Columbia Finance Professor Says Harassment Accuser ‘a Friend’

(Bloomberg) -- A Columbia Business School professor accused of sexually harassing a junior colleague told a jury that the training he got from the university because of her complaints was just a short conversation with a lawyer who was on his side.

Geert Bekaert emailed a basketball buddy that "very clearly I had been played and that the legal environment had gotten too far left and was getting abused left and right by evil people." In the training, he was told that someone in his position should "simply not work with women anymore, too risky," according to the email he sent.

Bekaert, a 53-year-old tenured finance professor, was summoned to the witness stand Thursday by lawyers for the woman who’s suing him and Columbia University. Enrichetta Ravina, 42, claims Bekaert, who has worked at the school for 18 years and built a worldwide reputation for his work in international finance and empirical asset pricing, harassed her and that he and Columbia retaliated after she complained.

Under intense questioning by Ravina’s attorneys, Bekaert agreed that he sent numerous emails inviting her to dinners -- and later calling her "insane" for wanting a schedule for their joint research. He told jurors that social activities were common in the industry, but was hesitant to say he wanted a personal relationship with her.

“I would say that it would be very hard to do joint research with somebody you really dislike,” Bekaert said. “So I will say that when I approached Enrichetta, I knew her already a little bit. I thought she was a nice person that would be fun to work with.”

Blunt Belgian

Bekaert’s lawyers have said he was known as the "blunt Belgian" for his rudeness, but that he didn’t treat Ravina any differently than he would have treated others, regardless of gender. He will continue to offer his account under questioning by his attorneys on Monday.

Bekaert told the jury he mentored a number of students and colleagues throughout his career, and he thought Ravina could have been a good candidate for tenure when she first started are Columbia. As a senior faculty member, he said he looks for opportunities to help his students and juniors succeed, from presenting at conferences to co-authoring papers.

But in emails he told colleagues and academics around the globe that Ravina was using him as a scapegoat and called her names. In one email that was entered into evidence, he wrote, "We are dealing with at best a very sick person, at worst an incredibly evil person."

The Truth

He testified that he wouldn’t describe his words about her as disparaging, saying "I mean, I’m just telling the truth."

Earlier in the trial, Ravina testified that Bekaert talked to her about sex, pornography and prostitutes, occasionally touched her inappropriately and ultimately damaged her career by stalling joint research projects.

Bekaert told jurors he first met Ravina in 2008 and ultimately decided to work with her to score "brownie points" with the dean’s office.

"I have had my run-ins with some of my colleagues and the administration," he said, referring to his bluntness. "I’m not the most popular guy."

Ravina, who now teaches at Northwestern University, said she had been relying on data Bekaert had access to for her work. But when she didn’t accept his sexual advances and reported his behavior to the university, she told the jury he punished her by stalling.

But Bekaert said Ravina was responsible for some of the slowdowns, sending snappy comments rather than working to compromise. Notes from the Columbia investigator who followed up on the complaint indicate Bekaert said he would have sped up papers for someone he was romantically interested in. "Why stall papers?" the handwritten note said. "Would do opposite."

In one email, however, he acknowledged the delays could have been his fault, writing in one, "She’d really pissed me off with something, so I stopped working on it for a few months." Ravina alleges this behavior was damaging to her career and caused her to lose out on tenure.

Bekaert’s lawyers wrapped up their cross-examination of Ravina Thursday and sought to show that she participated in the relationship with her mentor and had herself to blame for not receiving tenure.

"You never told Professor Bekaert not to kiss you, right?" Edward Hernstadt, Bekaert’s attorney, asked Ravina. "You never said not to hold your hand, right?"

“Not in words,” she answered.

The defense also sought to bolster the claim that Ravina was denied tenure because her work was subpar. The lawyers presented evidence of emails in which Bekaert repeatedly advised Ravina to work on papers she was authoring alone. In one response, she wrote to him, "It was a mistake to work so much on this 401(k) crap," which was a project they had started together.

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

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