introduction.


According to Jane Doe’s lawsuit, her academic advisor and history professor William Harris allegedly groped and kissed her repeatedly. In response, she requested that the University restrict Harris’ access to the building in which her office was located. But Harris was scheduled to teach a biweekly course in the building the next semester, and the burden fell on Doe to avoid him—Title IX Coordinator Marjory Fisher advised Doe to stay in her office during Harris’ scheduled classes, court documents show.

Without other recourse, Doe filed a lawsuit against the University for “deliberate indifference” to her complaints in Manhattan federal court.

In the face of allegations of sexual misconduct against tenured faculty, complainants and administrators alike testify that accommodations provided in the interim—prior to the conclusion of a typically months-long investigation—rarely meet expectations for protections that ought to be given to an alleged victim. Unable to force a professor to abdicate from the research they oversee, ban them from campus, or stop them from teaching without stripping their tenure rights, Columbia balances on uncertain legal footing in deciding how to respond.

When Title IX protections go head to head with tenure protections, the former rarely finds itself on top.

“You have one set of rights competing with another. … This is almost a perfect storm,” said Peter Lake, a former coordinator for Title IX and a national expert in higher education compliance. “You’ve got a system of contractual rights of tenure, in many cases born long before Title IX, and Title IX comes along and says do this, but those systems don’t have that in mind,”

Due to the perceived infallibility of tenured faculty members, as well as the real legal ground on which they stand, faculty and administrators may discourage official complaints out of fear that taking action would do more harm than good.

And fearing retaliation or lack of protection from the University, complainants—heeding the guidance of advisers and friends—will stay silent for years.

Multiple junior faculty and students said they knew of prominent neuroscientist and professor Thomas Jessell’s relationship—and reputation for inappropriate sexual behavior—as early as 2012, a recording of a town hall meeting with students, administrators, and faculty from last March revealed. None said they officially reported the incident, however, citing the potential for retaliation given Jessell’s stature as a prominent, tenured neuroscientist. Students and faculty alike said they feared retaliation and ruined chances at a successful career, over which Jessell held significant power.

According to both a researcher and a faculty member at MBBI who has worked in close proximity to the Jessell lab, a postdoc did officially report the misconduct to mandatory reporter and professor Tom Maniatis in 2012. However, a Columbia spokesperson said that administrators were not made aware of his possible violations to University policy until the end of November 2017.

Maniatis did not respond to a request for comment regarding his knowledge of the complaint.

In the Harris case, Jane Doe was not the first to tell her peers about his behavior.

Three decades ago, when Harris allegedly began to harass graduate student Jennifer Sheridan Moss, GSAS ’85, ’90, she chose not report his behavior to an administrator. Moss said that, at the time, there was little institutional structure in place at the time to encourage students to come forward with complaints.

“I don’t know who would want to cross somebody like him. I didn’t want to, for sure I didn’t,” Moss, who is now an associate professor at Wayne State University, said in an interview with Spectator. “But if you want to make a complaint like this…. you have to believe that there is a structure in the University that’s going to take it seriously and do something about it. And if you lack the faith that that will happen, then you’re probably not going to waste your time doing it.”

Moss told the New York Times that she did inform another professor in the history department, Roger Bagnall, who intervened when Harris told Moss she failed a test that both Bagnall and a third reader said she passed. Bagnall did not report issues with the exam to administrators, citing a lack of official rules that mandated him to do so.

“I just don’t think at the time there was anything if they had gone to a dean or provost, that would have happened,” Moss said to the Times.

A few years later, when Jennifer Knust, UTS ’91, GSAS ’97, ’01, reported to a senior faculty member that Harris was harassing her, she said the senior faculty told her not to escalate the complaint. According to Knust, the faculty informed her that a complaint would likely end up doing more harm to her reputation than to Harris’.

“[Harris] had a reputation but there was really no structures in place to stop him. There was nothing, there was nothing to protect the graduate students,” Knust, who is now a tenured professor at Boston University, said.

The senior faculty member, when contacted by Spectator, was unable to comment, saying that they could not remember details from the time period.

Both Moss and Knust noted the generational aspect to their cases, pointing out that this kind of behavior in academia was in many ways par for the course in the 1980s and 1990s, a time during which allegations of misconduct generally involved little response from the University.

But over two decades later, amid the height of the #MeToo movement, Jane Doe’s lawsuit against Harris and Columbia brought up the same complaints, citing the University’s “deliberate indifference” to her allegations.

In 2014, before Enrichetta Ravina, former assistant professor of finance, filed a civil lawsuit alleging Business School professor Geert Bekaert sexually harassed her and retaliated against her, she sought possible recourse from various Business School professors and administrators.

Their responses, detailed in depositions, testimonies, and evidence submitted in court, however, showed a lack of consensus regarding how to address the alleged harassment. Ravina testified in court that she told administrators that Bekaert told her he was “horny,” constantly asked to meet off campus, and would leverage his authority to delay her work if she did not agree.

