A jury today (July 26) found that Columbia Business School Professor Geert Bekaert retaliated against an untenured female assistant professor who complained of being sexually harassed by him in a $30 million lawsuit. The federal jury of four men and four women ruled in favor of Enrichetta Ravina on retaliation by Bekaert but also found that Columbia had neither discriminated against Ravina nor retaliated against her through its actions. Ravina, who left CBS in 2017 and now is a visiting professor at the Kellogg School of Management, had sued the university and her former mentor.
The trial, which began on July 9th, now moves into a second phase for the jury to determine damages. Ravina is seeking 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. The jury, however, decided only Bekaert is liable for punitive damages, though New York City law holds employers liable for employee actions. As a result, Columbia University will end up being responsible for damages, along with Bekaert.
The jury deliberated for little more than 10 hours before returning the verdict in the high profile case in the courtroom of Judge Ronnie Abrams in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Ravina, 42, alleged that Bekaert, 53, 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. Bekaert vehemently denied the charges, saying he had no romantic interest in his one-time mentee who is 11 years his junior.
Ultimately, however, jurors did not agree that she was a victim of sexual harassment or gender discrimination. Instead, the jury agreed that Bekaert engaged in retaliatory actions that damaged her academic career. Jurors did not buy into Bekaert’s defense that he did not stall their collaborative work and that his emails disparaging Ravina to colleagues all over the world were merely attempts to defend himself against her allegations.
A CLASS EXAMPLE OF A MENTORSHIP GONE HORRIBLY WRONG
The narrative in the courtroom was represented 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 brought them together was Bekaert’s access to a dataset, belonging to Financial Engines Inc., of 3.8 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.
In the courtroom, Ravina asserted that Bekaert kept hitting on her. 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 stewardness who wanted to get an MBA at Columbia Business School, 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.”)
BE NICER, AND THE WORK WILL MOVE FASTER
When Ravina resisted Bekaert’s sexual advances, she testified, 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 alleged.
“I felt trapped,” she testified. “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.’”
Ravina said she was often dumbfounded about what to do. “I felt that every time I would go to Professor’s Bekaert’s office, he was not thinking about work,” she told the court. “He was thinking about sex. And I was there to make the work go forward. I was growing basically desperate because we were already in the fall of 2013 and nothing had happened on my project despite (the fact) we were ready the spring to be analyzed and I was trying to get his approval in some way to move forward. If anything, he was stalling more. He was just sitting there, saying he was busy, he didn’t have time, he wasn’t ready, and it was as if he was sort of waiting to see if I was changing my mind, if I would sleep with him instead of like freezing when he’d hold my hand or running up the stairs when he would try to kiss me” (see Columbia Business School’s Shocking #MeToo Trial: ‘Blunt Belgium’ Calls Former Menthe ‘Evil Bitch’).
‘I COULDN’T AFFORD TO OFFEND HIM’
She described a classic dilemma for many women in the workplace. “I couldn’t afford to offend him,” she said. “I didn’t want to. I was walking a tightrope. I was deep in the project. I didn’t have time to move around and do something else. And at the same time I needed his support and I needed especially for him to say yes to the next step. I had been going to his office reglarly to get him to proceed. He would not proceed. He would always insist about switching the topic to something about his life, about going for dinner, about sex. I didn’t want him to be upset at me or get confrontational.”
But he did, according to her, get quite upset and quite confrontational. 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. It 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.”