A Million Dollars of Red Tape
Updated: Sep 3, 2021
BUT HIS EMAILS
Columbia’s legal troubles keep piling up
In the February 2014 issue of this magazine, Anna Bahr, BC ‘14, unveiled the realities of Columbia’s process for investigating gender-based misconduct complaints. The following December, The Blue and White’s Hallie Nell Swanson, CC ‘16, followed up with a look at the fallout from Bahr’s piece, and the activism surrounding sexual assault on campus. Four years after the issue exploded on campus in 2014, students continue to bring sexual misconduct cases to court, and gender-based discrimination cases against Columbia University. This April, we shed light on the particular difficulties graduate students can face in bringing these cases to court. Investigations Editor Ufon Umanah followed one case, from opening statements to final verdict. Here, he breaks down what the verdict means for the University, and for the students Columbia is responsible for protecting.
It would have been the perfect crime, but … his emails.
That seems to be the takeaway from the Ravina vs. Columbia University verdict, reached by a jury in the Southern District Court of New York in July.
For those of you who have not been following along at home: Enrichetta Ravina, a former junior professor, was the plaintiff in a lawsuit against Columbia Business School Professor Geert Bekaert and the University — she sued both parties on the basis of gender discrimination and retaliation, alleging that after rejecting Bekaert’s sexual advances, he derailed her up-and-coming career in academia.
The jury didn’t find Professor Geert Bekaert responsible for gender discrimination. The jury didn’t find Columbia University responsible for malfisience during its investigation into Bekaert, in which Bekaert was cleared for misconduct and Dean Glenn Hubbard described the situation as a “soap opera” of both sides. The jury didn’t even find Columbia responsible for disrupting Ravina’s tenure process as retaliation against her complaints.
And yet, for emailing colleagues all over the globe calling Ravina “insane,” “evil,” “the evil bitch,” “crazy,” and “sick,” the jury found Bekaert responsible for retaliation, to the tune of $1.25 million, and as an agent of Columbia, the University came away with vicarious responsibility.
Despite the clarity of the verdict, it’s easy to wonder what exactly this means for Columbia. The prosecution, led by David Sanford of Sanford Heisler Sharp, said “The $1.25 million in damages … should send a clear message to Columbia University and the world of higher education that workplace retaliation and abuse of power in academia will not be tolerated.” This would be the third message that the Sanford Heisler Sharp law firm has sent to Columbia, having also taken on two former professors, William Harris and Thomas Jessel, in similar court proceedings.
This would be the third message that the Sanford Heisler Sharp law firm has sent to Columbia, having also taken on two former professors, William Harris and Thomas Jessel, in similar court proceedings
Furthermore, the context in which the behavior occurred, both alleged and confirmed, gives us a fuller picture of Columbia’s culture in 2014 and beyond. When Ravina initially reported Bekaert to the Business School in 2014, it was after a graduate student became acquainted with former professor Harris, who she would later sue for sexual harassment. It was also after undergraduate students had filed a report against Columbia and Barnard over their mishandling of sexual assault investigations, and also the summer before the famous “Carry That Weight” mattress protest that garnered national headlines. The discovery process for Ravina vs. Columbia University demonstrated that the University failed its non-tenured academic constituencies, from undergraduates to graduates to non-tenured faculty. Unfortunately, timing is not the only thing these cases share.
Time Wasted in the Sun
A February 2014 feature in The Blue and White by Anna Bahr, BC ‘14, detailed the experiences of survivors and examined the process of how Columbia investigates claims of gender-based misconduct. (Editor’s Note: You can find the article in the archives on our website, www.theblueandwhite.org, in the February 2014 issue). One critical detail from Bahr’s feature was the length of investigations for gender based misconduct. Under Columbia regulation, 2014 and now, from the time Columbia starts an inquiry, an investigation is supposed to take 60 days. This was in response to the Obama administration strongly recommending that universities address allegations promptly, as to reduce the burden on the victim and preserve as much evidence as possible before memories started to fade.
The problem was that Columbia was anything but timely by 2014. In the feature, we learned that the investigation into one accuser’s respondent lasted seven months. Before Ravina, however, one could only speculate as to why cases took so long to complete. This changed after the seventh day of proceedings in the Ravina trial with the testimony of Michael Dunn.
Michael Dunn used to be the Director of Investigations for the Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Office for Columbia until 2015. During the Ravina case, the public learned about four cases that Dunn investigated personally at the Business School, but that was only maybe a fifth of his workload. Since the staff of his office in 2014 consisted of two to four people for a student population of over 40,000, one might imagine that the EOAA office was overworked. Dunn had around 15 to 20 cases on his plate when he was investigating the Ravina in 2014.
In court, however, instead of inspiring sympathy, Poets and Quants writer John Byrne reported that Dunn “left the unmistakable impression that his investigations were superficial, highly limited, and incomplete.”
