A jury verdict is often as unpredictable as a coin toss. Even seemingly open-and-shut cases result in surprise endings. So it’s hard to predict how a jury in a New York City courtroom will come out on an explosive trial involving Columbia Business School and a junior female faculty member who claims she was sexually harassed by her self-designated mentor, a senior tenured male professor, who she also accuses of sabatoging her career.
After closing arguments today (July 24) in the more than two-week-old trial, the jury was sent off for deliberations to consider the once promising mentorship between Enrichetta Ravina and Geert Bekaert, a collaborative partnership that devolved into a bitter and nasty breakup. The dispute ultimately caused a major split among the senior faculty at Columbia Business School, resulted in her being denied tenure, and led to the $30 million lawsuit she filed against Bekaert and the university (see excerpts of the closing arguments by the lawyers).
If the jury were to decide this case merely on the merits of a junior professor’s publication record for tenure, this would be a no-brainer. But this is not a tenure case, no matter how hard Columbia University’s lawyers have tried to make it just that. It’s a sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation case. It’s a case against an arrogant, unpopular senior faculty member, sadly protected by tenure, a case against a university and business school accused of failing to protect a junior professor from both harassment and career sabotage.
IN A HE-SAID, SHE-SAID WORLD, IT TAKES TREMENDOUS COURAGE FOR A WOMEN TO COME FORWARD
That’s why Geert Bekaert, the accused senior professor of finance, and Columbia University will likely lose the case. Like Bill Cosby, Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, Bekeart will no doubt go to his grave denying he did anything to sexually harass the Italian-born assistant professor 11 years his younger. He claims, like Trump and others before him, that he had no romantic interest in his mentee at all.
But in a he-said, she-said world, it takes a tremendous amount of courage for a woman to come forward and tell the world her story. No one who knows her, including the most senior administrators in the dean’s office, denies that she was under extreme duress. The vivid detail of her allegations—from the first time Bekeart told her his marriage was on the rocks and the time he asked her if she had a live-in boyfriend to the time he asked her out on one-on-one dinner dates and the time he allegedly tried to kiss her on the lips—are highly convincing pieces of a larger narrative.
That is especially so because this same professor had been accused of repeatedly harassing a female MBA student only a couple of months before Ravina came forth to tell the business school she needed help in dealing with Bekaert. After Bekaert threatened the student with retaliation for her complaint, she chose not to participate in the Title IX investigation. It is little surprise then that a publicly available assessment of Bekaert in the classroom written anonymously by a student is an indictment of him as a teacher. Awarding Bekaert an “F” grade, the MBA candidate wrote that he has contempt for his students, is “stingy with knowledge, a “horrible instructor” who “disrespected students” and “had little desire to teach.”
HER ONE-TIME MENTOR CALLED HER CRAZY, INSANE, AN EVIL BITCH
After Ravina filed her complaint against him, Bekeart conducted a concerted campaign to discredit Ravina and damage her academic career. He sent at more than 30 emails to more than two dozen professors all over the world, many of them in highly influential positions at top academic journals critical to her success. In those emails, he variously described his former mentee as “crazy,” “insane,” or “an evil bitch,” causing untold damage to her career and her ability to get published in the future. This is not the behavior of a highly educated, rational man nor it is the behavior of someone who is innocent. This was, as Ravina’s lawyer, David Sanford, put it, “a systematic, planned and intentional grotesque smear campaign.”
The emails introduced as evidence, in fact, portray Bekaert, who has been a tenured professor at CBS for 18 years, as an often emotional, angry and defensive man, eager to discredit and defame his accuser and claim that he was actually the victim in the case. “The laws in this country are screwed up and totally biased against the privileged white males,” he wrote in an email to a colleague. “If this is harassment,” Bekeart wrote another, “the Americans really are total pussies.”
The fact that many of the senior, tenured professors in their finance and economics division sided not with Bekeart but with Ravina tells you enough about what they think of their senior colleague. The faculty, in fact, filed three separate petitions with Columbia Business School Dean Glenn Hubbard, each one of them demonstrating considerable support for their junior colleague.
In his summation today, Sanford noted that support from her colleagues. “No one from Columbia besides Professor Bekaert has claimed that Professor Ravina was making this up,” he said. “In fact, Director Dunn, Columbia’s own investigator, testified that he thought Professor Ravina honestly expressed her beliefs about what was happening with Professor Bekaert. He thought Professor Ravina was deeply affected and troubled by what she had experienced. And faculty at Columbia Business School were so concerned about Professor Ravina’s situation that they repeatedly escalated their concerns all over the university. To the division chair, to the dean of the business school, to the executive commitee, to the provost of the university, and even to the president himself of Columbia University.”
THE UNIVERSITY FAILED TO PROTECT HER FROM BEKAERT’S RAGE AND RETALIATION
What did the university do to protect her? Shockingly little. Even though it had closed its harassment investigation into Bekeart just two months earlier, the university’s Equal Opportunity & Affirmative Action (EOAA) conducted a shockingly superficial and incomplete review of Ravina’s charges. On the witness stand, Michael Dunn, the EEOA’s then director, conceded that he only interviewed one other person, besides Ravina and Bekeart. That person was a research assistant and graduate student who immediately admitted that she was “biased” in favor of Bekeart who she described as a “father figure” and who would serve on her dissertation committee. The student, Nancy Xu, had stopped working on the collaboration between Ravina and Bekeart in December of 2012, long before the relationship openly devolved into a bitter dispute.
Dunn, in fact, conceded there was no formal investigation, just a “preliminary fact-finding review.” Even that description of what he did and did not do is rather generous. Sanford rightly calls the investigation “a complete sham.” Dunn admitted on the stand that he hadn’t even prepared any questions for Ravina when he first interviewed her and that he never followed up with her on any of the 170 pages of emails between her and Bekaert that she had sent him. Even worse, Dunn said that his highly limited “investigation” was narrowly focused along the lines of sexual harassment and failed to probe Ravina’s claims of gender discrimination, retaliation or other discriminatory harassment.
In other words, the university failed to properly investigate her charges and then failed to protect her from Bekeart’s retaliatory actions once she came forward. Bekeart’s own emails conceded he stopped working on their collaboration for several months because of his dislike for his one-time mentee. Dunn also failed to follow up on a recommendation from Dean Hubbard that Bekaert undergo one-on-one Title IX training, even though he had initially agreed with that recommendation. Instead, Bekaert was sent at his convenience to a one-to-two hour training session on appropriate professional communications.