What does institutional justice look like?

'Sexual harassment should not directly be addressed because it might mean students are unable to produce their best work, it should be addressed because it is completely antithetical to the purpose of the institution,' writes Lola Olufemi

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Academic circles are ablaze with news of Avital Ronell’s suspension from NYU following allegations of sexual harassment from a former PHD student. Avital, a professor of German and comparative literature, known for her ‘eccentric’ and borderline abusive behaviour, has been the subject of much speculation.

Former students have detailed their own experiences of witnessing misconduct and those who worked with her have written about their belief in the accusations . Fifty high profile academics, including Judith Butler came to her defense, citing the ‘malicious’ intent of her accuser and Ronell’s ‘grace’ ‘wit’ and ‘intellectual commitment’ in a letter to the President and Provost of NYU which was leaked online. She later qualified this defense in a statement to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

There have been a number of perspectives shared about this particular case. The questions have overwhelmingly centered on what kind of behaviour constitutes harassment and the question of interpretation. A prevailing theme within these responses is that what happens in the academy is somehow different from what governs us in our everyday lives and is beyond the comprehension of those outside of it.

NYU professor Lisa Duggan dismissed the allegations as part of a wider ‘neoliberal sex panic’ where the focus is placed on individuals instead of structures of power. But perhaps one question that has not been explored enough is how and why sexual harassment must be incompatible with the job of the scholar and institution and what institutional justice should look like in these cases.

Scholars seek to turn the process of learning into something revelatory – and it is true that a special kind of criticality might emerge from unorthodox or unconventional ways of being. However, the academic response to Ronell’s case is a failure. It attempts to explain away her behaviour and, in doing so, betrays the foundational basis of pedagogy as the establishment of boundaries between student and teacher.

The partnership entered between a student and their supervisor is not sacred or exempt from critique. There should be no ‘secret language’ that exists between them or ways of communicating that are unclear to outsiders. Intellectual intimacy and mutual respect should not be coded in impenetrable ways because the institution is, after all, a public space.

Any working relationship depends on a mutual understanding of what to expect from one another and understanding the nature of those expectations is not a task beyond the capacity of any academic. Life, sex and art are messy. Teaching and learning should not be.

That does not mean that the process is not sometimes unpredictable or weird or that private and public do not mix; it means that there should always be due regard for the harm that might result from that mixing and that one’s actions should be driven by this principle. Accountability should always be our first priority when that harm is revealed, even if it is committed by bodies that we view as incapable of committing violence.

Thinking critically is compromised when power dynamics enter the classroom. Race, gender, class and status can complicate relationships between students and teachers. When sexual harassment takes place, more important than the question ‘what constitutes harassment?’ should be ‘how does this change or make void the process of learning and what harm has the victim endured as a consequence?’ A student’s well being must be the priority in these instances and not just as a way to protect their intellectual output.

Sexual harassment should not be addressed directly because it might mean students are unable to produce their best work, it should be addressed because it is completely antithetical to the purpose of the institution. It is a barrier to meaningful scholarship and prevents the university becoming a site of liberation, if such a thing is possible.

The academy allows scholars to hide behind theory in an attempt to try and explain away what is obvious. Mystifying the practices that take place in the university acts as a way to ensure that those responsible for abuse avoid accountability. In the case of Ronell and others, boundaries were violated and sexual harassment took place. No body of academic work or tenured years as a professor should distract us from this reality.

But what is important is to move the conversation beyond simply disposing of abusers. How do we rectify harm in an institutional context? We ensure that victims and survivors are believed, have access to fully funded specialist aftercare services and we do not turn their accounts into sites of public speculation.

We ensure that methods of reporting and formal processes seek to rectify harmful behaviour through processes that hold individuals accountable whilst drawing attention to the structures that create and help perpetuate this behaviour. Institutions must endeavour to bring the conversation about the potential for harm that results from sexual misconduct to light so as to make clear what an intellectual relationship between a teacher and student could and should look like.

The imagination is necessary here. This imagining could protect students from being subjected to hostile or degrading environments in order to share the presence of ‘unconventional’ professors. It might create the conditions for an educational environment that aligns with the purpose of the institution itself: to facilitate the processes of teaching and learning in as expansive a way as possible.