Professor Denies Talking About Sex to Columbia Colleague

(Bloomberg) -- A Columbia Business School professor said he was flabbergasted by complaints made by a former junior colleague he once mentored and denied he ever talked to her about sex or sought a romantic relationship.

Geert Bekaert, 53, refuted the allegations of Enrichetta Ravina, the junior finance professor who is suing him for sexual harassment and retaliation, during his testimony Tuesday in Manhattan federal court.

"None of it’s true," Bekaert testified. "I’ve never had any romantic interest in Enrichetta, and I never asked her for a date, and I never talked about sex. I just had no idea where this is coming from -- well, I do have an idea."

Ravina, 42, is seeking a $30 million judgment against Bekaert and Columbia University over her complaints of a pattern of sexual harassment by Bekaert and retaliation she says resulted in her denial of tenure at the business school. The university’s lawyers say she lost out on the promotion based on a lack of academic merit.

The starkly conflicting accounts by Ravina and Bekaert underscore the he-said-she-said nature of the trial and the challenge of establishing misconduct claims in the workplace. Jurors may need to look beyond their testimony to determine which account rings true and to explore whether any fault lies with the university.

Bekaert said he spent his 18-year career as a Columbia professor seeking opportunities for his students and junior colleagues to succeed. He said he co-authored papers and encouraged them to present at conferences. Under questioning by his lawyer, he testified that he was a mentor and a friend to Ravina, and they were "equal partners" in a working relationship.

But when Ravina testified last week, she told the jury about years of unwanted advances from Bekaert. She accused him of a pattern of talking about sex to her, making inappropriate comments and eventually trying to damage her career by stalling her work and badmouthing her to academics around the world.

He denied her accusations, saying that he never kissed her, passed his hand on her back or talked to her about prostitution or pornography. Sex "was never a topic in any of our dinners or meetings," he testified.

"I had to think about, how do you tell your students about all this stuff," he said, breaking down while on the stand. "I just wanted to defend my reputation. I’ve worked so hard on reaching where I am. You know, for 20 years. And then suddenly you get this."

Bekaert told jurors that he called Ravina "crazy," "insane" and an "evil bitch" in emails mainly to his girlfriend and close friends, many of whom were in the same field as Ravina and Bekaert. In court, he said, “I really mean that. I really mean that what Enrichetta did to me is pure evil."

Ravina testified earlier that Bekaert once warned her that her papers would go faster if she were nicer to him. When asked, Bekaert chuckled as he told jurors, "I never said that."

Ravina testified that Bekaert sabotaged her career by slowing projects to punish her for rejecting his advances and later as retaliation to her complaint against him. But Bekaert denied that he stalled in a retaliatory way, saying he compromised when deans mediated a "research divorce" and put effort into finishing the papers despite his busy schedule.

It was Ravina, he said, who slowed their projects down by telling their potential research assistant to look for other work instead. He said he was upset by bickering in their email correspondence, but admitted that he should have communicated in better ways than by using words like "crazy" and "insane."

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

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