Ex-Columbia Professor Tells Jury of Male Mentor's Harassment

(Bloomberg) -- When former Columbia University assistant finance professor Enrichetta Ravina finally agreed to dinner with her mentor and senior colleague after months of dodging his invitations, he ended what she hoped was a platonic meal by touching her backside as she left the cab they shared.

“He passed his hand on my back, and then toward my butt,” Ravina told a federal jury Tuesday hearing her sexual harassment suit against Columbia. “I felt my stomach churn. I grew concerned he wanted more, a romantic relationship. I didn’t want a romantic relationship. I wanted to be able to do the work. I was quite concerned, actually.”

The trial may shed light on how sexual harassment claims are handled in academia. Ravina alleges the university failed to protect her from retaliation after she reported her mentor’s behavior, allowing him to stall research projects they worked on together. The university ended up denying her tenure in 2016, terminating her that June.

The allegations also may cast a shadow on one of the nation’s top-tier business schools, which boasts alumni such as Warren Buffett and chief executives of companies including Estee Lauder and Anheuser-Busch.

Columbia denies Ravina’s claims. The school’s lawyer, Bettina Plevan, argued that Ravina’s performance was subpar and that she was denied tenure because of her slow progress on academic papers.

“Her scholarship was not sufficient in quantity or quality to warrant an award of tenure,” Plevan told the federal jury in Manhattan in opening statements on Monday.

Denied Tenure

Ravina, a finance professor with a Ph.D from Northwestern University, was previously a visiting scholar at Harvard Business School and studied at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Ravina claims she suffered years of harassment by her mentor, 53-year-old Geert Bekaert, and was then retaliated against by Bekaert and Columbia after she rejected his sexual advances and reported his behavior to officials.

Ravina, 42, told jurors Tuesday that Bekaert was assigned to coach her after the two began work on research projects on personal finance based on data he had access to through a retirement finance company. Ravina hoped to publish as many as five papers based on the data.

“I was growing more and more worried,” she said. “I was seeing this relationship going south really quickly, and I was scared this person could take away the data from me, he could badmouth me in the profession, he could influence the people voting on my tenure.”

Dinner Invitations

Ravina described months of dinner invitations and Bekaert’s need for compliments because “he would say he had a frail ego.” To get Bekaert to respond to her inquiries about work, Ravina said she resorted to asking him for music recommendations at the top of emails.

In one instance, Bekaert responded within two minutes of her email query without answering her work-related questions, instead offering a list of YouTube links to songs such as Roxy Music’s “Love Is the Drug.”

On occasions when she agreed to dine with him in hopes of planning schedules for their joint research, he kissed her and also held her hand, she testified. She also said she’d seen him enraged by a complaint against him before when a female student alleged he made comments about women in the classroom.

She said that after Bakaert returned from traveling to Hong Kong in 2013, his advances grew more brazen, and he began speaking frequently to her about his sex life, telling her he’d slept with women he’d met at hotel bars, including stewardesses and prostitutes.

“He said, ‘Prostitutes are important to keep men out of trouble,’ and, ‘They are important to satisfy a man’s sex drive,”’ Ravina said Bakaert told her. “He asked me, ‘Do you watch porn?’ I said, ‘No!’ He looked at me strangely and said he was only looking at porn for free and not paying for it.”

When asked about her reaction to such statements, Ravina said she felt she couldn’t offend him “because otherwise he would lash out at me and ruin my chances of publishing with those papers on the 401(k) project -- and ruin my reputation.”

When she asked him by email to treat her professionally and respectfully, he told her he would “bring a whip” to their next meeting. He also threatened to pull the project they were working on altogether, she testified.

Ravina’s lawyers say Bekaert tried to sabotage her career by sending critical emails to academics around the world.

Edward Hernstadt, Bekaert’s lawyer, disputed Ravina’s allegations, saying Bekaert never touched her or talked about pornography and prostitution to her. He didn’t deny the instances in which Bekaert called Ravina names, including “bitch” and “psycho,” but argued that Bekaert was known among Columbia colleagues as the “blunt Belgian.”

Columbia’s lawyer, meanwhile, argued that the university responded appropriately to Ravina’s complaints after her mentor started delaying work on the publications.

Ravina described talking with at least a half dozen university administrators to complain about Bekaert’s behavior and her concerns that he was in a position to sabotage her research and career. One suggested she abandon her data projects and walk away.

An internal investigation eventually concluded Bekaert hadn’t violated university policies against sexual harassment. Instead, the university said Ravina and Bekaert’s relationship, which had been “friendly and at times mutually flirtatious,” had soured because of her failure to “communicate effectively.”

Ravina is expected to return to the stand Wednesday. A jury of four women and four men will hear from Ravina, Bekaert and university officials during the trial, which could last as long as three weeks.

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

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