In the course of the Ravina investigation, Dunn interviewed Ravina twice, once with no prepared questions, and focused exclusively on sexual harassment, instead of including gender based discrimination or, the charge for which Bekaert would eventually be held responsible, retaliation. Outside of her and Bekaert, who Dunn interviewed three times, he interviewed one student assistant who had a clear bias for Bekaert. Dunn’s Ravina investigation started in July 2014. He would not finish within the policy-mandated two months, but instead by November. He concluded that what happened between Ravina and Bekaert was a ‘mutually flirtatious relationship,’ borrowing Bekaert’s language.
Sanford Heisler Sharp during the trial made a point of the fact that Dunn had no experience in discrimination or retaliation law. He had, at most, two years of general legal experience. Despite this, he received no formal training on Columbia’s policies against discrimination harassment or retaliation, nor New York City’s Human Rights Law, nor Title VII. And it showed. Not one of his investigations resolved after 60 days, and he managed to miss various opportunities to investigate. Of Dunn’s four investigations of Business School professors, introduced in separate court proceedings, two were against Bekaert, one was against an allegedly sexist professor, and one was against a professor who had sex in his office with a student he had recently finished teaching. Dunn found in favor of the male professor in each case.
Student respondents, unlike tenured faculty, aren’t offered the opportunity to choose a easier justice system to be judged before.
Even though Columbia hired more staff in the Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Office between 2014 and 2018, lack of training has seemed to remain a persistent problem. According to Bahr’s article, while students were offered Title IX training, the people tasked with conveying what counted as sexual assault were given cheesy examples, and those at the Rape Crisis Center were not given access to precedent involving gender-based misconduct. Common law, which the American system is based on, is based on precedent, so restricting access to it seems a strange act of anti-transparency. According to one dismissed lawsuit against Columbia University, staff that took initial calls at the Sexual Violence Response Office also didn’t receive training in what rights complainants have under Title IX.
There is a silver lining here. Columbia can easily hire more staff to investigate gender-based misconduct complaints and afford to actually train them. If they do, Columbia might be able to begin the process of restoring their credibility in investigating cases. The bigger problem that looms over Columbia is more structural, more procedural, and very hard to repeal.
A lot has been made about the underlying power dynamics between tenured professors and everyone else, but at no time was that dynamic clearer than when Dean of the Business School Glenn Hubbard testified during Ravina’s trial that he, as a procedural matter, could not “fire a tenured faculty member.” If he wanted to, he “would have to go to the president of the university and trustees. They would make that decision.” In his time at Columbia, he said, going back to 1988, he had never seen it happen.
That is a very simplified version of what would happen, though not in spirit. Say Dunn instead found Bekaert responsible for retaliation, as the jury did in the legal case. That can be done under the same standard used in the civil case—preponderance, in which responsibility is determined by whether it is more likely than not that the alleged incident occurred.
Unfortunately, “University policies or contracts may require the University to use additional processes before taking certain employment-related actions with respect to faculty and certain other employees … the Disciplinary Officer will not impose any discipline that would require the use of additional processes.”
That means, if Columbia wanted to fire a tenured professor, even after violation of the Rules of University Conduct, the professor in question has the option to reject judgement by a Hearing Officer under the Charter and Statutes of Columbia University.
If the professor takes that option, the president has to call a hearing which mimics somewhat closely a legal proceeding, except unlike the civil case Bekaert just lost, he would be judged by clear and convincing evidence. This in a space where evidence is hard to come by, especially when your investigators don’t know how to investigate.
Student respondents, however, unlike tenured faculty, aren’t offered the opportunity to choose a easier justice system to be judged before, nor are various officers of instruction under the administration. This might explain why Columbia is so willing to turn a blind eye to accused tenured faculty, as alleged in the Professor William Harris case, while talking a big game on addressing sexual harassment. Beyond Dean Hubbard’s assertion of his “moral suasion,” there isn’t much he can do to manage disputes like Ravina’s. It makes it that much easier to avoid confrontation than actually threaten the career of a wrongdoer.
When news of Ravina’s lawsuit hit the press in 2016, Dean Hubbard felt that his millennial students were “looking for a lot of communication from the top,” and sent an email throughout the Business School to announce his dedication to a zero-tolerance policy. Throughout the university, however, there may be exhaustion over learning about sexual misconduct in case, after case, after case.
There are small steps that the University can take to minimize the potential for repeated cases of Harrises and Bekaerts. When the Commission on the Status of Women released its Pipeline Study on the Advancement of Women Faculty at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, one of their policy suggestions amounted to diversifying the types of support systems people can lean on, and adding academic sponsorship as well as mentorship, with the hope that reforms like this will eventually diversify the upper ranks of academia.
Columbia could make it easier to threaten professors not for academic conduct, but over violations of policy. But until then, despite a charge of over a million dollars, it still does not feel like Columbia has paid enough