BY: JOHN A. BYRNE ON MARCH 23, 2016
It all started in early September of 2012 when Columbia Business School Professor Geert Bekaert asked a assistant professor he was mentoring out for dinner. Enrichetta Ravina, who had been collaborating on an academic research project with Bekaert for two and one-half years, had no interest in anything other than a professional relationship.
“I had a bad feeling about it and said, ‘No, I was on a diet,’” recalls Ravina, now 40 and 11 years younger than Bakaert. “But this professor (Bekaert) started complaining that I would go to dinner with other people and I wouldn’t go out to dinner with him.”
Finally, she relented, agreeing to a dinner on Sept. 28 when, she says, Bekaert began asking her awkward questions over the table. “He asked me if I had a boyfriend and if I lived with him,” remembers Ravina. “I said, ‘Look this is a dinner among colleagues and I appreciate our work together and want to continue to work together.’ He started laughing.”
‘HE PUT HIS HAND ON MY BACK AND SLID IT DOWN’
After their meal, he gave Ravina a ride to her apartment in a taxi and as she prepared to exit, “he put his hand on my back and slid it down,” she asserts. “I rushed out of the taxi.”
When Ravina, who taught MBAs at Columbia the core corporate finance course, returned to campus the following day, the faculty member says she was uneasy about what happened the previous evening. “I was extremely worried,” she says now. “He was a senior colleague and was assigned to me by my department. He seemed friendly the next day and didn’t seem offended at all. Then, he started telling me about his sexual exploits and how many women were giving him compliments.”
Now, Ravina has filed a $20 million lawsuit against Columbia University, alleging gender discrimination, a hostile work environment, quid pro quo sexual harassment, retaliation, failure to promote, and wrongful discharge.
A CLASSIC EXAMPLE OF A MENTORSHIP GONE HORRIBLY WRONG
The highly detailed, 44-page complaint is nothing less than indictment of the school’s senior leadership, accusing Columbia Business School Dean Glenn Hubbard of turning a deaf ear to her complaints of sexual harassment and academic obstruction. Hubbard, she alleges, mocked her complaints, comparing them to a ‘soap opera,” and blamed the female professor for her mentor’s conduct. The dean, she claims, accused her of flirting with Bekaert and scolded her for working with him. He refused to take any action to curb Professor Bekaert’s behavior, according to Ravina.
Bekaert did not return a phone call for comment, but in an emailed statement claimed that Ravina “fabricated a series of completely false allegations about me.” Columbia University issued a terse statement: “The university treats allegations of harassment with the utmost seriousness but does not comment on pending litigation.”
Her story is a classic example of a mentorship between an accomplished senior tenured faculty member and a junior assistant professor gone completely wrong. The Belgian-born Bekaert boasts a 30-page CV and joined the finance faculty at Columbia Business School in July of 1999 after receiving tenure at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. A promising academic, Italian-born Ravina joined Columbia in July of 2008 after a three-year stint at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Her research puts her at the cutting edge of using large sets of data to analyze personal investment decisions.
What ultimately brought them together was Bekaert’s access to a dataset, apparently belonging to Financial Engines Inc., of some four million investors in the U.S. who are saving for retirement. According to Ravina, it was Bekaert, a consultant for the firm and a teacher on global investments and asset management, who approached her in early 2010 and proposed that they work together. It was only after she invested hundreds of hours analyzing the data that Bekaert began his alleged advances, more than two and one-half years after the start of their collaboration.
WATCHING PORN, APPLAUDING USE OF PROSTITUTES
For Columbia Business School, the embarassing lawsuit could not have come at a worse time. Only last week, Columbia fell to tenth place in U.S. News’ new MBA ranking, passed over by Yale University’s School of Management and Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. And this year the school is celebrating its centennial with a symposium of other deans that is sure to be overshadowed by the explicit accusations in the lawsuit.
The complaint details vivid examples of Professor Bekaert talking about how often he watched pornography, applauding the use of prostitutes, and describing his sexual exploits. He is accused of seeking an intimate relationship with his mentee, insisting that she meet with him off-campus, demanding that she compliment him, describing her as “sexy,” indicating that he was “horny,” and subjecting her to unwanted touching.
When Ravina rejected his sexual advances, Professor Bekaert allegedly sabotaged her work, using his veto authority to delay and undermine her research and publications. The more she resisted his sexual advances, she charges, the worse his behavior became. According to the complaint, he made it clear that he would stall Ravina’s publication efforts until and unless she gave in to his sexual advances, admonishing Ravina that if she changed course and were “nicer” to him, he would allow her work to proceed faster.
