Dysfunctional academics

The Avital Ronell story was ugly enough, but now more critics are emerging. This one is from a former colleague of Ronell’s who was displaced by her as head of the department, so there’s some obvious disgruntlement that might warrant dialing it down a few notches, but even so…the German department at NYU was a dysfunctional mess, largely because of Ronell’s ego.

Before I offered Avital Ronell her job, I’d had many in-depth conversations with her. She engaged my queries with what seemed like understanding. She said she’d throw herself into the building of an integrated study and research program. She promised actively to contribute to department research, conferences and publications. Once she had assumed the position, however, she broke all her promises. She did her best to sabotage the program. She pursued one goal: The work of Avital Ronell and Jacques Derrida must be at the center of all teaching and research. Instead of an academic program, we were left with boundless narcissism. Once she’d become the head of the German department, she had her secretary announce in a departmental meeting that in the German department no student’s written work would any longer be acceptable unless it cited Derrida and Ronell.

Whoa. No one would stand for that kind of nonsense in any department I’ve ever been part of — to dictate content in student work is simply not done. Somehow, I suspect that citing Ronell to criticize her work would not be acceptable.

From her second semester onward Professor Ronell reigned with an authoritarian hand, gloved in her well-proven hypocrisy. Instructors whom I had brought to the department either submitted to her regime or lost their jobs, always according to the letter of the law and in discussion with the dean, never in consultation with members of the German department. Once, she drafted a secret dissenting opinion against the unanimous decision of a commission and submitted it to the dean. The protest we as a department made to the dean against the dismissal of a junior professor fell on deaf ears. He would make no decision that ran counter to the will of the chairperson. The cynicism of Professor Ronell’s reasoning was hard to beat. The dismissal of this junior colleague was in this professor’s best interests, she explained, for she would not have felt comfortable in the department. In fact, Ronell wanted this colleague to leave because she was not prepared to be subservient. Someone else was found to fill in. Sure, the new hire had no experience, but at least she was ready to submit to Professor Ronell.

Now that I have seen — some deans see their role as one of imposing their vision of the discipline in the department. It never works. It only demoralizes the faculty.

The quality of teaching in the department unraveled. The carefully planned program of teaching German literature was ignored. Many students arrived in the department with minimal knowledge of German literature or history. The courses that were meant to correct this no longer existed. Now philosophy, from Hegel to Judith Butler, was taught. But multidisciplinarity quickly deteriorated into dilettantism. Students were encouraged to take philosophy seminars at other universities. Soon, students who had learned about deconstruction and feminism in Paris, but who had no idea who Gottfried Benn, Joseph Roth and Alfred Döblin were, were no exception in the department. As one student told me, “We study in a German department where French theory is taught in English.”

I am amazed even today that we succeeded in preventing the inclusion of a clause in the German department’s charter that would have exempted students from mastering the German language. It was Professor Ronell who, in all seriousness, made this suggestion. In fact, however, she admitted students who spoke English and French, but not a word of German — but they had studied in Paris and proven in their term papers that they were Derrida connoisseurs.

She tried to make knowledge of German optional in a German department? OK. That sounds a bit off. That’s like a biology department deciding students can graduate with no knowledge of biology, as long as they know some physics.

And then the article gets brutal.

Now, however, a few commentators will have us know that the case of Ronell is a fresh example of the oppression of a leftist feminist by conservative white men. This political polarization is crude, and its goal transparent: This is war, and ranks are closing around Ronell.

Leftist? Avital Ronell’s father figures are Martin Heidegger and, often quoted and paraphrased, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan. Who could possibly describe them as left-leaning theorists? If Ronell has a political agenda, it is the liquidation of the legacy of 1968.

In the German newspapers Die Zeit and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Ronell has been elevated to the “shining light” of feminist studies. I had to read this description twice before I could believe my eyes. Anyone trying to find a substantial contribution to feminist thought in her work will be searching for a long time. And “shining light”? If pure ignorance did not produce this phrase, then it is simply the reality-denying militancy of ideology. If “light” is supposed to refer to the Enlightenment, this is also a perversion of standards. Few other books in recent years have served the Counter-Enlightenment as well as Avital Ronell’s books. Her hypocrisy serves the commentators’ lack of insight. She likes to cast herself as diabolical and loves the color black — but only in the sanctuary of her inner circle. As soon as her audience grows beyond those confines, she performs a new role, namely, that of the fragile and vulnerable woman.

