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Columbia B-School’s Shocking #MeToo Trial: ‘Blunt Belgium’ Calls Mentee “An Evil Bitch’



Thursday 12 July 2018, by John A. Byrne

Enrichetta Ravina, a former assistant professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School who was denied tenure, accuses senior faculty member Professor Geert Bekaert of sexual harassment and sabotage

After Columbia Business School Professor Geert Bekaert was accused of sexual harassment by a junior professor who had been his mentee, he was clearly outraged. He dashed off a series of emails to colleagues around the world calling the young professional, Enrichetta Ravina, a fucking evil bitch, crazy, insane, mentally unstable, paranoid, schitzophrenic and berserk.

At one point, Bekaert confessed that he wanted to strangle her.

In a New York City courtroom this week, Bekaert’s attorney conceded that some of the emails are “pretty pungent.” Bekaert was known by many at Columbia Business School as the “Blunt Belgian.” “Sometimes, he’s brusque,” explained his attorney, Edward Hernstadt. “He could sometimes be rude…His responses are sometimes intemperate and edgy.

TRIAL OPENS AT A TIME WHEN SEXUAL HARASSMENT HAS BECOME A GLOBAL TALKING POINT

“These are emails,” added Hernstadt, “that express his hurt and his sense of shock. This is an all-too-human reaction, and the actual words used may be surprising and they may be shocking in isolation. They express the understandable distress of a man who’s been betrayed by someone he considered a friend and a co-author.”

The explosive drama unfolding in the courtroom results from a once promising academic partnership gone horribly wrong. It is an all-too-familiar story of a professional mentorship that devolved into a bitter squabble with serious accusations on both sides. It pits an Italian-born professor who was ultimately denied tenure at Columbia Business School against a senior faculty member, who held enormous power over her career prospects, and Columbia University itself. Now 53 years old, Bekaert is 11 years older than Ravina, who is 42 and teaching at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

And the trial opens at a time when sexual harassment has become a national, if not, global talking point. Ever since revelations of sexual misconduct by movie producer Harvey Weinstein last fall, an international movement against sexual harassment and assault with the hashtag #MeToo has spread virally in movie studios, business offices and college campuses all over the world. The consequences of the he-said, she-said lawsuit are huge because Ravina is asking for $30 million in damages.

‘IF YOU WERE NICER TO ME, YOUR PAPERS WOULD MOVE FASTER’

Ravina accuses one of Columbia Business School’s most senior professors of abusing his power by sexually harassing her for more than a year, and then sabotaging her academic career when she continually fended off his alleged attempts to get her to go to bed with him.

At one point, she claims, Bekaert, who had a major influence over her ability to publish academic research vital to a forthcoming tenure decision, told her: “If you were nicer to me, your papers would move faster.”

“I’m already as nice as I can be,” she said she responded.

‘PROSTITUTES KEEP MEN OUT OF TROUBLE. THEY ARE IMPORTANT TO SATISFY A MAN’S SEX DRIVE’

Meantime, her one-time mentor calls her an outright liar. Bekaert contends that numerous events she has now vividly described on the stand, including an alleged incident in which his hand slid down her back to her butt in a taxi, an unwanted kiss on the stoop outside her New York apartment, grabbing her hand at a mid-town bar, leering at her breasts in his office, never occurred. Neither did conversations in which he allegedly talked about his troubled marriage, whether she had a live-in boyfriend, his affair with a stewardness who wanted to get an MBA at Columbia Business School, or his discussions about pornography and prostitutes (“They keep men out of trouble,” Ravina claimed he told her. “They are important to satisfy a man’s sex drive.”)

Bekaert’s lawyer calls the accusations little more than a “Plan B” once her tenure was in serious doubt. “This is a story of the betrayal of a research partnership and a friendship through scapegoating to evade the consequences of failure to publish, rather than a case of discrimination or retaliation,” maintained Hernstadt in his opening arguments.

The trial, expected to last up to three weeks, began on Monday with opening arguments. The following two days, Ravina took the stand to deliver riveting and highly damaging testimony. Professor Bekeart will take the stand tomorrow on Thursday (July 12). Before it is all over, even Columbia Business School Dean Glenn Hubbard is expected to testify in court. So are several other vice deans and faculty members, including a well respected colleague at CBS, Patrick Bolton, the recent president of the American Finance Association, who has called Ravina’s research “pioneering, ambitious and of exceptional quality.”

