December 19, 2018

Power in Academia

It goes without saying that in every profession there is a hierarchy — a system where those in authority wield varying degrees of power over the lives of those who answer to them. Continuing to take home a paycheck is only one factor motivating those on the middle and lower rungs of a profession to uphold this system and to keep those in power feeling powerful. 

Even more critical to its continuance are the ambitious dreams of upward mobility held by the many underlings. But peel back yet another layer and we might discover that the most effective factor in the buttressing of institutionality is the impulse of those in power to protect one another.

No matter the field, the existence of such systems absolutely ensures that there will be abuses of power, sexual or otherwise. We’ve seen rampant instances of this in the entertainment, corporate and political realms. That this also exists within academia should come as no surprise. 

And yet it does.

When news about another sexual scandal in academia broke, this time with a woman, Avital Ronell, a professor of German and Comparative Literature at New York University (NYU), at the center of the accusations, I was not surprised that it had happened. But what did surprise me was the quick defense of Ronell’s actions by celebrity scholars such as Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Slavoj Žižek, and others (including Cathy Caruth and Shoshana Felman, two major scholars of Holocaust trauma whose work has been critical to my own), in the form of a letter. 

Responses to the situation quickly hit the internet, some written in defense of Ronell but most denouncing not just her alleged actions but also, and more vehemently, the defense of them by a group of scholar friends who had not yet heard the full story but whose primary interest hinged on preserving the power of a scholarly friend in need.

Yes, it’s about power. And it works in academia the way it works in every other field. It’s about protecting those most like us with no consideration of the more vulnerable, less powerful parties. We see it in politics, we see it in the corporate world and we see it in the entertainment industry. Why shouldn’t we also find this phenomenon in academia? 

People who seek positions of authority are people who either believe they are powerful or want to feel powerful. But people in power are supposed to serve those who are not in power. We see this idea crumbling in every area of American life. Then again, maybe it never really existed. Maybe the charlatanism of Ronell is another reminder that when a special few are so powerful that they hold all the keys, the entire structure is but a façade. 

Bernd Hüppauf, professor emeritus at NYU, on salon.com, has provided one of the more enlightening pieces about Ronell. Hüppauf was chair of the German department when he hired Ronell, who quickly began dismantling the department, replacing Hüppauf as chair, and reconfiguring the German department to highlight her own scholarship until it no longer resembled any other German department in existence. 

On whitewashing the misconduct of Ronell, Hüppauf suggests that those coming to her defense do so either out of ignorance or are “eager to make a contribution to this undeclared war. As in all wars, truth is the first casualty, and these alternative facts do a disservice to the cause of women” and to the possibility of critiquing asymmetrical power structures in universities. Ronell’s supporters, writes Hüppauf, “will ensure that existing power structures remain in place.”

I agree with Hüppauf. The shameless defense of Ronell is bad for women and for the legitimate critique of power structures. But the worst part about it? I can’t help but think of the committed and hard-working professors who entered the profession not for power — and certainly not for money — but because they believe passionately in education, because they want to make the world a better place. Having spent many years in academia, I can tell you that these are the majority. While the internet would have us believe that universities are the epicenter of filth and corruption, the truth is that the Avital Ronells, the Judith Butlers, the Slavoj Žižeks and the Gayatri Spivaks are a small minority. Here’s to hoping that minority grows ever smaller.


Monica Osborne is a scholar of Jewish literature and culture. She is the author of “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma.”