A feminist New York University professor who was suspended for allegedly harassing a former graduate student last year—setting off a debate about the authenticity of the #MeToo movement—will return to the school this fall with a course on “boundary troubles.”
Avital Ronell, 67, was removed from the classroom last year after an internal NYU investigation found she “engaged in sexual harassment” of her doctoral advisee over a three-year period. The report quotes emails in which she called him pet names and sent him messages like, “You looked gorgeous; Couldn’t keep my eyes off you!” Ronell has denied all allegations of harassment.
The professor’s first course upon returning to the school will be titled “Unsettled Scores: Theories of Grievance, Stuckness, and Boundary Troubles,” according to a description first obtained by NYU Local. The course will explore how students are “confined within a grievance culture” and to what extent boundaries “protect or limit the possibility of experience.” Featured texts include a book on a terrorist whose “demise in the face of inequity drives him to political despair.”
The professor told The Daily Beast her course was inspired by lectures and teachings she had given in Europe over the past year, and would focus on the “alarming and racist evolution of penitentiary culture.”
“Our class will study the formation of the ‘carcel subject,’ a term coined by Michel Foucault to indicate ways through which institutions like the university or the state or media conglomerates confine, isolate, and alienate individuals and whole communities,” Ronell said via email. “I will also show how one tends to internalize and personalize the very phenomena that one disavows—in this case structures of incarceration.”
But commenters were quick to point out the irony of Ronell teaching a class on boundaries.
“Can someone explain to me why NYU is letting Avital Ronell teach a class that is basically trolling grad students who wanted senior scholars not to be a bunch of boundary abusing jerks?” tweeted University of Texas at Austin Prof. Marisol LeBrón.
Andrea Long Chu, an NYU doctoral candidate and one of the first people to notice Ronell’s new course offering, added: “The funny thing is it’s just the same damn texts she ALWAYS teaches, she really has to go out of her way to own herself this bad.” The message was retweeted by NYU’s graduate student union.
An NYU spokesperson said the university does not discuss personnel issues concerning individual employees.
News of Ronell’s suspension last year set off a firestorm in the academic community. While some spoke out on Reitman’s behalf, a number of prominent feminist scholars signed on to a letter defending the professor and calling the allegations “malicious.” The signatories praised Ronell’s “keen wit” and “intellectual commitment” and added that if she were to be terminated, “the injustice would be widely recognized and opposed.”
Ronell previously told the New York Times that the communications cited in Reitman’s Title IX complaint were the result of a shared “penchant for florid and campy communications” stemming from their identities as a gay man and lesbian woman with Israeli heritage. A statement issued on her behalf quoted a number of emails in which Reitman allegedly expressed affection for the professor.
Reitman is currently suing Ronell and NYU for sexual harassment, retaliation, and infliction of emotional distress, among other things. The lawsuit, which is pending in New York State Supreme Court, claims that Ronell “would touch, grab, fondle and kiss Reitman (over his objections), and often demanded that he act in kind,” and that she “burst into a jealous rage when his attention was... not fully devoted to her.”
“Reitman reported Ronell’s unwelcome sexual contact, including sexual comments, unwanted touching, stalking, and unwanted sexual advances, to responsible school officials at NYU, including an NYU Vice Provost who had the authority and obligation to address the wrongful conduct and to institute corrective measures, but failed to take any action,” the lawsuit states .
An NYU spokesperson told the Times the university was “sympathetic” to what Reitman went through, but that “given the promptness, seriousness and thoroughness with which we responded to his charges, we do not believe that his filing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the university would be warranted or just.”