Jury Awards $1.25 Million in University Harassment Case But Denies Retaliation Claim

By Sydney Maki | July 30, 2018

A jury awarded $1.25 million to a former Columbia University finance professor whose senior colleague sent dozens of emails disparaging her to industry professionals after she lodged a harassment complaint against him.

The verdict is a fraction of the $16 million Enrichetta Ravina sought as her bias and retaliation lawsuit went to the jury in Manhattan federal court. Still, her lawyer welcomed the award.

“The $1.25 million in damages in this case should send a clear message to Columbia University and the world of higher education that workplace retaliation and abuse of power in academia will not be tolerated,” David Sanford said.

The jury ordered the payment a day after it concluded that Business School professor Geert Bekaert retaliated against Ravina, 42, and held Columbia responsible for his actions. The jury of four men and four women on Friday ordered Columbia and Bekaert to pay a total $750,000 in compensatory damages and ordered Bekaert to pay $500,000 in punitive damages.

Ravina sued for gender discrimination and retaliation, claiming he sexually harassed her and then stalled her research and ruined her chances of gaining tenure because she complained. The jury rejected her claim of discrimination against Bekaert and Columbia.

Jury Could Define University Liability in Sexual Harassment Trial

“I am very pleased that the jury cleared me of the false and heavily publicized sexual harassment claims that have been hanging over my head for the past two years,” Bekaert said in a statement. “I am also happy that the jury seemed to agree that nothing Columbia or I did had any impact on Professor Ravina’s tenure vote.”

The jury awarded nothing for Ravina’s loss of pay in the past or future. Yet the trial was still a black eye for Columbia, which had previously confronted a high-profile allegation of sexual misconduct on campus. During the three-week trial, Ravina testified that Columbia brushed aside her complaints and then denied her tenure, allegations that Columbia denied.

One juror, Lisa Daniels, a retired salon owner, said the evidence was complicated.

“We were careful not to be emotional,” she said after the verdict.

Job Prospects

The jury concluded that Columbia hadn’t retaliated against Ravina, but held the school responsible for Bekaert’s actions. In the damages portion of the trial, Ravina said she expects to wind up at a lower-ranking program because of the denial of tenure and Bekaert’s badmouthing.

“Having found no retaliation or discrimination by Columbia, the jury awarded damages based on its finding that Professor Bekaert improperly retaliated against Professor Ravina,” a university spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “Columbia prohibits retaliation against any member of its community and very much regrets the actions by our faculty member in this matter.”

Ravina is a visiting assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, but the position is temporary.

“My reputation and standing in my field has been extremely damaged by Professor Bekaert’s behavior,” Ravina testified. “Imagine if you apply for jobs and someone very powerful and influential in your profession had said that you are unstable, difficult to work with, a liar, not good at your job.”

Bekaert wrote at least 30 emails calling Ravina “evil” and “crazy,” including to a number of industry players at the Federal Reserve Bank, top-tier universities and economic journals, often from his Columbia email account, according to the evidence. Bekaert’s lawyer, Edward Hernstadt, said it was a natural reaction for Bekaert to want to protect his reputation.

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

Topics Education Universities

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.