After Columbia Business School Professor Geert Bekaert was accused of sexual harassment by a junior professor who had been his mentee, he was clearly outraged. He dashed off a series of emails to colleagues around the world calling the young professional, Enrichetta Ravina, a fucking evil bitch, crazy, insane, mentally unstable, paranoid, schitzophrenic and berserk.
At one point, Bekaert confessed that he wanted to strangle her.
In a New York City courtroom this week, Bekaert’s attorney conceded that some of the emails are “pretty pungent.” Bekaert was known by many at Columbia Business School as the “Blunt Belgian.” “Sometimes, he’s brusque,” explained his attorney, Edward Hernstadt. “He could sometimes be rude…His responses are sometimes intemperate and edgy.
TRIAL OPENS AT A TIME WHEN SEXUAL HARASSMENT HAS BECOME A GLOBAL TALKING POINT
“These are emails,” added Hernstadt, “that express his hurt and his sense of shock. This is an all-too-human reaction, and the actual words used may be surprising and they may be shocking in isolation. They express the understandable distress of a man who’s been betrayed by someone he considered a friend and a co-author.”
The explosive drama unfolding in the courtroom results from a once promising academic partnership gone horribly wrong. It is an all-too-familiar story of a professional mentorship that devolved into a bitter squabble with serious accusations on both sides. It pits an Italian-born professor who was ultimately denied tenure at Columbia Business School against a senior faculty member, who held enormous power over her career prospects, and Columbia University itself. Now 53 years old, Bekaert is 11 years older than Ravina, who is 42 and teaching at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
And the trial opens at a time when sexual harassment has become a national, if not, global talking point. Ever since revelations of sexual misconduct by movie producer Harvey Weinstein last fall, an international movement against sexual harassment and assault with the hashtag #MeToo has spread virally in movie studios, business offices and college campuses all over the world. The consequences of the he-said, she-said lawsuit are huge because Ravina is asking for $30 million in damages.
‘IF YOU WERE NICER TO ME, YOUR PAPERS WOULD MOVE FASTER’
Ravina accuses one of Columbia Business School’s most senior professors of abusing his power by sexually harassing her for more than a year, and then sabotaging her academic career when she continually fended off his alleged attempts to get her to go to bed with him.
At one point, she claims, Bekaert, who had a major influence over her ability to publish academic research vital to a forthcoming tenure decision, told her: “If you were nicer to me, your papers would move faster.”
“I’m already as nice as I can be,” she said she responded.
‘PROSTITUTES KEEP MEN OUT OF TROUBLE. THEY ARE IMPORTANT TO SATISFY A MAN’S SEX DRIVE’
Meantime, her one-time mentor calls her an outright liar. Bekaert contends that numerous events she has now vividly described on the stand, including an alleged incident in which his hand slid down her back to her butt in a taxi, an unwanted kiss on the stoop outside her New York apartment, grabbing her hand at a mid-town bar, leering at her breasts in his office, never occurred. Neither did conversations in which he allegedly talked about his troubled marriage, whether she had a live-in boyfriend, his affair with a stewardness who wanted to get an MBA at Columbia Business School, or his discussions about pornography and prostitutes (“They keep men out of trouble,” Ravina claimed he told her. “They are important to satisfy a man’s sex drive.”)
Bekaert’s lawyer calls the accusations little more than a “Plan B” once her tenure was in serious doubt. “This is a story of the betrayal of a research partnership and a friendship through scapegoating to evade the consequences of failure to publish, rather than a case of discrimination or retaliation,” maintained Hernstadt in his opening arguments.
The trial, expected to last up to three weeks, began on Monday with opening arguments. The following two days, Ravina took the stand to deliver riveting and highly damaging testimony. Professor Bekeart will take the stand tomorrow on Thursday (July 12). Before it is all over, even Columbia Business School Dean Glenn Hubbard is expected to testify in court. So are several other vice deans and faculty members, including a well respected colleague at CBS, Patrick Bolton, the recent president of the American Finance Association, who has called Ravina’s research “pioneering, ambitious and of exceptional quality.”
AN OPPORTUNITY TO USE A MASSIVE DATA SET FOR GROUNDBREAKING RESEARCH
It started innocently enough. Ravina was hired by Columbia Business School in 2008 for a tenure track position. Born in Italy, she had studied economics at the University of Torino and came to the U.S. for her doctorate in economics at Northwestern University. She then landed a job as an assistant professor of finance and economics at New York University’s Stern School. She had also been a visiting scholar at the Harvard Business School as well as at the New York Federal Reserve Bank when recruited by CBS.
in the 2009-2010 academic year, Bekaert approached Ravina with an offer to work on a huge data set of individuals retirement savings decisions. Some 20 million data points had been stored by a company, Financial Engines, he had worked with as a consultant for years. Bekaert believed that the data could be a source for groundbreaking research that would make her academic career. He would work with her on the project, agreeing to be her mentor and co-author on the papers that would ultimately come from the research. If all went well, the opportunity could lead to the publication of a steady tream of high-impact papers in time for her to be considered for tenure.
The data started to come in during the 2011-2012 academic year and she went to work, putting several other research projects on the back burner. Ravina trained and supervised as many as 40 research assistants to work on the project, according to her attorney David Sanford. She wrote numerous software codes that were essential to analyze the data. But, according to Ravina, she consistently ran into trouble getting Bekaert to focus on the research work. Instead, she claimed, he kept asking her out for dinner and engaging in less-than-professional conversations starting in the summer and fall of 2012.
‘HE KISSED HER, GRABBED HER HAND, LEERED AT HER BREASTS’
“He asked about whether she had a boyfriend,” said Sanford in his opening remarks on Monday. “He sent her romantic music. He asked her to give him compliments to reassure him that he was desirable. In the spring of 2013, he talked about his sex life and told her that her walk was sexy. He kissed her, grabbed her hand, leered at her breasts. He talked frequently about sex, including comments about pornography and prostitution.
“Because she refused to have a personal relationship with him, Bekaert engaged in a pattern of delay by not cooperating with her,” added Sanford. “He would not review her work. He would not produce his own part of the work. He would not give approval for work that she was doing and he did little to advance prospects for publication. He routinely refused to cooperate professionally with her at the very same time he was expressing sexual interest in her. At one point, he emailed a research assistant and admitted that he had stopped working on the project for months because Professor Ravina had really pissed him off. All the while, her tenure clock was running.”
Ravina laid out her story in stark detail in two days of testimony. “I felt trapped,” she said. “I felt that I could not offend him because otherwise he would lash out at me and ruin my chance of publishing…At the same time, I didn’t want to sleep with him. I just wanted him to say, ‘Yes, let’s proceed with this task.’”