The Columbia Business School professor currently on trial for allegations of sexual harassment and career sabotage by a former female junior faculty member, also had drawn a complaint from an MBA student who claimed she was repeatedly harassed by him. In turn, the professor threatened the student with retaliation after he heard of the complaint.
That was among a series of shocking disclosures after the first week of a trial that explores a once-promising mentorship between a junior faculty member, Enrichetta Ravina, and a senior tenured professor, Geert Bekaert, who she had relied upon for help in her academic career. That mentorship, however, devolved into a bitter breakup that would ultimately cause a major split among the senior faculty at Columbia Business School and a $30 million lawsuit.
The emails introduced as evidence in the case portray Bekaert, who has been a tenured professor at CBS for 18 years, as an often emotional, angry and defensive man, eager to discredit and defame his accuser and claim that he was actually the victim in the case. “The laws in this country are screwed up and totally biased against the privileged white males,” he wrote in an email to a colleague. “It’s amazing how powerless I am right now, despite having done absolutely nothing wrong.”
‘IF THIS IS HARASSMENT, THE AMERICANS REALLY ARE TOTAL PUSSIES’
To a friend, Karl Aquino, who apparently had a similar experience, he claimed to have been played. “In a nutshell,” wrote Bekaert in an email dated July 12, 2014, “this is a schizophrenic woman whose bad side I failed to see for a long time…and who I thought was a friend and so probably trusted too much. I am dealing with this harassment case. It’s so insane. If this is harassment, the Americans really are total pussies.”
While the trial is expected to last up to three weeks, testimony by both Rivana and Bekaert dominated the first week. Scores of other witnesses are likely to be called in the case, including Columbia Business School Dean Glenn Hubbard and several of the school’s senior vice deans and professors. Ravina accuses Bekaert 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 move what was a professional relationship to a personal one. She is also suing Columbia University, claiming that the school did little to protect her from Bekaert’s alleged retaliatory schemes and then unfairly rushed through a review that led to a decision to deny her tenure at the school.
Among the revelations in the trial so far:
When Columbia Business School brought Ravina up for tenure, a sizable number of her department’s senior faculty rose to her defense. In signed petitions submitted to the university provost and the dean of Columbia Business School, they believed the tenure and research process had gone awry and they were not in a position to provide an evaulation of Ravina’s tenure. They also urged that the university grant her request for more time on the tenure clock due to the impact that the sexual harassment and retaliation charges had on her work. Bekaert’s lawyer, Edward Hernstadt, acknowledged in court that Bekaert’s colleagues at CBS had turned against him.
Within days of being told by CBS Dean Glenn Hubbard that he was not to communicate directly with Ravina without cc’ing an appointed “relationship manager,” Bekeart sent a private email to her in violation of the dean’s directive. “The dean’s office has told me not to talk to you, hence the silence,” wrote Bekeart. “If you want to explain yourself, you can. I’m here. I’m intrigued to know who set you up to this.”
After she filed her harassment complaint against him, Bekeart conducted a concerted campaign to discredit Ravina and damage her academic career. He sent at least two dozen emails to professors all over the world, many of them in highly influential positions at top academic journals critical to her success. In those emails, he variously described his former mentee as “crazy,” “insane,” or “an evil bitch,” causing untold damage to her career and her ability to get published in the future.
When Ravina first came to Columbia in 2008, she brought with her from NYU Stern, where she had been an assistant professor for three years, a scant publication record. So from the very beginning, she had a lot riding on her collaborative work with Bekaert. When there was nearly a three-year delay in gaining access to a massive dataset that could ultimately result in four or five breakthrough papers, she still was unable to produce other publishable work to help her tenure case.
After Ravina’s complaint, Bekaert refused to create a set schedule of deadlines to insure a certain level of progress on their research. And for months, he refused her requests to gain computer codes to help her move forward on the research. At one point, he wrote both Dean Hubbard and Vice Dean Janet Horan: “This is driving me nuts. What do I do? I am not going to send it. Andrea (his research assistant) is not going to send it, period.”
Despite the detailed accusations of harassment against Bekeart, the university failed to send him for any kind of sexual harassment training. The one assigned training session, lasting little more than two hours, was to help him with his communication skills. Based on testimony in the trial, as much or more time during that session was spent agreeing with his story. According to an email he sent a friend, he was told that “it was very clear I had been played and that the legal environment had gone too far to the left and was getting abused left and right by evil people like this Enrichetta.”
In the midst of his deteriorating relationship with his mentee in the spring of 2014, an MBA student in one of his classes accused him of harassment and reported him to the university after which he threatened the student in an email exchange. “I am harassing you?,” Bekeart wrote her. “I am keeping this email in a safe place and you can just hope I am too busy to take this further.” After that email, the student who submitted the report to the universtiy’s Title IX office chose not to participate in the investigation.
The report alleged, among other things, that the unidentified student told a university investigator that Bekaert was harassing her repeatedly and using threats that made her feel unsafe. In Bekeart’s asset management class he began discussing his recent travels to Hong Kong. While rubbing his hands together with a smile, he said “Hong Kong, where the ladies are nice.” The student not only found the comment off-putting, other students in the class seemed shocked by the remark as well, according to the report. Another remark Bekaert made about “underage women” was not allowed to be revealed to the jury in the trial. Two months after the Title IX office closed its investigation, it received yet another sexual harassment complaint from Ravina.
HOPING FOR ‘BROWNIE POINTS,’ BEKAERT ADMITS ‘I’M NOT THE MOST POPULAR GUY’ AT COLUMBIA
Bekaert acknowledged that he was not necessarily the most beloved professor at Columbia Business School. In fact, he suggested it was one of several reasons he wanted to work with Ravina. “I am a little bit blunt and, you know, I have had my run-ins with some of my colleagues and the administration,” he told the court on Friday (July 13). “I’m not the most popular guy. I thought if I worked with somebody there, and I really helped a junior faculty’s career, I am really going to get brownie points in the dean’s office. They are going to appreciate me more because of this relationship.”
That strategy obviously backfired, to the point where Bekaert even suggested he wanted to strangle his one-time collaborator and mentee. “Can I just strangle her and get it over with?,” he asked Marie Hoerover, a principal economist in the financial research divison of the European Central Bank in an email.
No one could ever have imagined that the acrimony between the two could possibly get that vicious. When they first started working together in 2009 soon after Ravina’s arrival at Columbia, Bekaert says they had a very good relationship. “I thought she was a nice person,” he testified. “I thought we got along well. We’re both from Europe. So we sort of a little bit of a shared cultural heritage there.”