Columbia on the Hook for Professor Retaliation in Bias Case

(Bloomberg) -- Columbia University was held responsible by a jury for a senior finance professor’s retaliation against a former instructor who complained that she suffered years of sexual discrimination.

The jury in Manhattan federal court ruled Thursday that Enrichetta Ravina, 42, was penalized by her ex-mentor Geert Bekaert, 53, after she accused him of bias. Under New York City’s Human Rights Law, Columbia was held liable for Bekaert’s actions even though the jury found no fault with the school’s conduct.

While Ravina was found to have suffered retaliation, the jury rejected her claim that she’d been the victim of discrimination by either the school or Bekaert.

"The jury found that Columbia neither discriminated against Ms. Ravina nor retaliated against her through its actions,” the New York-based university said in a statement.”

The finding of retaliation opens Columbia and Bekaert to Ravina’s claim for damages. At one point, she was seeking $30 million. The jury decided that only Bekaert is liable for punitive damages, and it began hearing testimony on the issue immediately after returning its verdict.

Worldwide Reputation

The trial is something of a split decision. Coming amid the #MeToo movement, it pitted a woman who was once a junior faculty member seeking tenure against an established professor with a worldwide reputation, and the he-said-she-said nature of the case presented jurors with two starkly opposing accounts.

"Today’s verdict by a New York jury vindicates Professor Ravina’s claims of retaliation," David Sanford, her attorney, said. "Columbia University is vicariously liable for that retaliation."

Bekaert’s lawyer declined to comment.

Ravina testified that Bekaert talked about porn and prostitution, kissed her without her permission and ultimately damaged her career by slowing down her work on joint research projects they had started together. She was denied tenure in 2016.

“He passed his hand on my back, and then toward my butt,” Ravina testified during the trial in Manhattan. “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.”

She said the university brushed aside her many complaints, finding instead that she failed to “communicate effectively” with Bekaert.

Bekaert denied the allegations, telling jurors he was stunned by complaints and that he never talked to her about sex or sought a romantic relationship. He said he spent his 18-year career at Columbia seeking opportunities for his students and junior colleagues to succeed.

University officials testified that they followed appropriate policies and criticized the communications between the two academics. Columbia said Ravina didn’t have the quantity or quality of published papers necessary for tenure at the Ivy League business school, which was echoed in years of faculty evaluations from her time there.

“The University’s decision to decline Ms. Ravina’s tenure appointment was not called into question," the school said in its statement Thursday.

Columbia has previously had to confront high-profile allegations of sexual misconduct on campus, including a former student carrying a mattress around campus after she complained of sexual assault. The university settled a suit in 2017 with the peer she accused of the assault.

Dartmouth College

Other universities are grappling with their own bias and harassment claims.

The University of Rochester was sued last December for retaliating against students and employees who said they were sexually harassed and subject to a hostile work environment by a professor there. The school’s president resigned in January even though an independent probe supported the school’s handling of the case.

At Dartmouth College, a criminal investigation has been opened into sexual misconduct and retaliation claims against three former professors.

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

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