“I only now [received] your beautiful and exquisite message… I thank you for your infinite understanding and sensitivities which are always beyond measure.”
Those are the words of Nimrod Reitman, in an email to his Ph.D. advisor, Avital Ronell, a professor of German and Comparative Literature at New York University. As many now know, Ronell was found by NYU to have sexually harassed Reitman.
I’ve avoided posting about the Ronell case largely because Daily Nous focuses on academic philosophy, and Ronell does not hold a position in academic philosophy, nor is her work especially significant to those who do. [Correction: Ronell holds a position as a professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School; the latter point stands.]
I’ve also wanted to avoid contributing to the opportunistic “Ah ha! Feminists are such hypocrites!” narrative that arose in the wake of revelations about the case and the horrible letter that certain academics wrote in Ronell’s defense (most feminists I know were outraged by that letter), and other “weaponizing” of the affair.
However, some discussions of the case, and now Ronell’s own defense, raise a matter that I was curious about: the culture of fawning sycophancy that appears to surround certain academics.
Such academic sycophancy is unprofessional, unintellectual, revolting, a danger sign, and ultimately the fault of the professor to whom it is directed and the colleagues who allow it.
I began with a quote from Reitman not to blame him, but just to provide a clear example of the phenomenon. Ronell quotes the same line (and many similar ones) in her “press release.” One of her defenses (!) is that her participation in this kind of communication is not uncommon: “the type of language Ronell used in her emails to Reitman is no different from the language that she used with many others and that Reitman used with her.” (See also this description of the culture surrounding Ronell—though it is anonymous—-as well as the allegations in Reitman’s lawsuit against Ronell and NYU.)
Colleagues, if you are the kind of person to whom people you have power over regularly communicate in this way, then you are the problem. Being on the receiving end of such ongoing obsequiousness is substantial evidence that you are a terrible person.
It’s also evidence that you are acting unprofessionally, both by cultivating a dogmatic intellectual environment inconsistent with the open inquiry of academia, and by cultivating an uncooperative work environment that’s inappropriately burdened with tasks related to maintaining your sense of self-importance.
Many commentators on social media have expressed familiarity with the kind of dynamic at play in the Ronell case. Yet I did notice that many of these commentators were not in academic philosophy.
I suspect that the culture of argument in academic philosophy helps counter tendencies towards sycophancy. We show respect to each other by posing the best challenges we can to each other’s ideas. Putting tough objections to philosophical heroes is something we are trained to (love to) do.
Despite this, it would be fantastical to think that the kind of sycophancy on display in the Ronell case is absent in academic philosophy today. After all, we have had our share of sexual harassment cases and some of the harassers in those cases must have been (or currently are) protected by cult-of-personality hero-worship and fear.
Even when sexual harassment is not involved, it is good to be vigilant about ongoing obsequiousness. Correct students when they display it, call colleagues on it when you hear of students acting that way towards them, and keep department chairs or university administrators in the loop, if need be.