Bekaert denied Ravina’s allegations that their communication constituted any form of sexual misconduct, and the University did not mandate that Bekaert be removed from their joint research projects, choosing to assign them a relationship manager—one who would later say, a year and a half after being appointed, that he did not clearly understand what he was supposed to do.

Faculty, including the chair of the finance division, criticized the University’s apparent negligence—and lack of formal procedures—to address power imbalances between junior and senior faculty.

But according to testimony, a number of administrators—including Business School Dean Glenn Hubbard and Vice Dean of Administration Janet Horan—informed her that they lacked power to take disciplinary action or enforce sanctions, leading to years of back and forth that ultimately did not resolve her complaints, Ravina said in court. Bekaert was later cleared of all sexual harassment and discrimination charges by a federal court and found not liable by Columbia’s investigation, but was found to have retaliated against Ravina in his communications to other colleagues.

“My power, if you will, or authority, is more akin to moral suasion. I’m more akin to a managing partner in a law firm than the CEO of a company,” Hubbard testified in court regarding his ability to enforce punitive measures against Bekaert.

On the other side of the country, a state audit investigated the University of California in 2018 for its adjudication process when faculty were accused of sexual misconduct, criticizing the lack of consistency and communication around disciplinary measures when tenured professors are found guilty. That year, UC began to adopt reforms including increased transparency in sharing results with complainants and systems to incorporate feedback from complainants and Title IX investigators.

Independently, UC has revised its policies to detail processes for enforcing disciplinary measures of increasing severity—ranging from a written censure to dismissal—against tenured faculty, including the specific administrators with jurisdiction over each stage of the process. UC’s Faculty Code of Conduct further outlines which sanctions require a full hearing process, and which can be taken after consultation with their board of trustees. The document also provides additional examples for what constitutes “unacceptable conduct” by faculty members that is subject to University discipline.

In contrast, Columbia's statutes and charters outline violations to academic freedom, but fail to define either procedures for interim measures or what constitutes “personal misconduct” serious enough to merit dismissal.

“The way the system works currently is a very quick path to the Title IX office; it’s really a road to litigation. …These things happen without any defined process,” said Patrick Bolton, a tenured business school professor who testified in the Ravina trial.

According to his testimony, Hubbard said he believed at the time that it was “unreasonable” for Bekaert not to step away from working on joint papers with Ravina in light of “unprofessional” communication between the two faculty. But when Bekaert initially refused, he could not force Bekaert off his research because “that’s what academic freedom is, and that’s really why universities tenure.”

Ravina, who at the time of her initial lawsuit was approaching the final stages of her tenure application, noted that the “apparent negligence” from the University in regard to her complaint against Bekaert meant constant confusion regarding what would happen next, and whether or not she would finish essential research in time.

“All along I had the idea that I was the easier one to get rid of, and it felt like because of that, this wasn’t a problem that people were trying to solve. Everyone was just waiting for me to disappear with no intention to do anything about it,” Ravina told Spectator last fall. “I asked faculty for help. … They expected that the University was the University and it would protect itself, but no one knew what was supposed to happen once someone came forward.”

At one point, she testified that Vice Dean Janet Horan said the Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Office, which handles any discriminatory claims regarding faculty members, would not “intervene at the moment because of the political nature of the situation, the tenure and all.”

“What to do? Still a tenured faculty member,” read notes from an EOAA investigator’s interview with Horan.

Horan denied in her court testimony that there had been discussion about reporting Ravina and Bekaert’s dispute to the EOAA during the meeting, but did not speak to the notes regarding her statement. She could not be reached for comment.

Ultimately, administrators assigned Bekaert to Title IX training and barred him from participating in the vote to decide whether Ravina would be given tenure. They formally assigned Daniel Wolfenzon, chair of the business school finance division, to be the “relationship manager” and oversee communication between Ravina and Bekaert. But over a year after Wolfenzon was appointed as relationship manager, the role had still not been clearly defined.

“I would like to talk to you about my role. I want to help, but would appreciate a clear job description,” Wolfenzon wrote to Horan, a year and a half after his designation.

“We both need some guidelines and clarity,” Horan wrote back.

In lieu of clarification, Wolfenzon, along with 21 other business school faculty, signed a petition in February 2015 calling for the University to adopt procedures that ensure that imbalances of power between junior and senior faculty could be addressed productively—policies that do not currently exist.

“As a consequence of the asymmetric power in the relationships between junior and senior research collaborators—owing to the fact that one of them has tenure and the other one does not—senior faculty members may behave inappropriately or not fulfill their duties as senior colleagues when entering into such a collaboration,” the petition read. “Those duties have never been spelled out, to our knowledge, nor have school policies for dealing with situations where there has been a falling out.”

Continue reading Part 2, where, on shaky legal footing, Columbia enters negotiations with faculty members over the terms of their settlement—outside both University policy and the judicial system.


News editor Karen Xia can be contacted at karen.xia@columbiaspectator.com. Follow her on Twitter @xia_karen.

Senior staff writer Khadija Hussain can be contacted at khadija.hussain@columbiaspectator.com. Follow her on Twitter @hussainkhadijaa.