The sisterhood is not amused. A lesbian feminist has been suspended from her teaching post at New York University for a year, judged to have sexually harassed a gay man who was formerly her graduate student. (Yes, this is a bit confusing.)
The accused, Avital Ronell, is described by The New York Times as a “world-renowned female professor of German and Comparative Literature” and by a colleague as “one of the very few philosopher-stars of this world.” In academic circles, in other words, she is a big deal.
She is also now considered by many to be a victim of Title IX, the very law that she and so many other like-minded women have championed. A group of well-known feminists and academics have rallied to her defense, talking of her good character and record, and also trying to besmirch the reputation of Nimrod Reitman, the young man who filed charges of not only harassment against Ronell, but also sexual assault.
Supporters of Ronell have, of course, attracted charges of hypocrisy by adopting the very same playbook used by friends of people like former TV morning show hosts Matt Lauer of NBC and Charlie Rose of CBS, who lost their jobs after being accused of mistreating women.
But the situation involving Ronell is more fraught, because in the rarified world of academia, charges of sexual assault are treated in a manner many think unfair. The approach, widely backed by feminists like Ronell, has been dictated by the terms of Title IX and also politicized by President Obama.
In 2011, Obama sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to colleges and universities that receive federal funds, reminding them that under Title IX, initially passed as a civil rights measure, they must use a standard of proof called “preponderance of evidence” in judging complaints of sexual misconduct.
That requirement – much less onerous that proving guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” – tends to favor the accuser. Critics say it denies those accused of wrongdoing their rights to due process under law.
Asked about the policy, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Rosen: “There's been criticism of some college codes of conduct for not giving the accused person a fair opportunity to be heard, and that's one of the basic tenets of our system.” Asked if she considered those criticisms valid, Ginsburg said she did.
Mostly, of course, it has been young men who have been accused of sexual misconduct and who have, in many cases, been railroaded out of school – their lives and reputations in tatters. They claim they have not been given the right to defend themselves, and say that in many instances it is simply their word against that of their accuser. Some are undoubtedly guilty of sexual misconduct, but some are not.
Defenders of the Title IX directive argue that drastic measures are required, given that sexual assault on college campuses is rampant. President Obama (and others) have claimed: “It is estimated that 1 in 5 women on college campuses has been sexually assaulted during their time there – 1 in 5.”
That statistic figure stemmed from a 2007 survey of women at two universities conducted by the Justice Department and it has been widely disputed. Among other flaws, the study had a low response rate and the definition of sexual assault was overly expansive.
The study said sexual assault included “forced touching of a sexual nature (forced kissing, touching of private parts, grabbing, fondling, rubbing up against you in a sexual way, even if it is over your clothes).” That could encompass any number of encounters that in more innocent days might have been dismissed as an unpleasant come-on.
Why would President Obama or anyone else want to sensationalize the rate of sexual misconduct on college campuses? For the same reason that he and many other Democratic politicians continue to denounce the overstated “gender gap” in wages and portray judges nominated by Republicans as eager to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide. These positions cast Democrats as protectors of women and win them votes.
Democrats have successfully used the “war on women” theme; the results speak for themselves. In 2016, 54 percent of women voted for Hillary Clinton. In 2012, 55 percent voted for President Obama, down from 56 percent in 2008.
But it serves no one’s best interests to promote the wellbeing of women at the expense of men. That can only lead to even more divisions in our society, and raise – not lower – the actual barriers to success encountered by women.
Moreover, sexual assault is a serious matter. Blowing it out of proportion will turn it into another political battlefield, with real victims becoming collateral damage.
Men and women harmed by sexual assault deserve every opportunity to seek redress, but – as happens whenever someone is accused of criminal conduct – our legal system requires that the accused must be considered innocent until proven guilty. To do otherwise – to erect virtual kangaroo courts on college campuses – is to sour young people on our justice system and can result in some innocent people being punished for actions they did not commit. That is too high a price to pay.
In 2014, dozens of Harvard Law School professors sent an open letter to The Boston Globe decrying Harvard’s implementation of the Obama-favored policy, which they called “overwhelmingly stacked against the accused.”
Following up last year, four highly regarded feminists at Harvard who have taught Title IX law and written on feminist legal reform – and who signed onto that earlier letter – wrote to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, asking her to revamp the policy.
Among other things, the four feminists charged that school administrators were “terrified” and consequently “not only complied; they over-complied” with the Obama directives. They wrote: “Definitions of sexual wrongdoing on college campuses are now seriously overbroad.”
DeVos rolled back the Obama guidance last September, allowing colleges to set their own standards. Unhappily, many schools continue to use the “preponderance of evidence” approach, afraid to be seen taking a more permissive stand. Presumably, as students on more campuses demand due process, this will change.
Also, situations like that of Ronell should cause members of the sisterhood to rethink their advocacy. It can’t happen soon enough.