CBS Dean Calls Faculty Dispute ‘A Soap Opera’

Columbia Business School Dean Glenn Hubbard was called to testify in an explosive sexual harassment trial

Columbia Business School Dean Glenn Hubbard referred to an escalating conflict between a junior faculty member and a senior tenured professor at the school as a “soap opera” and said he told both teachers that their behavior toward each other was “unprofessional” and “disgraceful.”

“I’ve been teaching 35 years. I’ve never seen anything like this,” Hubbard told a New York City courtroom this week. “The most common dispute — and even that I could count fingers on one hand — would be a teaching dispute, you know, who developed what materials for class, but I have never had to referee something like this in 35 years of being an economist.”

Hubbard, dean of Columbia Business School since 2004, testified Wednesday (July 18) in a $30 million lawsuit trial now in its second week. The trial pits an Italian born junior faculty member, Enrichetta Ravina, who had been denied tenure at Columbia, against a senior tenured professor, Geert Bekaert, who once had been her mentor. Ravina accuses Bekaert of sexual harassment, retaliation and career sabotage. She charges that Columbia University failed to protect her from Bekaert’s alleged actions after it knew of the dispute between them.

HER ALLEGATIONS HAVE BECOME TABLOID FODDER

The trial has resulted in tabloid coverage in both the New York Post and the New York Daily News as well as The Daily Mail in Britain. Ravina claims Bekaert began hitting on her soon after they agreed to collaborate on several research projects in 2008. She alleges that he slid his hand down her back to her butt in a taxi, attempted an unwanted kiss on the stoop outside her New York apartment, grabbed her hand at a mid-town bar, leered at her breasts in his office.

She claims he often pursued inappropriate conversations in which he allegedly talked about his troubled marriage, asked her if she had a live-in boyfriend, told her about an affair with a stewardess who wanted to get an MBA at Columbia Business School, frequently steered conversations to sex and discussed 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, for this part, denies ever having had a romantic interest in her and believes her accusations are part of a con job to explain her failure to do the work that would have gotten her tenure (see Columbia Business School’s Shocking #MeToo Trial). Several other senior faculty members, however, had taken her side, believing that Bekaert and the university have treated her unfairly. They drafted and signed three different petitions on her behalf, wrote letters to Columbia University’s president and provost as well as Dean Hubbard and his vice deans.

‘I THOUGHT IT WAS A SOAP OPERA. SITTING HERE TODAY, I THINK IT’

Former Columbia Business School Assistant Professor Enrichetta Ravina

Even though he labeled the dispute a soap opera, Hubbard maintained that he treated it seriously from the start. “It was serious,” he testified, “because that involved their professional lack of communication, and I thought it was a soap opera. Sitting here today, I think it.”

Less than a month after he first learned of problems between the two professors, Hubbard told a colleague via email, “I am weary of being in the middle of this.” By August, after Ravina informed him she was having an extremely difficult time with Bekaert, Hubbard told a colleague, “I do not have the time to personally monitor all of this multiple times a day.” In yet another email, Hubbard complained: “I do not deserve this, nor will I continue to waste my time. Can we get Michael Dunn to commit to take this over,” referring to the director of the university’s Equal Opportunity & Affirmative Action (EOAA) office.

Hubbard said that between the time of his first meeting over the dispute in June of 2014 and her tenure case in May of 2016, there were 35 separate meetings on the dean’s office calendar alone to try to resolve the fight. When the dispute first came to his attention, he said he had been unaware that the university had only recently investigated Bekaert for another harassment complaint brought against him by an MBA student (see Columbia Prof Also Accused Of Harassment By An MBA Student).

THE DEAN FIRST HEARD OF THE PROBLEM IN MAY OF 2014

Hubbard said he first heard of the problem in May of 2014 after Senior Vice Dean Gita Johar had a meeting with Ravina and two other CBS professors Patrick Bolton and Santos. Ravina then told Johar that a senior tenured faculty member was being abusive, vindictive and belittling her. She brought along a raft of emails that clearly displayed a quickly deteriorating relationship between the two professors.

Ravina said she had been quietly enduring a series of overtures by Bekaert to turn what was a professional relationship into a personal one starting in the summer and fall of 2012. When she made clear she had no interest in him, she said, he began to stall his own work on their research projects as her tenure clock kept ticking away. In late November of 2013, she testified, Bekaert told her that “if you were nicer to me, your papers would move faster.”

Their exchanges, largely via email, would become more heated as she tried to get him to agree to a work schedule to move their research along. Ravina said that her mentor was becoming more aggressive and confrontational. “He would talk about sex, he wanted to go to dinner, he would stall the progress. He would refuse to give approval. It was slowing, slowing, and waiting and this concluded with him not even sharing drafts, anymore.”

‘I WILL BRING A WHIP’

“So, while I have started nibbling away at the draft, I will not show you antyhing, as you do not seem to grasp the concept of an evolving work in progress,” Bekaert wrote her on Dec. 1, 2013.

“This has to stop,” wrote Bekaert to her in one email. “You are insane. If you do not start acting normally, I’m going to drop the whole thing. Jeez.”

Ravina said she began having trouble sleeping and started seeing a psychiatrist in March of 2014.

“Hi Geert.

We need to reevaluate our working relationship to make sure that everyone is treated professionally respectfullly and correctly and that everyone’s needs are met so that we can work and communicate productively. Based on the emails below and more generally, I feel that is not the case now.

Best, Enrichetta”

Bekaert’s response: “Yes, let’s meet next week. I will bring a whip.”

AT THE FIRST MEETING WITH RAVINA, THE DEAN THOUGHT IT WAS ‘PURELY A PROFESSIONAL DISPUTE’

“I thought it was extremely rude,” Ravina testified. “It was disrespectful. He was completely ignoring my request to be professional, and he was just telling me that he was in charge, that he would bring a whip and put me into place.”

At his first meeting with Ravina, Hubbard said there was no mention of sexual harassment. “This was purely a professional dispute, as her own email after the fact reveals,” said Hubbard. It wasn’t until a subsequent meeting three months later when it became clear to him that Ravina also was alleging that Bekaert had sexually harassed her. At that point, he referred the complaint to the university’s EOAA office.

The dean said he had many meetings with Bekaert over the course of the dispute. “I wanted to remind him of his special responsibility because he’s a tenured faculty member and that I expected collegiality,” Hubbard told the court. “I meant that they needed to have a constructive working relationship or just stop. But I didn’t want to see the kind of fighting that I’d heard about.”

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.