Columbia Professor Files Sexual Harassment Suit Against University

Posted March 23rd, 2016.

As It Appeared On
NY Times


Enrichetta Ravina thought the professor was her mentor, helping her get access to an invaluable trove of data for her research into how workers allocate their retirement savings. It was scholarship, she believed, that could help her earn tenure at Columbia Business School.

But then, she said, the comments started. The professor told her about watching pornography and his sexual exploits, she said. He started making advances toward her, calling her “sexy.” And, she said, he had the ability to have that crucial data set taken away.

In a lawsuit against the university filed on Tuesday in Federal District Court, Ms. Ravina said she complained repeatedly to Columbia officials about the situation, but that they only dismissed and belittled her. The suit claims Ms. Ravina was subjected to gender discrimination and sexual harassment, and asks for more than $20 million in damages. She also wants more time to apply for tenure.

“I never really wanted to be in this position, but this was the only thing I could do,” Ms. Ravina, 40, an assistant professor of finance and economics at the business school since 2008, said in an interview on Tuesday. “I felt really betrayed. I thought the university should have solved this.”

Beginning in May 2014, Ms. Ravina brought her complaints to senior faculty members and administrators at the business school, the lawsuit says. One dean, the lawsuit says, called her circumstances a “soap opera.” Others told her to forget her complaints and to walk away from her research project. In November 2014, the lawsuit says, the office that ensures the university is in compliance with Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination in educational institutions, found no violation.

University officials told Ms. Ravina in June that she would be put on paid academic leave for the 2015-16 academic year, a period during which no action was expected to be taken regarding her tenure, the lawsuit says. By September, it claims, the leave was revoked, and in December she was told her tenure process would begin and “run on an accelerated basis,” the lawsuit says. With less time to prepare, Ms. Ravina feels she has little chance of getting tenure.

The university declined to discuss Ms. Ravina’s case because of the pending litigation, but said in a statement on Wednesday that “the university treats allegations of harassment with the utmost seriousness.”

As part of her research, Ms. Ravina examines data sets to track the personal finance decisions of individual households.

In the 2009-10 academic year, the lawsuit says, Geert Bekaert, a professor of finance and economics at Columbia since 2000, told Ms. Ravina that he could help her get access to a large set of data because of a relationship he had with the company that owned it. In the contract with the data’s owner, Ms. Ravina said, the company had the right to revoke access, and Mr. Bekaert could influence it to do so.

Ms. Ravina spent more than two years preparing the data for her research. Once she reached the point where taking the data away would have derailed her project, the lawsuit says, the harassment by Mr. Bekaert began.

She claims that he retaliated against her when she rebuffed his advances by delaying and impeding her work. At one point, the lawsuit says, he told her that if “she were ‘nicer’ to him, he would allow her work to proceed faster.”

Ms. Ravina has brought a separate lawsuit against the professor.

On Wednesday, Mr. Bekaert denied the allegations, and argued that the claims had been investigated by the university and found to be baseless.

“I am sickened that a colleague — I was never Prof. Ravina’s supervisor or superior — would manufacture false stories, statements and events and attempt to destroy my reputation,” Mr. Bekaert said in an emailed statement.

“In reality,” he added, “this is a sad example of no good deed goes unpunished: We collaborated for years doing research with a unique data set I had obtained from a company I worked for, and in return she fabricated a series of completely false allegations about me, some today for the first time.”

Ms. Ravina said the ordeal has been damaging to her professional reputation but also to her well-being. The lawsuit says her “emotional distress is so severe that, for the past two years, she has seen a psychiatrist weekly to cope with her symptoms.” The psychiatrist said she had a “general anxiety disorder.”

“I think my story is awful, but my sense is that many women go through this,” Ms. Ravina said. “The school has failed me, and it might have failed other people as well.”

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