LIFE ADVICE: WALK AWAY FROM THE RESEARCH YOU SPENT YEARS ON
Ravina says that she and her one-time mentor have not published a single academic paper because he has held up their work in progress. In June of 2015, for example, the editor of the Journal of Financial Economicsasked her to submit a paper on her work. “Within two weeks of the solicitation, we could have submitted it back to the journal,” believes Ravina. “Instead, this professor (Bekaert) starts saying, ‘I’m not sure. Should we go to another journal?’ And then he starts saying we should not only address the questions of the referee (on the paper) but other questions that weren’t even asked. It created a lot of unnecessary work that didn’t improve the paper. It was only submitted to the journal in March of 2016, despite the fact that it should have taken only two weeks to respond to the referee. And this is not his field. It is my field. He can’t even open the software to access the data. He created a lot of obstacles and delays,” charges Ravina.
Ravina claims she spent more than a year trying to work through Columbia’s internal processes. She first reported the harassment in May of 2014 to Vice Dean for Research Gita Johar which led to an initial meeting with Dean Hubbard the following month. “At the meeting,” the complaint alleges, “Dean Hubbard was confrontational toward Ms. Ravina and stated at the outset that there was nothing Columbia could do to help her.”
In mid-July, Senior Vice Dean Katherine W. Phillips met with her and pressured her not to pursue any complaints against Bekaert. She told Ravina to “forget about” compLaining about his harassment, excusing Professor’s Bekaert’s conduct by saying he was just ‘blunt’ because he is Belgian, the complaint alleges. Phillips, recalls Ravina, then suggested some “life advice,” advising Ravina to walk away from the dataset project, despite her having spent several years working on it.
Yet another meeting with Dean Hubbard apparently was held in September of 2014 when Ravina says the dean dismissed her complaints as a “soap opera.” Only after the insistence of law school Professor Suzanne Goldberg, who attended the meeting, did Hubbard agree to meet with Bekaert, according to the complaint.
ACCUSED OF HAVING A HISTORY OF HARASSING FEMALE SUBORDINATES
In February of 2015, the issue had become so visible that 22 tenured professors at Columbia Business School took the highly unusual step of requesting that Columbia create a policy to govern situations where “senior faculty members may behave inappropriately or do not fulfill their duties” when working with junior colleagues. The faculty petitioners expressed concern about “inappropriate exercises of power or delays” coming from senior faculty members.
What makes Ravina’s case unusual is the extent to which her colleagues attempted to
intercede on her behalf, including through two written petitions submitted in February of 2015 and January of 2016. A Columbia law professor also penned an email to the university, describing her dismay at Columbia’s inaction and specifically naming the situation as one where gender was playing a role. Despite these efforts by Ravina and her colleagues, the complaint asserts that Columbia’s senior leadership repeatedly minimized Ravina’s concerns and at times became critical of her.
She alleges that Bekaert bragged to her about the inefficacy of Columbia’s Title IX office, the office that ensures the university is in compliance with Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination in educational institutions. He recounted, claims Ravina, an instance when a female MBA student in his class made a complaint against him when he said the Title IX investigator had been “very friendly” to him and that he had “won.” Ravina wasn’t so lucky. In November 2014, Columbia’s Title IX office concluded that there was no violation of the university’s policies and “blamed her for souring a working relationship with a colleague by not communicating effectively,” according to the lawsuit.
‘I NEVER WANTED TO BE IN A POSITION TO BRING THIS SUIT’
Ravina also accused her mentor of having a history of harassing female subordinates. Bekaert, she claimed, said that when he previously worked at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business–from 1992 to 1999–so many female assistants had complained about him that it had almost cost him tenure.
The assistant professor says that she doesn’t understand why the school wouldn’t act to prevent Bekaert from harassing her and allegedly sabotaging her research. “I was really shocked when I saw their reaction. I felt betrayed by Columbia. I was really appalled by the reaction of the senior leaders. They kept taking this hot potato and they kept passing it from one desk to the next. I never wanted to be in a postion to bring this suit.”
For his part, Bekaert denies the charges in the lawsuit, filed just before midnight on March 22 in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York. “I am sickened that a colleague would manufacture false stories, statements, and events and attempt to destroy my reputation,” he said in his emailed statement. “In reality, this is a sad example of no good deed goes unpunished. We collaborated for years doing research with a unique data set I had obtained from a company I worked for, and in return she fabricated a series of completely false allegations about me – some today for the first time.”