AN OPPORTUNITY TO USE A MASSIVE DATA SET FOR GROUNDBREAKING RESEARCH

It started innocently enough. Ravina was hired by Columbia Business School in 2008 for a tenure track position. Born in Italy, she had studied economics at the University of Torino and came to the U.S. for her doctorate in economics at Northwestern University. She then landed a job as an assistant professor of finance and economics at New York University’s Stern School. She had also been a visiting scholar at the Harvard Business School as well as at the New York Federal Reserve Bank when recruited by CBS.

in the 2009-2010 academic year, Bekaert approached Ravina with an offer to work on a huge data set of individuals retirement savings decisions. Some 20 million data points had been stored by a company, Financial Engines, he had worked with as a consultant for years. Bekaert believed that the data could be a source for groundbreaking research that would make her academic career. He would work with her on the project, agreeing to be her mentor and co-author on the papers that would ultimately come from the research. If all went well, the opportunity could lead to the publication of a steady tream of high-impact papers in time for her to be considered for tenure.

The data started to come in during the 2011-2012 academic year and she went to work, putting several other research projects on the back burner. Ravina trained and supervised as many as 40 research assistants to work on the project, according to her attorney David Sanford. She wrote numerous software codes that were essential to analyze the data. But, according to Ravina, she consistently ran into trouble getting Bekaert to focus on the research work. Instead, she claimed, he kept asking her out for dinner and engaging in less-than-professional conversations starting in the summer and fall of 2012.

‘HE KISSED HER, GRABBED HER HAND, LEERED AT HER BREASTS’

“He asked about whether she had a boyfriend,” said Sanford in his opening remarks on Monday. “He sent her romantic music. He asked her to give him compliments to reassure him that he was desirable. In the spring of 2013, he talked about his sex life and told her that her walk was sexy. He kissed her, grabbed her hand, leered at her breasts. He talked frequently about sex, including comments about pornography and prostitution.

“Because she refused to have a personal relationship with him, Bekaert engaged in a pattern of delay by not cooperating with her,” added Sanford. “He would not review her work. He would not produce his own part of the work. He would not give approval for work that she was doing and he did little to advance prospects for publication. He routinely refused to cooperate professionally with her at the very same time he was expressing sexual interest in her. At one point, he emailed a research assistant and admitted that he had stopped working on the project for months because Professor Ravina had really pissed him off. All the while, her tenure clock was running.”

Ravina laid out her story in stark detail in two days of testimony. “I felt trapped,” she said. “I felt that I could not offend him because otherwise he would lash out at me and ruin my chance of publishing…At the same time, I didn’t want to sleep with him. I just wanted him to say, ‘Yes, let’s proceed with this task.’”

Columbia Business School Professor Geert Bekaert

‘I COULDN’T AFFORD TO OFFEND HIM. I WAS WALKING A TIGHTROPE.’

She said he brought up sexual topics at least a dozen times during the fall semester in 2013, bragging about sleeping with a stewardness and an entrepreneur in Hong Kong where he had been on sabbatical at the time. “He kept talking about his sex life, how popular he was in Hong Kong with women. He said that he was a Westerner and that people thought that a Westerner is richer and so it attracts the women.”

Ravina says she was often dumbfounded about what to do. “I felt that every time I would go to Professor’s Bekaert’s office, he was not thinking about work,” she told the court. “He was thinking about sex. And I was there to make the work go forward. I was growing basically desperate because we were already in the fall of 2013 and nothing had happened on my project despite (the fact) we were ready the spring to be analyzed and I was trying to get his approval in some way to move forward. If anything, he was stalling more. He was just sitting there, saying he was busy, he didn’t have time, he wasn’t ready, and it was as if he was sort of waiting to see if I was changing my mind, if I would sleep with him instead of like freezing when he’d hold my hand or running up the stairs when he would try to kiss me.”

She described a classic dilemma for many women in the workplace. “I couldn’t afford to offend him,” she said. “I didn’t want to. I was walking a tightrope. I was deep in the project. I didn’t have time to move around and do something else. And at the same time I needed his support and I needed especially for him to say yes to the next step. I had been going to his office reglarly to get him to proceed. He would not proceed. He would always insist about switching the topic to something about his life, about going for dinner, about sex. I didn’t want him to be upset at me or get confrontational.”

‘HIS KISS WOULD HAVE LANDED ON MY MOUTH IF I DIDN’T TURN AWAY’

Former CBS Assistant Professor Enrichetta Ravina has filed a $30 million lawsuit against Columbia

Ravina said that in September of 2013, she agreed to a dinner with him in an effort to move the conversation to work. He insisted on walking her to the stoop of her apartment. “Professor Bekaert asked me, do you want help to go up the stairs?,” she testified. “And I say, ‘No, no and I started walking up. And at this point he pulled my arm and he pulled me toward him and tried to plant a kiss on me. And I turned fast and he ended up landing it on my cheek. I pulled back immediately and I just said, ‘Bye’ and went up, ran up the stairs and entered my building. This was not (a) greeting, like giving a kiss on the cheek. It was aiming for the mouth. Because if I hadn’t turned my face really fast, that’s where his kiss would have landed.”