Everyone has an ideology. That she told everyone what her label was supposed to be doesn’t mean she fit it well, and we should not judge (or avoid judging) people because of the banner they fly. Leftists can be bad people, too.


  1. Becca Stareyes says

    I read the first quote and thought of what would happen if any department I’ve ever interacted with had the policy ‘all student work must cite the chair’. The answer is that the majority of the faculty wouldn’t be able to have students in their field — right now, I’m a planetary astronomer whose chair is a particle physicist. I can’t imagine how what CERN is doing relates to the structure and dynamics of the rings of Saturn beyond some basics of electromagnetism.

    After thinking through what that would mean, quote #3 didn’t come as a surprise.

  2. Matrim says

    Ok, that’s ridiculous. I haven’t worked in collegiate academia, but it really seems like there should be more oversight and administration required to can a professor than just the department chair and the dean. Do professors not have contracts that lay out termination procedures or unions to fight for those professors’ rights?

    no student’s written work would any longer be acceptable unless it cited Derrida and Ronell.

    To quote Contrapoints: “Fuck you Derrida, if you wanted me to read you you should’ve been easier to read.”

  3. wzrd1 says

    From what I’ve read here, liberally excepted, was one side of a disagreement or argument, nothing was actually quoted from the other party.
    Anyone who has lead or raised children or both knows that distortions are likely in such an environment of available data and seeks additional data before attempting to ascertain what the actual reality is. One also gauges, based upon available evidence what is actually available as external facts, such as a syllabus, shared e-mails from the concerned party or parties, etc.

    And to be honest, to a certain extent, I’m prepared to view his statements with a jaundiced eye, as sour grapes or revenge.
    But, lacking a second viewpoint, such as from the incumbent chair, I cannot make any form of determination or even form an actual opinion.

    Please do fill us in if additional, incumbent related information becomes available. My plate is currently filled enough that I cannot perform due care and due diligence upon the topic and still perform my job to satisfactory levels.

    tldr; insufficient data for proper analysis. Please provide additional, conflicting data.

  4. says

    I’m currently studying humanities at a major university in Australia. If our department head was insisting students cited particular theorists, we’d be expecting there would be a relevant justification for same. If we were told we had to cite the department head… I think I’d be looking for a different location to study at, or changing major.

    That said, what I’m taking away from the whole Avita Ronell thing is nobody should be allowed to hold any kind of office in any sort of institution without proof of existing and ongoing psychological support, and regular, external psychological evaluations. Because quite frankly, from the sound of things (not just from this report, but also from another one by Andrea Long Chu) the whole department was pretty obviously fscked up.

    Oh, and also: graduate study in the USA is seriously screwed up, and the system needs to alter so it’s less potentially psychologically and professionally damaging to perform. Especially since graduate school appears to be pretty much an expected Thing these days for a lot of fields.

    PS: for wzrd1, whose Google clearly isn’t working: When a woman is accused of sexual misconduct: The strange case of Avital Ronell – this gives a pretty clear background for the whole business. It’s also linked at the top of the article Our Gracious Host links to.

  5. says

    Sexually harassing students for years is one thing. Being a tyrant departmental chair is another. It’s not surprising that both of these are coming from the same person, but even if she were guilty of only one of them, she would still be a terrible person who needs to be fired.

    The NYT article made it out like Ronell is a significant feminist scholar, and I think that’s partly because Judith Butler’s letter exagerrated Ronell’s renown, and partly because NYT thought it would grab more attention. Ronell did a nonzero amount of feminist scholarship (I am aware that she wrote an introduction to a modern publication of the SCUM Manifesto), but most every other commentator I’ve read has questioned the significance of her scholarship (e.g.

    Well at this point, I hope the quality of her scholarship is irrelevant, because she will never hold a scholarly job again.

  6. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    Huh, five comments and no one’s popped in to yell that we JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND SCHOLARSHIP and that those professors were punished so obviously they must have broken rules and deserved it.

  7. says

    The work of Avital Ronell and Jacques Derrida must be at the center of all teaching and research.

    See!? Mao-like political correctness runs rampant in Ronell’s department!