Prof Wins $1.25 Million From Columbia & B-School Professor Geert Bekaert

Columbia Business School

‘IT SEEMED TO ME THAT SHE WAS IN A VERY DIFFICULT SITUATION’

Silbert told the court that she came to him after having difficulty sleeping and concentrating at work. In the early weeks of her treatment, said Silbert, “it seemed to me that she was in a very difficult situation. We talked about ways that she could try to limit the potential for future harassment, making it crystal clear that she was interested in only a professional relationship and getting work done, trying to appeal to his professionalism as a colleague and a mentor, and trying to, again, keeping it very clear that the objective was to complete high-quality research work.

“She felt that there were implied and overt threats that her career was in jeopardy, and she worried about this to a significant degree. She experienced him not following through on promises he had made to get work done. He had been withholding data that was essential to get the work done. He was threatening essentially to badmouth her. He had, of course, contacts within the department that would have been with people who would be ruling on her status as to whether or not she would be granted tenure.”

Her doctor said her symptoms continue to be severe and have included “extreme anxiety, disturbed sleep, disturbed appetite, impaired ability to enjoy usually pleasurable activities, fears, distrust, aversion to social situations, at times she’s felt suicidal, and deep concern about her long-term prospects to achieve success. The symptoms have impacted her social relationships. She’s tended to shy away from friends. She avoids contact with people. She’s miserable.”

HER ABILITY TO CARRY ON ‘SPEAKS MORE TO HER STRENGTH OF CHARACTER’

Silbert testified that Ravina believed “she was being branded a troublemaker, someone who wasn’t suitable for the system or the culture at Columbia, disparaging about her, the quality of her work, what it was like to be a colleague. She felt that there was a chill leading to even a sense of her being radioactive, that some people, in particiiular people who she knew were close to Dr. Bekaert, were giving her the cold shoulder, were kind of marginalizing her. She’s been distraught. She felt unsupported by the department in general, and by some of these other professionals in particular.”

According to her psychiatrist, her ability to carry on “speaks more to her strength of character, her motivation to move forward in life. These are relative considerations. She’s not functioning anywhere near what I believe her demonstrated potential is. I think subjectively, she’s miserable.”

The damages award by the four-woman, four-man jury came after the jurors found yesterday that Bekaert,  Ravina’s senior colleague and mentor at Columbia Business School, retaliated against her after she alleged to Columbia that he was stalling their work on research projects and that he had been sexually harassing her for more than two years. By delaying his work on the research, Ravina charged, he effectively ruined her chances of gaining the publications she needed to obtain tenure.

WHAT’S A BUSINESS SCHOOL ACADEMIC WORTH? DOES IT REALLY DEPEND ON A RANKING?

While the award had to be disappointing to Ravina and her attorneys, the discussion that preceded the jury’s return to hear the damages portion of the trial had to be equally frustrating. In a deposition given by Ravina immediately after the jury’s verdict yesterday, the professor suggested that her earnings potential would be severely impacted by Columbia’s decision to deny her tenure in 2016. She said that it was common knowledge in the field that if you don’t get tenure at a top ten school, you have to look at a lower school, probably one ranked in the 30 to 40 range by U.S. News. The difference in a finance professor’s salary between Columbia and a business school that is ranked between 30th and 40th by U.S. News was estimated by Ravina to be about $3.4 million over the remainder of her career. But the jury was instructed by the judge to not award damages based on speculation, even though an estimate like that has to be speculative by definition.

In her final year at Columbia as an assistant professor, Ravina was paid $275,000 and also received a housing allowance of $57,000 a year. At Kellogg, as a visiting professor on a two-year contract, she gained a 3% increase in her compensation with no housing subsidy. Her estimate of lost earnings assumed a retirement age of 70 for Ravina, now 42.

That would mean, she testified, that her salary and retirement benefits would be reduced along with the opportunities she would have to do litigation consulting, corporate consulting, and directorships. Ravina believed that as a tenured professor at Columbia Business School she would have been making $800 an hour and up to $500,000 a year in additional income. She also believed that she would lose an opportunity to earn a stake in a startup or early stage company in exchange of her advisory work. Such a stake, Ravina said, could be worth a .1 percent ownership interest in a company worth $2 billion or more. Raving estimated that lost directorships, citing Italian-born professors who have had board seats at Italian Telecom and Unibank, could be worth $8.6 million over her lifetime.

