UT Austin professor clarifies defense of an NYU professor guilty of sexual misconduct

Sara Schleede

The #MeToo movement became much more complex when Avital Ronell, a prominent female professor of German and comparative literature at New York University, was suspended for the current academic year after being found by NYU to have sexually harrassed former male graduate student Nimrod Reitman.

Following NYU’s confidential decision this past spring, professors from around the world signed a letter in support of Ronell. Among the list of professors was Diane Davis, UT professor and chair of the department of Rhetoric and Writing.

Since the public release of the letter, addressed to the NYU president and provost, Davis sent a different letter to her students and colleagues, clarifying her stance. 

“I deeply regret having spoken from what now appears to have been a position of ignorance,” Davis said. “I apologize to my students, colleagues and the entire University of Texas community for presuming to intervene based on misinformation about a complex case.”

She said she thought the Title IX investigation’s findings were based off Ronell’s “campy (and reciprocated) language use,” but her perspective changed once she viewed leaked court documents and learned of a larger potential misuse of power. The court documents said Ronell sent sexual texts to Reitman and engaged in inappropriate physical contact.

The original letter, published in June, was signed by more than 50 individuals. Davis wrote to The New York Times in early August, stating those who wrote the letter believed the #MeToo movement was being “twisted and turned against itself.” 

“We wish to communicate first in the clearest terms our profound and enduring admiration for Professor Ronell,” the professors wrote. “We deplore the damage that this legal proceeding causes her, and seek to register in clear terms our objection to any judgment against her.”

First among the list of signatures was Judith Butler, a prominent philosopher and gender theorist. She has also since published a letter clarifying her stance. 

“Our aim was not to defend her actions — we did not have the case in hand — but to oppose the termination of her employment as a punishment,” Butler wrote to the Chronicle of Higher Education. “In hindsight, those of us who sought to defend Ronell against termination surely ought to have been more fully informed of the situation if we were going to make an intervention.”

Davis said she aims to regain the trust and confidence of her colleagues and students in light of her misjudgment. 

“I hope you know that I have never tolerated abuses of power between faculty and students,” Davis said. “I am mortified that my clumsy attempt to defend a friend appeared to contradict this career-long commitment.”