Ravina described what she called another disturbing episode in Bekaert’s office. “I was there again to try to make the work proceed, and we were standing, and I was showing him a document and he was standing at his desk next to me, and I was just talking and describing what was in tihs document, and all of a sudden, I just turned to look at him, and he was staring at my breasts,” she said. “I was so embarrassed and humiliated that I stopped, and I don’t think he realized immediately that I had realized. So I cleared my voice, and then he realized as well. It was embarrasing. He said something about, ‘Oh, that I look good.’ Then, I looked away.”

On yet another occasion, she testified, Bekaert asked her to pick up a coffee mug in his office with the words “I’m refined, I am a scholar, but….” Then, he asked her to turn the cup over and look at the base. “Horny” was imprinted on the bottom. ”He laughed and he said that was true, that he was horny,” Ravina claimed. “I looked at him. I turned not knowing what to say and he laughed and said, ‘That’s true.’ I felt demeaned. I felt like why am I part of this conversation? I didn’t want to hear about it. I felt like humiliated by the whole episode.”

‘HE STARTED TELLING ME I WAS INSANE’

On Valentines Day of 2014, he brought her a CD and chocolates. “I interpreted it as a romantic gesture,” she testified. “I didn’t want it, so I hesitated and I thought about a way to give it back. I went, you know, there was no need, and he was a little bit perplexed. He looked perplexed as well in my understanding. I just kept it there, and I threw away the chocolates afterward.”

Bekaert, Ravina added, started becoming very aggressive. “He started belittling my work, my professional status. He started saying that the data were wrong. He started putting more and more obstacles (in my way) and he started saying that we could not proceed. He started putting the blame on me that we were not proceeding, and he became more and more hostile over the course of the spring semester. He started telling me I was insane, that I had a masochistic desire to shoot myself in the foot, that I was crazy, that he would have thought me to be productive, and he’s calling me names.”

Ultimately, Ravina says she couldn’t take it anymore. By early March of 2014, she began meeting with a psychiatrist weekly and told her doctor about the alleged physical advances, the lewd and abusive comments, and how Bekaert was stalling her research. Shortly after the start of those sessions, in April and May of 2014, she began a series of meetings with faculty and administrators at Columbia Business School. After it became clear that she was accusing Bekaert of sexual harassment, he began sending emails to colleagues in the academic and finance community throughout the world, referring to her as an evil bitch in action, a damn evil bitch, and insane and incredibly evil, according to her attorney Sanford.

A UNIVERSITY PROBE FOUND HER RELATIONSHIP WAS ‘MUTUALLY FLIRTATIOUS’

An investigation into her charges by the university, a probe that Sanford maintains was incomplete and inadequate, found that Ravina was not a victim of harassment. “I found that you and Professor Bekaert engaged in a friendly working relationship that soured when you did not communicate effectively regarding your concerns about the status of your projects,” wrote the male university investigator in a November 2014 letter. “I determine that your professional relationship with Professor Bekaert was friendly and at times mutually flirtatious.”

Later, a faculty panel unanimously voted against granting her tenure but the group was not allowed to hear her complaints about her one-time mentor who she claimed had made it difficult, if not impossible, for her to complete her research in time for publication. “Colleagues advised him to step away from the research but Bekaert had another plan,” claimed Sanford.

“Just two months after Bekaert learned of Ravina’s complaints, he boasted how he could block her research. He sent Financial Engines an email disparaging her. He then asked the recipient at the firm to delete and destroy the email after it was read. He then refused to share with her his draft of their paper and he told (Dean Glenn) Hubbard that he was simply not going to send the codes that she needed to finish her work. Even then, Columbia did nothing.” Columbia University disputes that claim.

‘HE NEVER ASKED HER FOR SEX OR FOR A DATE’

Now the differing sides of a mentorship gone wrong are playing out in court for everyone to see. Ravina left CBS shortly after the school denied her tenure and is now teaching at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Bekaert remains a senior faculty member at Columbia Business School.

“There were dinners, there were coffees, he did send her music,” explained his lawyer. “But there’s no evidence that they were because of her gender or because he wanted anything from her in any kind of romantic way. He never asked her for sex or even for a date. He never said that she would have to sleep with him for them to work on their papers.”

DON’T MISS: A MENTORSHIP GOES BAD AT COLUMBIA BUSINESS SCHOOL

The post Columbia B-School’s Shocking #MeToo Trial: ‘Blunt Belgium’ Calls Mentee “An Evil Bitch’ appeared first on Poets&Quants.


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