Edward Hernstadt, the attorney representing Bekaert, took strong issue with her statements on lost opportunities as a result of the retaliation finding by the jury. He argued that her estimates were merely based on conversations with a few colleagues, a look at the CVs of professors, and an online search of salaries for professors at business schools ranked 30th to 40th.

HER DAMAGE ESTIMATES ARE ‘GUESSWORK’

“She did no rigorous study to determine how many people got outside consulting, how many tenured professors had outside consulting jobs,” Hernstadt told the judge. “She guessed 50%, 60%. She named a couple of individuals that she had heard from that had consulting (work). She doesn’t know what they charged. She doesn’t know how they get the jobs. She doesn’t know why they get the jobs. It’s all guesswork..We know that the activity reports of Columbia professors show that four tenured finance professors consult. This is a department of 35 people who have tenure. Not 50%, not 60%.”

Countered Alexandra Harwin, who also represented Ravina, “She has been in the academic world for a long time. She’s also been involved in recruiting. As part of being an academic, that is something that is part of the fabric of every day life. People are talking all the time about going to… they have the directorship meeting today. They’re going over to this company for consulting. They’re teaching next week at this company. I am away next week because I’m teaching in this place. This is something that it’s not one conversation. This is the life of academics.”

Hernstadt, attempting to rein in testimony that could lead a jury to award more money in damages, wasn’t buying it. “She’s clearly not an expert,” he claimed. “She has no experience of any kind with litigation consulting, corporate consulting, outside directorships. Even calculating her front pay, the mathematics of that, she’s more than qualified to do. But the selection of her decision to select schools from the ranked 30 to 40 in U.S. News and World Report…she’s not an expert in making those sort of decisions. And then the way she did it is incredibly flawed.

A .1% STAKE IN A STARTUP THAT COULD BE WORTH $2 BILLION OR MORE

“She would earn all of this stuff starting in 2020? So starting in 2020, she’s going to have two directorships with 16 board meetings in Italy. She’s going to be working 60 hours a year on litigation consulting. She is going to be working for a startup. Who knows what the time involvement is to get a .1 percent equity stake in that company. She is going to be doing external teaching. There is no basis for anything. To say this is a possible opportunity is one thing. To put a dollar figure or any kind of actual number on any of this is….

“Witness the $8.6 million she is seeking for directorship. She has no experience at all in that world. She knows nothing about what these extrernal companies in the real world look for, what they base decisions on, and what  qualifications they think are necessary. I think we all know when it comes to litigation consulting, if you are going to hire someone as a litigation consultant and possible expert witness, you’re looking for the biggest, best, strongest resume that you can get.  You want someone who wrote the book on the subject matter or wrote a dozen top articles on the subject matter. You are not  going to take someone who just made full professor and has a handful of articles. Professor Ravina has no experience in that world.”

“She is in the business of being an academic,” argued Harwin. “It is extremely common for academics to do these kind of opportunities, and it is the common understanding of finance professors who are on the enture track that these opportunities are available when they become full professors. And so that’s been part of her essentially sort of understanding of her field and career trajectory for an extended period. Professor Ravina’s calculations account for levels of risk and uncertainty associated with these possibilities.”

‘THERE ARE LOWER RANKED SCHOOLS THAT PAY MORE THAN TOP RANKED SCHOOLS’

Harwin noted that she looked at the CVs of 135 professors at schools ranked 30th to 40th and also averaged the salaries of both an associate professor and a full tenured professor at Temple University, Penn State University, Michigan State, the University of Texas at Dallas, and the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana to come up with some of her estimates.

Shot back Bekaert’s attorney: “I don’t think she can testify that she thinks she would be paid less. That’s pure speculation. There are lower ranked schools that pay more than top ranked schools because of where they are or how much money they have. That’s common. In other words, she can’t testify she’ll make less because that’s a guess.”

“It’s not a guess,” retorted Harwin. “It’s not a guess at all. It’s clear that she as an academic has a broad understanding about what it looks like to be at a top school versus lower tiered schools. And it’s clear  she can testify about her job prospects with respect to academic positions and then what follows is the translation essentially.”

Ultimately, the jury decided that the damages would be far less than what Ravina and her attorneys had wanted. $1.25 million in all.

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About The Author

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.