Assistant Professor Sues Columbia University for Sexual Harassment and Retaliation

Retaliation
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Depending on which side you are on, the situation in the case discussed in this blog is a real-life “soap opera” or ongoing sexual harassment and retaliation that threatened the career of an up-and-coming college professor. Unless the case settles or is dismissed, a $20 million lawsuit against a world-famous business school will be tried in federal court, enabling the public to learn what really happened.

Enrichetta Ravina is an assistant professor of finance and economics at Columbia University’s School of Business in New York City. Her lawsuit filed in federal court claims that the university discriminated against her because of her sex; failed to take corrective actions when she reported sexual harassment by Geert Bekaert, a professor of finance and economics; and retaliated against her for her complaint. She has filed a separate lawsuit against Bekaert.

Can a sexual harassment claim be based on “he said, she said” allegations? Yes, but it will take more than that to be successful.

Assistant Professor Starts Research to Help Her Obtain Tenure

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Ravina earned a PhD at Northwestern University and worked at New York University’s Stern School of Business when she was recruited by Columbia, according to the complaint. To obtain tenure, Ravina needed to publish scholarly articles. To do so, she started a project based on a massive amount of data about the investment decisions by thousands of individuals.

During the 2009–10 academic year, Bekaert told Ravina that he could provide her with a massive data set owned by a company he had a relationship with. He proposed that they work together on analyzing the data to see whether they could come up with conclusions on investment decisions made by individuals. Ravina spent two years negotiating how the information could be used, writing computer code, training and directing about 40 researchers, and gathering additional data to be in a position to analyze the information.

Senior Professor Accused of Seeking Sex in Exchange for Help

Ravina claimed that Bekaert was very calculating in his harassment, waiting until the research was at a critical stage, after she spent years of time and effort, before harassing Ravina and essentially asking for sexual favors in exchange for completing the research project. Abandoning the project would probably result in Ravina not getting tenure at the school and losing her job.

The complaint alleged that during the 2012–13 academic year, Bakaert did the following:

  • He told Ravina that he regularly watched pornography and that prostitutes were necessary to accommodate a man’s sex drive.
  • He described his own sexual experiences and his desire to have sex with an underage girl.
  • He insisted that they meet at social settings like coffee shops and over dinner instead of at the school. When they did meet, Bekaert refused to discuss research. At one such dinner, he held her hand and told Ravina that how she walked was sexy and reassured her that he was not too old.

Ravina stated that she refused Bekaert’s advances and tried to get him to focus on the research. She claimed that in response, Bekaert stalled her research, refused to respond to her, and threatened to have the company owning the data revoke her access. He told her that if she were “nicer” to him, the project would move faster, improving her chances to complete the project and obtain tenure. She argued that her research was delayed by about two years due to Bekeart.

Columbia Accused of Inaction and Blaming the Plaintiff for Her Problems

dataRavina stated that she reported the harassment to the school’s vice dean for research. Ravina believed the vice dean passed that information to the business school’s dean, R. Glenn Hubbard. The next month, Ravina met with the dean and others about her allegations. She described Hubbard as being confrontational and as telling her that there was nothing Columbia could do to help her.

Ravina suggested that Bekaert’s involvement in the project be limited and that he be removed from future research concerning the data set. Another month passed, and the senior vice dean allegedly pressured Ravina to drop her complaint and forget about the issue. She told Ravina to give up on the project, despite all the time and effort she had invested in it.

Hubbard later mocked Ravina’s complaint, calling it a “soap opera,” and blamed her for Bekaert’s conduct because she flirted with him. Hubbard refused again to take actions against him. In late 2014, Columbia’s office charged with enforcing its antidiscrimination policies informed Ravina that there were no violations of its policies and that she was the problem because she soured the relationship by not communicating effectively.

Columbia notified Ravina that she would be on paid academic leave for the 2015–16 school year so she could focus on her research. Three months later, the school revoked the leave. In December 2015, Ravina was told that tenure submissions would be due the next month, with a decision coming in March 2016. Her request for an extension of time was denied. Ravina submitted the materials she had in March and asked for more time. That request has not been acted upon.

In addition to her complaints that the defendant harmed her reputation, job security, and potential for future employment, Ravina stated that she has experienced emotional distress “so severe that, for the past two years, she has seen a psychiatrist weekly to cope with her symptoms.”

Bekaert issued a statement to the New York Times denying any wrongdoing, claiming that he was the victim in the situation. “I am sickened that a colleague—I was never Prof. Ravina’s supervisor or superior—would manufacture false stories, statements and events and attempt to destroy my reputation,” Bekaert stated.

“In reality this is a sad example of no good deed goes unpunished: We collaborated for years doing research with a unique data set I had obtained from a company I worked for, and in return she fabricated a series of completely false allegations about me, some today for the first time.”

Summing It Up

  • Sexual harassment claims often boil down to “he said, she said” allegations. Ravina will have to come up with evidence of Bakaert’s statements and actions. Based on the complaint, his statements were made in private, so credibility will be a key issue.
  • Even if Ravina’s sexual harassment claims fail, she may still be able to prove retaliation. The school is under an obligation to thoroughly investigate discrimination claims and then determine what, if any, corrective actions it should take. Investigations cannot be a sham or a cover up for discrimination, and people who complain of discrimination cannot be retaliated against.

If you believe you have been the victim of sexual harassment or retaliation, contact our office. The facts are the basis of any lawsuit, and we can discuss the situation, the ways the law may apply, and your options for what you should do next and possible legal actions you could take.