Jury Could Define University Liability in Sexual Harassment Trial

July 26, 2018

A federal jury will decide what really happened between a former junior finance professor and the tenured Columbia Business School staff member she said sexually harassed her — and whether the university did enough to protect her once she reported him.

Enrichetta Ravina sued Columbia University claiming it failed to protect her from Geert Bekaert, a chaired finance professor, who she said slowed her work after she dismissed his advances. She says she was denied tenure and is seeking $30 million in damages.

“Both Bekaert and Columbia knew what they were doing and acted with extreme recklessness,” David Sanford, Ravina’s lawyer, said during closing remarks on Tuesday. “It is about consequences felt by a woman who was not given a fair shake.”

Ravina, 42, testified about a pattern of sexual commentary, unwanted touching and stalled work in the years she and Bekaert, 53, collaborated on joint research. On the witness stand, Bekaert denied the allegations, and the university’s lawyers argued that Ravina’s lack of academic merit was what stopped her from winning tenure at the Ivy League business school.

A jury of four men and four women in Manhattan started deliberating Wednesday on whose side to take after she-said-he-said testimonies from Ravina and Bekaert. In the #MeToo era, Ravina’s accusations echo voices of other women who say their careers were damaged by gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment and misconduct that was perpetrated by men in positions of power.

Jury Box

Sanford asked the jury to make Columbia take responsibility and to do better in the future by returning a verdict in favor of Ravina. He quoted Maya Angelou and Teddy Roosevelt before telling them that “the United States is watching.”

Earlier in the trial, Ravina testified that Bekaert kissed her, passed his hand on her back in a taxi and talked to her about porn, prostitution and women. Emails show him sending her music and inviting her to dinners, as well as her complimenting him and commenting on Owen Wilson’s good looks.

Bekaert’s lawyer Edward Hernstadt said her compliments were unwarranted and embarrassing.

“Look at these emails, and you can decide who is chasing who,” he told the jury. During closing remarks, he asked jurors to question whether Ravina made the allegations up as a “plan B” for being off-track for tenure. “She is not credible.”

After Ravina complained to the university, Bekaert wrote more than 30 emails, often from his Columbia account, calling Ravina “evil” and “crazy” to academics and professionals around the world, including people Bekaert considered friends at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, the European Central Bank and the American Finance Association, Sanford said.

Hernstadt acknowledged that the emails were “rude” and “shocking,” but said they were evidence of Bekaert defending his reputation, not retaliating against Ravina.

‘Research Divorce’

Testimony from Columbia Business School Dean Glenn Hubbard and other university staff detailed the school’s response to Ravina’s complaints, from orchestrating a “research divorce” of Ravina and Bekaert to recruiting a relationship manager to be copied on their emails. Bettina Plevan, the university’s lawyer, told jurors that Columbia did its job in investigating Ravina’s complaints and fairly considering her tenure.

It was Ravina who “failed to help herself,” Plevan said during closing remarks Tuesday. “The evidence showed that Columbia’s decision to deny Professor Ravina tenure was based on the merits.”

The university’s lawyer said Ravina wasn’t treated any differently because of her complaint or subsequent lawsuit. Plevan told jurors the school offered Ravina “a gift, a lifeline” by way of an extension of the tenure clock under the condition of a changed title, which Ravina declined because she considered it a demotion.

“It’s not a picture of retaliation or discrimination,” Plevan said. “She just did not measure up, and that’s why she didn’t get tenure.”

The case is Ravina v. Columbia University, 16-cv-2137, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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