Sharply contrasting versions of events marked the opening statements Monday in the civil trial against a senior Columbia Business School professor accused by a former junior tenure-track colleague of sexual harassment and career sabotage.
The picture painted by counsel for former Columbia University assistant professor Enrichetta Ravina of professor Geert Bekaert is one that has become familiar in the #MeToo era. A powerful figure at both the prestigious university and in the broader economic academic world, Bekaert dangled the prospects of important research critical for a coveted tenure position to cultivate a close working relationship with Ravina after she arrived at the school in 2008.
However, this, according to Sanford Heisler Sharp name attorney David Sanford, was all a pretext for Bekaert’s ulterior motives. Over dinners and coffee, Bekaert made it clear he desired a romantic relationship with Ravina. He made physical advances toward her, and discussed sexual topics, such as pornography and his own sexual exploits, Sanford told the jury. He demanded Ravina provide him with compliments, warning her of a fragile ego in need of positive feedback.
When she wasn’t forthcoming, Sanford said, Ravina was told she needed to be nicer. When she informed him things weren’t going to change, Bekaert allegedly began to wage a war against his research colleague, aimed at delaying the research that was critical for her tenure track, despite what Sanford said was Ravina’s substantial effort.
When she started to raise issues about Bekaert’s behavior, Sanford said numerous layers of Columbia’s administration, including the dean of the business school, Glenn Hubbard, told her there was nothing they could do about the “soap opera” between her and Bekaert. When Bekaert found out first about her complaints to the school, and later about the lawsuit against him, he doubled down on his stranglehold on Ravina’s research, while ratcheting up his personal attacks on her. In profanity-laced emails to academic colleagues across the globe, Ravina was denounced using sexualized language that was meant to tarnish her reputation in her chosen field, Sanford told the jury.
Through it all, Columbia “did nothing,” Sanford said. In fact, after the school became the target of legal action, Ravina saw an extension on her research time yanked by the school as a “mistake” and a tenure vote by her colleagues that she claims the administration demanded happen in a “vacuum” without the context of Bekaert’s actions against her she said was critical to understanding her lack of productivity. In the end, Sanford told the jury, her tenure was voted down, and she was forced to leave the university.
The story Hernstadt Atlas name attorney Edward Hernstadt, Bekaert’s attorney, told the jury of four men and four women could not have provided more of a contrast.
The lawsuit against his client amounted to Ravina’s “Plan B for getting tenure,” Hernstadt said. In truth, Ravina had a long record of “meager” research performance before accepting the “extraordinary opportunity” presented by Bekaert and the data he had access to. The real issue, according to Hernstadt, was revealed by the timetable. From the time she came to Columbia to about 2014, things between Bekaert and Ravina went smoothly. What changed beginning in 2014 was another in a series of poor academic performance reviews that put Ravina’s tenure track in jeopardy.
That’s when she started inventing Bekaert’s harassment of her, according to Hernstadt.
“This is the story of a betrayal of a research partnership and a friendship,” he told the jury.
Far from making sexual advances and demanding sexual acts in exchange for releasing his choke hold on her research, Bekaert had no romantic interest in Ravina. Yes, they went to dinner and had coffee at times—as work colleagues regularly do, Hernstadt said. Not once during that time period did Ravina raise concerns; in fact, she sometimes arranged the details. The sexual advances and sexual bravado she claims Bekaert displayed were “events that simply did not happen,” Hernstadt said.
Bekaert’s language in emails was, Hernstadt acknowledged, at times “striking,” but Bekaert, known as the “Blunt Belgian,” was known for being sometimes rude or overly direct in his correspondences. These were, his lawyer claimed, driven by his “hurt and sense of shock” over Ravina’s claims against him, sent to some of his closest friends, including a girlfriend. None of the correspondences, Hernstadt said, ultimately hurt Ravina’s reputation, as proven by her current position at a well respected program.
Ultimately, according to Proskauer Rose partner Bettina Plevan, who represents Columbia, Ravina’s problem was that her work “did not even come close to the quantity or quality” required for her to gain tenure status.
The plaintiffs are expected to begin their case Tuesday morning.