A federal jury awarded former Columbia Business School Assistant Professor Enricheeta Ravina $1.25 million in damages in a highly publicized sexual harassment and retaliation trial that lasted more than two weeks in U.S. District Court in New York.
The award falls far short of the more than $30 million Ravina was seeking and follows a highly contentious dispute by lawyers in the case about what the untenured professor would be able to say in front of jurors hearing the damages portion of the case. Among other things, Ravina suggested that Columbia’s decision not to give her tenure would likely mean she will end up at a business school ranked 30th to 40th, a fate she contended would greatly diminish future opportunities in pay, retirement income, consulting, directorships on boards, and even a possible stake in an early stage company in exchange for advisory work.
The back-and-forth among the lawyers and judge that preceded the award provides a fascinating glimpse of life in academia at a top business school, including conversations about housing allowances for Columbia and NYU Stern professors, mortgage support for professors at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, and estimates that consulting work for Ravina would have been worth as much as $800 an hour, or $500,000 a year, along with directorships would have earned her roughly $8.6 million over her lifetime, if only she had been granted tenure at a top ten business school.
$750K IN COMPENSATORY DAMAGES & $500K IN PUNITIVE DAMAGES AWARDED
The jury awarded Ravina, now a visiting professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, $750,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. The disappointing award came after additional testimony by Ravina, her $300-a-session psychiatrist and finance Professor Geert Bekaert who she had accused of sexually harassing her and then retaliating when she rebuffed his unwanted overtures. The jury ruled that Columbia and Bekaert are liable for compensatory damages. Bekaert is also liable for $500,000 in punitive damages. Under the New York City Human Rights Law, the university is responsible for acts of retaliation committed by its employees. Columbia and Bekaert also will be required to pay her legal fees and expenses of more than $5 million.
In a formal statement, Columbia University said it “very much regrets” the actions by Bekaert. “Having found no retaliation or discrimination by Columbia,” according to the statement, “the jury awarded damages based on its finding that Professor Bekaert improperly retaliated against Professor Ravina. Columbia prohibits retaliation against any member of its community and very much regrets the actions by our faculty member in this matter.”
The award is a mere fraction of the more than $30 million Ravina sought, but the jury only found in her favor on a retaliation charge. They did not agree that she was a victim of sexual harassment or gender discrimination, a finding that would have likely resulted in a substantially larger damage award (see Columbia Business School Prof Found Guilty Of Retaliation In Explosive #MeToo Case). And the jury decided against an award for either back pay or front pay.
In fact, the portion of the award that Ravina will receive after taxes and other expenses could be little more than Bekaert’s annual compensation at Columbia. As a tenured full professor at Columbia Business School, Bekaert told the jury today he is making total compensation of $428,000 a year, with $350,000 in base salary and the remainder in “summer support. That sum does not include the value of his subsided housing from Columbia. A single stock sale he made earlier this year as a result of his earlier consulting work with Financial Engines came to $1.8 million. He is earning $50,000 a year as an editor of an academic journal and got a $5,000 advance on a textbook in the past year. Bekaert testified that he has $2 million in retirement accounts, and $5 million in a pair of investment accounts. In one year, Bekaert told the court, he had made $200,000 alone from litigation consulting.
THE REPUTATIONAL DAMAGE TO ALL IS FAR GREATER THAN THE AWARD
Regardless, the monetary damages pale against the reputational damage to the university, its business school, Ravina and Bekaert from a series of highly embarrassing disclosures during the trial. Among other things, the university’s former director of Equal Opportunity & Affirmative Action (EOAA) revealed that he had personally conducted four separate harassment investigations at the business school in a single year, all involving male professors accused of harassment by female faculty or students. In one case, a professor at the business school was alleged to have had consensual sex in his office on campus with a female MBA student. It also was disclosed that two months before Ravina brought her concerns to the university, the EOAA office had completed a review of another harassment complaint against Bekaert by a female MBA student who decided not to pursue the case after she had been threatened with retaliation by Bekaert. The dean’s office said it had been unaware of this previous complaint.
The trial revealed a serious split in the faculty ranks at the business school, with many senior tenured faculty in the finance and economics division siding with Ravina against Bekaert, the school and the university. Columbia Business School Dean Glenn Hubbard called the faculty dispute “a soap opera,” despite the serious nature of the complaints by Ravina, and failed to follow up on his own recommendation that Bekaert be given one-on-one Title IX training (see CBS Dean Calls Faculty Dispute ‘A Soap Opera). Instead, Bekaert was sent to a one-to-two hour session on professional communications.
Nonetheless, Bekaert testified today that he is also paying a big price due to all the publicity the case has attracted, unable to get any more consulting work, among other things. “My reputation is completely shattered,” he told the court. “I have a big scarlet A on my forehead wherever I go. I actually ended up just not going to conferences anymore because I don’t want to explain this stuff. I mean, who do you explain this to?”
‘I FELT EMBARRASSED, HUMILIATED, DEMEANED’
The same is true for Ravina who brought the charges. “As time went on, I became more and more inward looking,” she testified today. “I stopped going out with my friends. I stopped responding to their requests. I stopped dating. I would stay home most of the time and just, like, think about this situation.” Once she understood that Bekaert knew she had gone to the dean’s office to complain, her fears escalated. “I was scared because I was feeling revenge, retaliation,” Ravina told the courtroom. “I was scared that this person would be enraged with me and would badmouth me, try to get the data from me, try to ruin my professional career and my professional prospects, that other people would not want to collaborate with me. As time passe, I realized that nothing was happening. I realized that this person was unleashed against me and the university was not stopping it. And so it’s very stressful to go through a complaint. It took me some time to realize that the institution would not do anything, and that I was completely lost and powerless.
When she saw Bekaert’s emails to others calling her “insane” and an “evil bitch,” among other things, Ravina said she was in shock. “I felt embarrassed, humiliated, demeaned. I felt like how am I going to face these people and all their friends and anybody else that might have gotten these emails forwarded to them, or talked in person with Professor Bekaert. I got concerned because when I go for an interview, apply for a grant, or even just go to a conference and interact iwth people, I will never know who among those people know about this, who got the email forward to them. And this is scary, it’s concerning, and it’s also embarrassing.” At one point, Bekaert emailed his girlfriend and coauthor, an economist who works for the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Germany, to tell her he wanted to “strangle” Ravina.
Ravina’s psychiatrist, Howard Silbert, testified that he has held about 170 treatment sessions with her since their first meeting on March 21, 2014, just months before she filed a complaint with the business school about her experiences with Bekaert. Ravina asserted that Bekaert kept hitting on her as she tried to work with him on research projects that were critical to her future. 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.”) Bekaert denied all of it in court, though when interviewed by a university investigator he would not answer a question on whether he ever had physical contact with Ravina.