Columbia University and tenured Professor Geert Bekaert go on trial today (July 9) for allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation in a $30 million lawsuit brought by Enrichetta Ravina, a former assistant professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School.
The trial, expected to last as long as three weeks, is taking place in the courtroom of Judge Ronnie Abrams in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Jury selection will begin this morning, with the expectation that a panel of eight jurors will be chosen to hear the case. Opening arguments from both sides are expected to take place on Monday afternoon.
Ravina alleges that Bekaert attempted to use his position of authority and influence at Columbia University to impose a sexual relationship on her. Then, after failing in that effort, he lashed out and sabotaged her academic and professional career.
CLASSIC EXAMPLE OF A MENTORSHIP GONE COMPLETELY WRONG
He has denied the charges. In an earlier emailed statement to Poets&Quants, Bekaert claimed that Ravina “fabricated a series of completely false allegations about me.” Columbia University has declined comment.“The university treats allegations of harassment with the utmost seriousness but does not comment on pending litigation.”
Her story is a classic example of a mentorship between an accomplished senior tenured faculty member and a junior assistant professor gone completely wrong. The Belgian-born Bekaert boasts a 30-page CV and joined the finance faculty at Columbia Business School in July of 1999 after receiving tenure at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. A promising academic, Italian-born Ravina joined Columbia in July of 2008 after a three-year stint at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Her research puts her at the cutting edge of using large sets of data to analyze personal investment decisions (see A Mentorship Goes Bad At Columbia Business School).
What ultimately brought them together was Bekaert’s access to a dataset, apparently belonging to Financial Engines Inc., of some four million investors in the U.S. who are saving for retirement. According to Ravina, it was Bekaert, a consultant for the firm and a teacher on global investments and asset management, who approached her in early 2010 and proposed that they work together. It was only after she invested hundreds of hours analyzing the data that Bekaert began his alleged advances, more than two and one-half years after the start of their collaboration.
PROF ALLEGEDLY TOLD HER HE WAS ‘HORNY’
In court papers, Ravina asserts that Bekaert frequently discussed his sexual exploits with her, talked about viewing pornography, and made comments about female prostitution. Professor Ravina also claims that Bekeart aggressively sought an intimate relationship with her over the course of more than two years. The professor alleges that he insisted that she meet with him off-campus, subjected her to unwanted touching, suggested that she should compliment him on his appearance, described her as “sexy,” indicated to her he was “horny,” and tried to take her on dates.
When Ravina resisted Bekaert’s sexual advances, according to her charges, Bekaert propositioned her, telling her that if she were “nicer” to him, her research would proceed faster. Instead, because of her refusals, he delayed and obstructed the work and blocked her from publishing her papers, she alleges.
Ravina will be the first witness to take the stand in the case. In addition to seeking injunctive relief, Ms. Ravina seeks damages in excess of $30 million, including back pay, front pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees. The case is brought under the New York City Human Rights Law, Title VII, and Title IX.
‘RAVINA WAS SUBJECTED TO A HOSTILE WORKPLACE’ CLAIMS HER LAWYER
Ravina is represented by Sanford Heisler Sharp’s Chairman David Sanford and Alexandra Harwin, a partner in the firm’s New York office, as well as partners Vincent McKnight and Andrew Melzer and associates Melinda Koster and Amy Donehower.
“Professor Ravina is a talented and respected educator and researcher whose professional and personal life was completely derailed while the elite academic institution that should have protected her did nothing,” said Sanford. “At trial we will prove that Professor Ravina was subjected to a hostile workplace at Columbia and that Columbia knew exactly what was happening.”
“Professor Ravina made diligent and persistent efforts to report Bekaert’s sexual harassment and career-threatening retaliation to Columbia,” added Harwin. “But not only did her reports fall on deaf ears, they actually led Columbia to retaliate against her, which exacerbated her ordeal.”